by George Stern
The school closing decision raises an enormous number of issues, even as it also raises the level of rhetoric from politicians and partisans on all sides and the hackles of parents, students and school personnel who feel displaced and threatened.
It seems to me that there are some indisputable facts about the schools, which I present here in no particular order, since many are inseparable from one another:
• There are many Philadelphia public schools with successful programs and outcomes. It is unclear what formal steps have been taken to replicate their programs and methodologies in other schools.
• There are many reasons for the emptying of public schools, including (but not limited to): fears of violence; poor educational outcomes; significant underfunding of schools by the state, which ignores the Costing-Out Study the legislature itself voted to conduct; the gap in resources between city and suburban schools; the slow but continual erosion of the ban on public funding of non-public schools, including tax breaks that diminish tax coffers; the increase in the number of charters.
• It is financially absurd to keep open dozens of significantly underutilized school buildings, no matter what the reasons for their emptiness.
• The school district suffers from what appears to be a lack of planning and long-term strategies, exacerbated by revolving-door superintendents each of whom comes into office with a “new vision” rather than being hired to fulfill a vision promulgated by the District itself. This lack of planning has caused postponement of tough decisions until the eleventh hour, when desperation trumps process.
• There is a palpable lack of confidence and trust in the way the district is run and in its responsiveness to the public it serves. Many teachers share this distrust, as, I assume, do others working within the system.
• The growing number of magnet schools has exacerbated the challenges in the neighborhood schools, some of whose most capable students, backed by parental involvement, abandon them for the magnets.
• Shifting of neighborhood school boundaries and assignments is always disruptive, and there will always be protests when such changes occur; there is no single “right approach.”
• Overall, Philadelphia public school teachers are not overpaid compared to their compatriots in other districts
All of these facts, and undoubtedly others, played into the decisions to close certain schools and merge others, and into the angry reactions the decisions led to. Missing from the District’s presentation was a clear and specific explanation of how the various concerns expressed would be met: what steps would be taken to ensure safety; how consolidation would, even if not immediately, improve the education the students would receive; what steps would be taken to secure more appropriate funding for the schools.
The District’s “opening volley” in its negotiations with the teachers’ union exacerbated the unfortunate divide between the district leadership and the union. In suburban districts with which I am familiar, the union, parents, and district officials have often worked together to fashion new and innovative educational approaches that seem to be win-wins all around and have probably played a significant role in avoiding the establishment of charter schools. In Philadelphia, hostility between the district and the union makes working together to solve problems virtually impossible.
I wish I had a “silver bullet,” or rather a “platinum carrot,” that would provide a clear path out of the morass the district finds itself in. If I were to hazard a guess as to where to begin, I would opt to tackle the trust issue first and foremost.
I would convene a diverse panel of stakeholders who would take the time to listen to myriad voices across the city and then to devise a permanent system whereby students, parents, teachers and other district personnel, elected officials, business leaders, and educational experts not affiliated with the district would regularly convene to assess district challenges and successes and come to consensus on recommendations for improvement.
Next, and preferably simultaneously, I would compile a list of successful models among the Philadelphia public schools and create ways to share what they have learned and instituted with other schools. (Ultimately I would look to other districts for models as well.)
Good Schools Pennsylvania did a huge service by working with districts across the state to convince the legislature to approve the Costing-Out Study. Unfortunately, Good Schools Pennsylvania no longer exists as a school-specific entity, so that the statewide approach to Pennsylvania’s educational deficiencies has been lost. Only a statewide approach is likely to bring about the support for public education that would benefit all of the Commonwealth’s children, and certainly Philadelphia’s.
For me, the bottom line is that we – all of us – have a moral obligation to ensure the proper education of all of the City’s children, which I believe can be accomplished only through properly operated and financed public schools that benefit from scrutiny by the public and educational experts alike. Our entire society benefits when children become adults who are ready to assume the responsibilities of citizenship and businesses can depend upon a well-educated work force. There is no time to waste.
George Stern, a resident and native of Mt. Airy, is the former director of the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement. who attended Philadelphia public schools through the eighth grade, whose father taught in the school district, and whose sister graduated from the Philadelphia High School for Girls. For a summer he worked as an intern in what was called the Office of Integration and Intergroup Education, which examined the challenges of changing demographics 45 years ago. He recalls when most parents happily sent their children to their local public school.