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Philadelphia Forced To Keep Day-Care Centers

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Following weeks of protests by angry parents, a Philadelphia judge in August ordered the city's school system to maintain six school-based day-care centers that were slated to be closed at the end of July.

The decision, observers say, is a major political loss for Superintendent of Schools Constance E. Clayton, who had proposed the closings in June as part of a $15-million cost-cutting plan for the district.

The ruling also ended several months of acrimonious debate over the school system's obligations to a primarily white, working-class neighborhood--where five of the six centers are located--as opposed to the needs of the entire district, whose students are predominately poor and black.

"This was geographic discrimination," said Gerri Chaudrue, one of the parents who led the protest and staged a demonstration with about 100 parents outside Ms. Clayton's house.

Longtime City Function

The city has been providing child care for working parents since World War II. In 1981, the district took over the responsibility of administering and financing the program, which currently serves nearly 500 children between the ages of 2 and 11 in 17 schools. Several centers also accept infants.

Depending upon their income, parents pay between $12 and $70 a week for their first child who enrolls in the program and half-price for each additional child enrolled at the same time. The centers run from 7 A.M. to 6 P.M. year round.

School officials argued that closing the six centers--which would have saved the district $1.5 million this year--was a fiscally prudent move. Although they expect to have a $31.7-million surplus during the 1988 fiscal year, they also foresee a $274-million deficit by 1993 as a result of a four-year, $471-million contract reached with teachers last spring.

But in his ruling, Judge Samuel H. Lehrer of Common Pleas Court said the district was obliged to keep the centers open through the end of this academic year because it had requested, and received, tax money from the city council to run the centers.

He said the council had approved a modest tax increase for education last spring--$1 million more than the $17 million requested by the district--on the assumption that child4care services would be maintained or expanded.

William C. Thompson, a spokesman for the district, said officials used guidelines established by the federal Chapter 1 program to determine which centers should remain open. An additional center was spared, he said, because its closing would have adversely affected its school's desegregation status.

"Children most at risk would be the least impacted by these cuts," he said.

Strong Opposition

But other observers note that Ms. Clayton may have underestimated the strength of the opposition in her drive to direct school resources to the most needy students.

"Even though these parents pay into the tax system and support the public-school system, they are told that they cannot use services in their own neighborhood," said Joe O'Donnelly, the parents' lawyer.

Other parts of the cost-cutting plan have also been contested.

A proposal to save $4 million by eliminating bus service for more than 6,000 nonpublic-school students was put aside for one year after protests by parents of parochial-school students, and a plan to close a program for the retarded had been challenged in court.

School officials say that they will appeal the day-care ruling.--ef

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