07/15/2013 - When the School District of Philadelphia announced in December 2012 that it would close 15 percent of its schools because of declining enrollment and aging building, it raised just the sort of significant policy issue that Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative likes to examine. In its five years of existence, the research group had already looked at a variety of issues such the city’s tax system, jails, and another important education concern—how parents navigate complex choices in finding the right schools for their children.
Having already analyzed a smaller round of school closings, the research initiative decided to examine whether the latest closures would save as much money as officials predicted, whether buyers might be found for the buildings, and how the loss of the schools might affect neighborhoods. And the research group didn’t just limit these questions to Philadelphia. Pew looked at 12 major U.S. cities to produce the February report “Shuttered Public Schools: The Struggle to Bring Old Buildings New Life.”
The research revealed that in the cities examined, closed schools generally did not sell for as much as districts had hoped. More than 40 percent of the buildings purchased became charter schools. Others were turned into housing, homeless shelters, churches, community centers, and offices. “No one had ever looked at those issues in a comprehensive way, so there was a lot of interest” both in Philadelphia and nationally, says Larry Eichel, who directs the Philadelphia research initiative.
Eichel, a former editor, political columnist, and national and foreign correspondent at The Philadelphia Inquirer, leads a staff of four that turns out a steady flow of reports, commissions its own polling, and produces a monthly newsletter. The research group also convenes public forums on issues covered in its studies and publishes a major biennial report on the state of the city. The project often compares the experiences of Philadelphia with other major cities, earning the attention of policymakers throughout the country.
“We do not advocate; we don’t push things,” Eichel says. “We just try to put information out there in a form that is accessible to the public and useful to decision-makers, and then let them work with it.”
Changes sometimes arise from that approach. One such occasion came after publication of a report on the Free Library of Philadelphia. While the central library on Logan Square had needs, the research group’s analysis found that the bigger concern was at the neighborhood branches, which were closed on Sundays and often on Saturdays and subject to frequent weekday closings for unscheduled maintenance. The city took notice of the study and provided $1 million in funding to keep branches open for longer hours.
The latest biennial report, “Philadelphia 2013: The State of the City,” was released in April and is a data-driven, graph-filled look at the city. Among positive trends, the report documents an influx of generally well-educated adults age 25 to 34 who have helped revitalize Center City and adjoining neighborhoods even as city unemployment remains high. Philadelphia’s jobless rate in 2012 averaged 10.7 percent, higher than in any of nine comparison cities, except Detroit.
Because of the population growth and an increase in tourism in Philadelphia, the report found reasons for optimism. “There certainly is a feeling about the city,” Eichel says, “that some sort of corner was turned—that Philadelphia has huge problems, but that the problems are offset by some real strengths.”