Yesterday was an important meeting for the School Reform Commission. It was the first meeting for new chairman Robert Archie and new member Johnny Irizarry. It was also the presentation of the final draft of the District’s new strategic plan, Imagine 2014. I don’t want to rush to judgment too soon, but I hope we will see more engagement from SRC members in the future.
As Mensah Dean reported in the Daily News, only one commissioner asked a question about the strategic plan. In addition, Mr. Archie appeared to be reading every word he spoke from a script. I will give him some latitude since it was his first day on the job, but I have been in many meetings where District officials have criticized students for reading from prepared comments (insinuating that their comments must have been written by adults). What does it mean when the chairman of the SRC does this?
My biggest concern was the lack of engagement with the strategic plan. Here we are about to pass a document that dictates the direction of our School District for the next five years and only one commissioner has a question? Really? This is the kind of thing that deserves serious attention.
Are they not paying attention or do they just understand everything in the plan perfectly? We have no way of knowing. Now it is possible that other commissioners asked their questions in private, not wanting to create public tension with the administration, but I believe that public discussion on matters like the future of public education in our city is a good thing. Good teachers encourage their students to be critical thinkers and to ask tough questions. Shouldn’t we expect the same from SRC members?
I raise this concern not because I think the strategic plan is bad and needs to be scrutinized, but because I believe the role of the SRC is to ensure that the School District is accountable to the public. Simply rubber-stamping the administration’s proposals without so much as a question is a disservice to the citizens of Philadelphia. Again, it is possible that they are asking tough questions behind closed doors, but if they don’t do it in public, how do we know they are doing it at all? The public needs some assurances that the people who have been chosen to lead our school system understand the issues and are on the job.
The future of our city relies on dramatically improving the quality of our public schools, but there are many different ideas about how to do that. I believe that in order to bring about change we need to encourage public discussion and debate. Students and parents need to hold their schools accountable for providing high quality education. If we want students and parents to be more active in taking ownership over their schools, the SRC needs to model that kind of active engagement. I hope that in the future, SRC members will be leaders in sparking rigorous, challenging, and respectful debate of the issue at hand. Our young people deserve it.