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Commentary: Is there a 'silent majority' for the District's transformation plan?

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    Photo: SEIU 32 BJ

Writing in today’s Inquirer, Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, attempts to explain why there have been few voices coming forward at hearings and community meetings to support the transformation plan. In his piece headlined "A silent majority for Philadelphia school choice," he writes that “a handful of activists with specific agendas” have hijacked the discussion. Meanwhile, “a whole lot of people” are “too busy” enjoying the fruits of school choice “to stage rallies, attend meetings or get on the phone with a reporter.”

This description echoes Richard Nixon explaining away massive public opposition to the Vietnam War by citing a “silent majority” that supported his policies. The nice thing about this argument is that because these supporters are silent, no one really knows what they think and thus anyone can freely attribute opinions to them. 

As a self-confessed “activist with an agenda,” over the last six months I’ve gone to dozens of meetings and talked with parents, educators, and citizens, including many who send their children to or work in charter schools. I’ve been struck by the amount of common ground there is between those of us who might be characterized as advocates for traditional public schools and people who are connected to charters. I don’t see much evidence of the rosy consensus that the Philadelphia School Partnership believes exists about school choice.

True, many parents have opted for charter schools, but not because of an ideological attachment to market-driven school reform. Dissatisfaction with neighborhood public schools, primarily due to issues of school climate and violence as well as academic concerns, has driven this trend. At the meetings on selecting a new superintendent, I heard many charter school parents express frustration with the lack of accountability and transparency that characterizes many charters. I heard many of these parents endorse the ideal of decent neighborhood public schools and regret that they felt compelled to opt out of these schools. 

This gets to the nub of the matter. Of course parents want good schools for their children. The question is: Why can’t we provide good, public neighborhood schools?  

The answer is we haven’t really tried: 

  • We have not adequately resourced our schools. School funding is hostage to the whims of the legislature or governor in Harrisburg.

  • We have not engaged parents, students, and educators in a sustained process of school improvement.  

  • We have not developed the kind of teacher education, training, and development that can improve instruction over the long haul.  

Instead we have destabilized schools with a steady diet of ill-conceived, often short-lived fixes passed off as reform. We have instituted a mind-numbing regime of test prep instead of developing a curriculum that meets the diverse needs of learners. And we have employed a zero-tolerance approach to discipline that simultaneously criminalizes students and fails to reduce violence and disruption.

Addressing these problems is not easy and will cost money. Instead, Gleason and the corporate-reform lobby push vouchers, expanding charters, and privatization in spite of a lack of evidence that these programs work.  

Gleason and his organization have strong support from corporate CEOs and have raised several million dollars. It is not clear how much support he has from parents, students, and educators.

What I do know is that the movement against market-driven school reform in general, and this plan in particular, is growing. Gleason, in an email blast about his op-ed piece, says,"a handful of vocal opponents have dominated much of the media coverage around proposed reforms.” The picture here effectively rebuts this point.

Citizens in Philadelphia are taking to the streets to make their views known because the political process is dominated by the monied interests and shuts them out. Not surprising that this alarms Gleason and his friends. As Mayor Nutter says, "Get used to it."

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