With the Philadelphia School District in crisis mode, Jewish families utilizing public schools wonder if they should stay or flee to the suburbs.
When Cantor Erin Frankel and her husband, David, moved from Chicago to Philadelphia last year and she joined the clergy at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, they chose to live in the heart of the city and send their daughters to a public school.
“We made a very conscious decision when I became the cantor of this congregation to become a part of the life of the city,” said Erin Frankel. “Both my husband and I grew up as products of public school. We wanted the diversity of an urban environment for our kids in that complete way. We love the idea of a neighborhood school.”
They knew in advance that the Philadelphia Public School District, like all major urban school systems, wouldn’t be perfect. But the extent of the school funding crisis has taken them by surprise.
The district is facing a $304 million shortfall and what many are calling a doomsday scenario. It has handed out pink slips to close to 4,000 employees and is threatening to operate next year without nurses, secretaries, assistant principals, guidance counselors, librarians or any extra curricular activities, including sports.
Yet, the Frankels staunchly believe in the value of public education, and have no plans to explore private school options or contemplate a move to the suburbs.
“We are digging in our heels,” said David Frankel, a mortgage broker, whose daughters, Sivan, 7, and Meital, 5, attend the William M. Meredith Elementary School in Queen Village, considered one of the city’s finest public primary schools.
“We are making calls to elected officials,” he added. “We are getting involved with fundraising efforts.”
A number of Jewish families in the city offer the same steadfast response, but others — even families who have long been committed to the public school system — are having second thoughts. If the political stars happen to align and most — or all — of the drastic cuts are averted this time around, they worry about the same situation arising again in the future.
Jews in the city and even in the suburbs take an interest in the funding crisis for a variety of reasons: They care about education and social policy and they are highly vested in the direction the city will take, which in turn will have a broad impact on the region.
In addition, certain downtown neighborhoods have experienced a growth in Jewish population in recent years with a concurrent revitalization of Jewish life. Some people worry that if enough families move out, it might reverse this upward trend.
But the issue hits closest to home among those Jewish families who reside in the city and rely on the city’s public schools to educate their children. For some of these families, moving isn’t even an option, either for economic or other reasons.
Alyssa and Marc Bailkin have two girls in the public school system; one at the George A. McCall elementary school in Society Hill, the other at the Julia R. Masterman High School, a top magnet school at 16th Street and Spring Garden.
“The things they are talking about chopping aren’t things that are extras,” said Alyssa Bailkin, a member of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue on Spruce Street. “My own kids have relied on their nurses and guidance counselors to help them to be at school.”
When asked what they would do if funding isn’t restored, she said: “I don’t even want to answer a question like that, honestly.”
Rabbi Linda Holtzman of Mishkan Shalom in Roxborough, one of several rabbis who recently took part in an interfaith demonstration outside Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s Philadelphia office, demanding more funding for city schools, said she has seen her congregants struggle with this question. “It’s a huge issue: Do you stay in Philadelphia?”
Even before this latest crisis, Holtzman said, the state of the public schools has led urban congregants to seek suburban addresses. “I know so many people who have moved to Elkins Park or Melrose Park because they cannot afford the private schools,” the rabbi said.
It is impossible to determine how many Jewish children are in Philadelphia’s public schools since the district doesn’t keep tabs on religion. But by a number of barometers — including the fact that 81 percent of the district’s students are considered economically disadvantaged — it is likely the total Jewish population in the schools amounts to a small minority.
Anecdotally, Rabbi Adam Zeff of Germantown Jewish Centre said that at his congregation, one third of parents send their kids to public schools, one third choose Jewish day schools and one third go with other private schools such as Penn Charter.
The story of the city’s Jewish population has been one of slow decline. Between the 1996/97 Jewish population study and the 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia,” the city’s overall Jewish population fell from 86,000 to 67,000.
And that population tends to be older. In the neighborhoods of Center City, West Philadelphia and Northwest Philadelphia, of an estimated 35,000 individuals living in Jewish households, only some 1,800 are school-age children, according to the population study. An additional 3,500 children live in the Northeast, out of 35,900 living in Jewish households.
Neighborhoods such as Center City, Society Hill, Queen Village and West Philadelphia have seen a substantial influx of Jews over the past two decades, particularly young families with children, along with single young professionals and empty nesters.
That’s led to a bona fide resurgence of Jewish life downtown, with healthy synagogues, new independent minyanim, kosher restaurants and an eruv. Frankel’s synagogue, Rodeph Shalom, in particular, has seen a surge in young families. The congregation has also opened a pre-school and embarked on an $18 million expansion project.
Rhona Gerber, a Center City resident with a son at the nearby Albert M. Greenfield Elementary School and a daughter at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, doesn’t think the funding crisis will slow the “blooming” of Jewish life in and around Center City. Many Center City parents, she said, are choosing to send their children to Jewish day schools in the suburbs.
Gerber, a member of Mekor Habracha, a downtown Modern Orthodox synagogue that became independent in 2008, said she’s far more concerned about how the cuts will affect the city as a whole — and its disproportionately minority student body — than Jewish institutions.
“It affects the Jewish gestalt of the city,” she said.
If a critical mass of Jewish families do leave the public school system, it could affect more than just the Jewish community, says Kenny Holdsman, who once worked for the school district coordinating service learning projects and is now president of Legacy Youth Tennis, an organization that serves many Philadelphia public school children. He and his wife, Amy, live in Mount Airy. Both their sons started out at the Penn Charter, a private school, before switching to Central High School, a top public school.
The decline of middle-class families in the city over the course of the 20th century, he said, “led to a decline in the natural political constituency for public education.”
If more leave, it will only further erode the district’s power base, he argued.
“This is about power politics. It is clear to me that if more families with clout and influence” advocated for public schools “the elected officials would never allow a funding crisis to push into late June,” said Holdsman.
Marc and Staci Schwartz are among those parents who have lobbied hard for public education. The members of Society Hill Synagogue have lived in the neighborhood for 17 years, long enough to remember a time when it was assumed that if you had children, you moved to the Main Line or the northern suburbs. The existence of quality public schools is part of what helped them decide to stay downtown.
“If you destroy that, you are pushing young families out again,” said Marc Schwartz, whose daughter, Jamie, is entering her junior year at Masterman, which is consistently ranked among the top high schools in the state.
When applying to colleges, she will need guidance counselors more than ever, said Schwartz. He can’t imagine sending his daughter to a school that doesn’t have one.
“We would consider putting her into an alternative school, even into a private school,” he added. “Nothing is off the table.”
For the Frankels, having their kids in public schools with diverse classmates is a choice that’s in line with their Jewish values.
In the short term, the cantor thinks parents will help support the Meredith school, which her children attend, but she realizes that most of the district’s schools don’t have parental resources to fall back on.
“I don’t sense an exodus to the suburbs. People are being very careful about considering their options,” she said, regarding fellow Meredith parents and Rodeph Shalom families.
“I don’t want to abandon my urban school system and my neighborhood school,” she added. “Being there it is in line with my Jewish values — it is line with my philosophy.”