Bestbudbrian, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

November 17, 2020; NBC Philadelphia and the Associated Press

Faced with a multi-stakeholder force that has been advocating strongly for the University of Pennsylvania to make regular payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTS) to Philadelphia public schools, Penn has made a concession worth about a quarter of what had been asked for in dollars, and even less than that in terms of a permanent commitment.

Penn is heralding the $100 million gift, which is targeted for facility improvements, as the largest it has ever made to the schools. Looking at the payment as charity, that might be seen as sufficient. But advocates have been pushing for 40 percent of what the university would pay in property taxes each year were it to pay taxes, and that would currently amount to $40 million a year.

Even if the “gift” were to be targeted for unmet capital needs, which include such incidentals as lead and asbestos removal, it would pale against the $4.5 billion price tag for repairs currently overdue. With district school buildings remaining closed, now would be a great time to tackle them.

Penn for PILOTS, a group of university staff and faculty, said in a statement that the payment was insufficient at a number of levels, including in its characterization as a gift rather than a responsibility:

Penn’s commitment to pay $10 million per year falls short of the standard that our community has set. Over 1,000 faculty and staff members, speaking in harmony with parents, teachers, students, community organizations, and members of the City Council, have called on Penn to pay 40 percent of what it would owe in property taxes every year. By our calculations, that would come to approximately $40 million per year—four times what the university has offered.

Public schools are not charities, and public education is not a gift or a privilege whose provision can rightly depend on occasional acts of beneficence. The provision of public education has long been one of the most firmly and universally established responsibilities of government in the United States. Generations of Americans have held to the idea that every child is entitled to an education that is freely available to all, financed by all, and governed by all through legitimate democratic procedures. Private charity cannot sustain such a system. To suggest as much degrades the egalitarian, democratic promise of public education.

“The chronic underfunding of the Philadelphia Public Schools cannot be resolved with a limited commitment of ten annual payments; it requires a system of public finance that ensures that the city’s wealthiest institutions pay their fair share every year in perpetuity,” wrote the group, promising ongoing action to pursue that goal.—Ruth McCambridge