In Philadelphia, as in Milwaukee and Rochester, young people, especially young African American men, are caught between a school system that will not educate them and a criminalizing legal system that will not leave them alone.
Eighty percent of Philadelphia’s Black families have incomes below the average for White families in the city. The poverty rate for Black families in Philadelphia is two and a half times that of White families. At the other end of the income spectrum, more than a quarter of Philadelphia’s White families have incomes over $100,000 per year, as compared to just 10 percent of Black families. This may reflect the fact that 41 percent of White civilian employed adults work in the managerial group of occupations, compared to 26 percent of Black civilian employed adults. Thirty percent of employed Black adults work in service occupations, as compared to 17 percent of employed White adults: Whites manage, Blacks serve.
It is unlikely that there is much inter-generational family income or wealth upward mobility in Philadelphia’s Black community. There is, on the contrary, much inter-generational downward mobility in both income and wealth. Black Philadelphia does not participate in the same society as White Philadelphia. It is a caste apart.
There are two forces creating and enforcing the caste boundaries in Philadelphia: the criminal justice system and the school system.
The operations of the criminal justice system—chiefly the police, but going all the way up through prosecutors and courts—criminalize young adult African Americans by means of disparate enforcement of irrational drug laws and a form of debt peonage effected through fines for non-appearance, bench warrants and the like. The State of Pennsylvania incarcerates African Americans at nine times the rate at which White residents of the state are incarcerated. Statewide, nearly 30 percent of those incarcerations are for violations of drug laws. The drug laws are a primary vehicle for the enforcement of the lower caste position of the Black community: they are dramatically differentially enforced, even though it is well-established that the level of illicit drug use is similar in the Black and White communities.
A Black resident of Pennsylvania, particularly a young adult male, is at great risk of a five year jail sentence, extendable by another five years or more, for behaviors that are not illegal in, say, Colorado, behaviors that are ignored in White neighborhoods of Philadelphia. As Alice Goffman has brilliantly shown, the Philadelphia police operate like a foreign army in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, sweeping in, brutalizing Black males from early adolescence, making legal employment nearly impossible and removing as many as 20 percent of the young adult Black population from the community to prison or, directly or not, to the cemetery.
The School District of Philadelphia is the partner of the criminal justice system in this endeavor. Approximately three-quarters of all in-school and out-of-school suspensions and arrests are of Black students. It is not only the students who are gone from the classrooms: 35 percent of the district’s teachers are absent ten days or more each year and just 38 percent meet all state licensing and certification requirements. These are both highly unusual metrics. Pittsburgh, for example, has a teacher absentee percentage of 21 percent and 93 percent of its teachers meet state requirements.
The district has a long history of conflicts between teachers and administrators, from elementary schools where principals lock themselves in their offices rather than meet with teachers to prolonged wars between the teachers’ union and the district administration. Spending on support services has trailed inflation. Non-teaching staff, such as counselors and librarians, have been severely cut. Many schools have been closed.
Charter schools should be a way out for Philadelphia students. Charter school enrollment has increased 80 percent for general education students and an astonishing 137 percent for special education students in the last four years. But as Editor RiShawn Biddle will point out next week, students are not benefitting so far, and that is a result of Pennsylvania’s faulty approach to authorizing schools.
The budgetary issues and administrative policies of the state and district are both complex and controversial, but there is little dispute over the ability of the Philadelphia school district to teach its students how to read. It can’t. In Philadelphia only a quarter of White students and 12 percent of Black students read at grade level in eighth grade in 2013. Matters are even worse in regard to students from lower income families (those eligible for the National Lunch Program). Just 19 percent of White students in Philadelphia in this category and 9 percent of Black students read at grade level in eighth grade (as compared to 28 percent and 12 percent of each group nationally). Black students in Philadelphia whose parents had some education after high school match the national average for Black students, 21 percent, and those whose families have incomes too high to be eligible for free- and reduced-priced lunch exceed it at 30 percent Proficient or above. Perhaps these children learn to read at home.
A consequence of these and other failures of the school system is an estimated high school graduation rate of 45 percent for Black students and 63 percent for White students in the 2011-12 school year, both far below national averages. In Philadelphia as in Milwaukee, Rochester and similar educational disaster areas, if those students attended schools in suburban districts they would have much better educational opportunities. If they went to school in neighboring Delaware County, they could expect graduation rates of 66 percent for Black students and 88 percent for White students. In nearby Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, the Black graduation rate is 82 percent.
The Philadelphia public schools do not educate any group of their students as well as national averages for each group. They fail to come anywhere near to providing the quality of education given to students in nearby districts. Although family income and parental education levels have some effect on student achievement, this simply defines the task of the schools. The extent of these failures in Philadelphia is too great to be attributed to anything other than the quality of the schools themselves.
Further education outcomes for Black residents of Philadelphia are consistent with this record. In addition to its distinguished arts and music schools, Philadelphia has two major national research universities: the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. Not all Black students attending these universities are from Philadelphia and not all Black students from Philadelphia who go to college go to Penn or Temple, but a rough estimate of how well—or how poorly—the Philadelphia school district prepares its students for college and career can be gained by looking at their records.
In the fall of 2012 the University of Pennsylvania admitted 2,453 first-time undergraduate, degree-seeking students, 8 percent of whom were Black. Just 73 of those were male African Americans. Temple University admitted 4,132 first-time students, 10 percent of whom were Black. Just 139 of those were male African Americans. The major local two-year institution, the Community College of Philadelphia, admitted 4,067 students in 2012, 1,838 of whom were Black; 743 of those were men. That year, 49 Black students received Associate’s degrees from the Community College, 17 were men. The University of Pennsylvania together with Temple University awarded 8,502 Bachelor’s degrees to students within 150 percent of normal time to completion: 598 were Black, 202 of those were men. This output, as it were, is just 14 percent of the estimated postsecondary “input” of high school graduates. Fewer than half of Philadelphia’s Black students graduate from high school four years after grade 9; just 14 percent of those graduate with an Associate’s degree three years later or a Bachelor’s degree within six years of receiving a high school diploma.
White students in Philadelphia, following the same path, were much more than twice as likely to reach the same goal. Of course they were also twice as likely to be taught to read at grade level by the time they were in eighth grade.
If the schools of Philadelphia functioned as well for African American children as the not very impressive way they function for White children (or as well as the suburban schools function for Black children) and if drug law enforcement were equitable, life in and for the city’s Black community would be quite different.
However, the values of the Pennsylvania state government run in the other direction. It has begun building a new $400 million prison outside Philadelphia.