A few years ago, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the union representing teachers in Philadelphia’s public schools voiced a complaint so familiar, it could probably have been made in any number of America’s largest cities. “Our young people, the majority of whom are Black and brown and experiencing poverty,” the report said, “have had to endure conditions that would never, ever be tolerated in wealthier, whiter school districts.”
But no trip from Philly’s inner city to some wealthier, whiter suburban school campus was necessary. Proof of this toxic, racist pudding was served up, in concentrated, indigestible form, at a single building housing two schools.
Benjamin Franklin High School is a typical Philadelphia neighborhood public school, with a typical Philadelphia public school population. Ninety-seven percent of its students are children of color, 100 percent qualify as poor, and just 59 percent graduate in four years. It is an understatement to say, Ben Franklin High was pretty run down. Students complained of collapsing classroom ceilings, broken light fixtures and constant clatter and dust from an unending minor repairs.
Then a new school moved into the building. The Science Leadership Academy is a magnet school drawing elite students from all over the city. A 2019 survey showed 38 percent of its students were white (compared to Franklin’s three percent,), 49 percent lived above the poverty line, and 98 percent graduated from high school in four years.
The arrival of the new students changed a lot. The endless small-scale patchwork was replaced by a $37 million reconstruction project. Which lasted a few days before it was shut down and the school closed for more than two weeks. The big bigger scale of repairs created bigger clouds of dust, and testing showed the dust — likely the same dust that had been drifting around Benjamin Franklin High for years, had unacceptably high levels of asbestos.
This, too, epitomized a deadly problem present in lots of American city schools, especially older, inner city schools used mostly by students of color, and it repeated the deadly logic that has kept the problem unsolved. There are hundreds if not thousands of American public school buildings contaminated by asbestos. But which are the problem schools and how bad are their problems are both questions that have gone unanswered, because they’ve gone unasked.
35 years ago the U.S. Congress passed a law to solve the problem of asbestos in public schools. But, federal, state and local officials have never bothered to enforce it.
Alisa Ghura is an Intern in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, and the co-author with Camille Bussette of The danger of America’s forgotten battle with asbestos, published recently by the Brookings Institution.