by Pete Mazzaccaro

If there’s one single theme for Philadelphia, it’s this: More and more with less and less.

Nowhere is this dynamic more obvious than the plight of Philadelphia’s public school district, which is currently forced to plead, beg and shame state Republican lawmakers into passing a citywide tax on cigarettes that will generate – they hope – the cash needed to fill an $81 million budget gap. On Tuesday morning, superintendent William Hite was still not certain about whether the city’s schools would open on time. That decision, he said, would likely be made this Friday.

It is yet another moment of confrontation between the city and state lawmakers over a pool of funding that continues to decline. Gov. Tom Corbett’s cutting of $1 billion in public education funding in 2011 is only the most recent tightening of the education belt. City and suburban school districts have been struggling to find new ways to fund their schools for decades now.

As state and federal funding dries up, local taxes rise to fill the gaps. This has come in the form of higher property taxes for many under the new Actual Value Initiative recalculation of property taxes – the same process that created the current financial panic for the Commodore Barry Club in Mt. Airy.

The brunt of this struggle, however, is and always will be the burden of the middle class, which as a group has become more and more frustrated with the rising tax burden.

A Pew study of Philadelphia’s middle class in February found that while Philadelphia’s middle class had stabilized at about 42 percent of the total population (down from 59 percent in 1970, but relatively flat over the last 10 years), that population is particularly unhappy with both the city’s schools and its taxes.

When asked if they would prefer lower taxes with diminished services by Pew, 55 percent of middle-class Philadelphians said they would. For comparison’s sake, 49 percent of upper-class and 40 percent of lower-class Philadelphians agreed.

Middle-class families are also the most optimistic about charter schools, with 67 percent believing they improve neighborhood education.

Though middle-class attitudes regarding taxes are understandably negative, Philadelphians are still somewhat optimistic about the city’s future. Only 12 percent of middle-class residents said they felt unsafe in their current neighborhood. And 64 percent said they felt Philadelphia was a good or excellent place to live.

That’s something that city lawmakers should take some comfort in.

What they should be concerned about, however, are the 25 percent who believe Philadelphia will get worse over the next five years (Only 14 percent of upper-class Philadelphians believe this to be the case).

And worse yet, of the 1,608 Philadelphians polled by Pew, 566 said they will probably or definitely move from the city in the next five to 10 years, with reasons ranging from new jobs to dissatisfaction with Philadelphia’s schools, crime and taxes.

As those people move, so shrinks Philadelphia’s tax base and, worse, the people who are most likely to donate to local causes – from church-based nonprofits to neighborhood beautification funds.

It’s hard to recommend a single fix, but finding a way to better fund schools seems like a good start. It is, however, a solution that has eluded us for at least a generation. It’s hard to be optimistic that we’ll figure it out anytime soon.

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