Daniel Nansi always dreamed that his daughter would go to school in America — until he landed in Philadelphia.
Originally from Benin, a French-speaking West African nation, Nansi moved to Philadelphia in 2017. This past year, Nansi’s wife and 13-year-old daughter Moïra joined him in West Philadelphia’s Mill Creek neighborhood. Before Nansi enrolled his daughter at the local public school, James Rhoads Elementary, he researched the school’s performance.
Nansi said his whole idea of American education came crashing down when he learned that Moïra’s government-assigned school is among the worst performing in Pennsylvania. According to standardized testing data, just 5.3% of its students were proficient in math and 17.6% were proficient in language arts during the 2020-21 school year. Overall, 68% of Philadelphia students who attended neighborhood, or catchment, schools graduated in 2021, well below the state’s nearly 87% graduation rate.
In France, where she and her mother were living, Moïra had been an A+ student. Nansi, who’s 37 years old and runs his own consulting firm, wanted his daughter to achieve the same academic success in America. “I don’t want her to be penalized by our decision to move to the United States,” he said. Nansi turned to other options, applying to 12 charter schools — only to see his daughter wait-listed at all of them. Moïra was part of an alarmingly large group. The charter school waiting list holds over 40,000 students in Philadelphia.
Nansi isn’t the only Philadelphia parent searching for alternatives for their kids. There is an exodus of students from Philly’s public schools. More than 9,000 students, or 7.5% of the student body, left district-run schools in Philadelphia since the start of the pandemic. Statewide, since 2000, Pennsylvania public school enrollment has dropped 6.6%, a decrease of 120,000 students. There’s no doubt that COVID-19 exacerbated the departures; nearly 30,000 students statewide left district schools after the 2019-20 school year.
And who can blame them, given the latest proficiency rates? The U.S. Department of Education recently released National Assessment of Education Progress scores, which assess math and reading skills among 9-year-olds across the nation. Average reading scores declined 5 points between 2020 and 2022, the largest decline since the 1990s. Average math scores dropped 7 points, the first decline ever recorded.
The National Assessment of Education Progress scores confirm what we already knew here in Pennsylvania: School shutdowns and inconsistent in-person education during the pandemic led to significant declines in student learning. According to 2021 statewide assessments, over three-quarters of Pennsylvania eighth-grade students are not proficient in math and almost half are not proficient in language arts.
In Philadelphia, less than half of schools reported eighth-grade test scores, and those that did report tested just a fraction of their students. However, the numbers we have are even more startling. According to a Commonwealth Foundation analysis of Pennsylvania System of School Assessment data, among eighth graders in Philadelphia, 70% were not proficient in language arts and 90% were not proficient in math.
Despite shrinking student enrollment, public schools have continued to add more staff. School district administrators are making a mistake by using one-time federal COVID relief funds to create hundreds of new permanent jobs that will be unfunded when those dollars run out — leaving low-performing schools worse off.
It also keeps all the money in the hands of the powerful education bureaucracy and under the influence of the teachers’ union bosses who fund the Democratic Party that holds near absolute control over education in Philadelphia. Federal COVID dollars are at the discretion of the Democratic Pennsylvania governor. Parents who want a different choice are left powerless.
As for Nansi, he was becoming so desperate that he considered giving up custody of his daughter to live with his cousin in West Chester, where he felt the schools were better. Moïra got lucky and was accepted to the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School of Philadelphia.
Luck shouldn’t be the deciding factor between a child receiving a quality education or not — but in America, it is.
It seems diversity, equity, and inclusion are priorities, but not for Black and brown children. Philadelphia is a sanctuary city — but not if immigrants demand a better education for their children. The continued failure of Democrats to live up to their slogans is the shame of our city, state, and nation.