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Philly Education News + Views Independent. Reader-Supported.
Philly Education News + Views
Independent. Reader-Supported

Commentary: Mayor missed the meaning of "public" in public ed




It probably wouldn’t surprise you to hear a Pennsylvania politician questioning the very definition and premise of public education. It may surprise you that Philadelphia’s leading Democrat is on record saying public vs. private ought to be meaningless when it comes to education.

At a press conference Thursday, Mayor Michael Nutter said that parents deserve school choice and that public, private, religious designations don’t matter. In his talk, the mayor went on to say:

"I’m not getting caught up in all this. At my level, these are esoteric debates that ultimately don't mean anything to these young people sitting here in this room.”

Children care about their teachers, recess, lunch and whether they’re in a safe learning environment.

“That’s what this is all about,” he asserted.

Although the mayor certainly hasn’t been hanging around the high schoolers I know, he may be right that my 9-year-old isn’t really paying attention to such discussions.

Does that mean we shouldn’t either?

Ask a parent who can’t dream of paying a $26,100 tuition bill from Penn Charter whether a high-quality, free public elementary school in their neighborhood is a matter of meaningless, “esoteric debate.”

Philadelphia public schools are 85 percent students of color and 80 percent economically disadvantaged. We have 20,000 children classified as having special needs and almost 12,000 English language learners. Is it “meaningless” that private and religious institutions hold the right to discriminate against and exclude those whom they choose not to serve? There’s no mandate for private schools to provide language services for new immigrants, serve special-needs students, or take recently adjudicated youth. They have the right to promote religious scripture and denounce same-sex orientation. They have the right to deny collective bargaining and employ non-certified teachers.

Would the mayor consider it a matter of meaningless, “esoteric debate” to take some lessons from Philadelphia’s failed history with privateeers like Edison Schools Inc.,  which exploited public funds for private gain with miserable results? Is it meaningless to take a look at our neighbors in Chester City and consider the fractured relationship they have with a charter school run by a for-profit company and a bankrupt school district?

I’m sure Gov. Tom Corbett would love for us to call concerns about transparency with voucher programs like the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) meaningless and esoteric. A recent New York Times investigation found that EITC programs nationwide permit forfeited tax dollars to go toward private and religious institutions that might otherwise be blocked from receiving public monies. 

No matter to Pennsylvania. Since 2001, Pennsylvania has diverted close to $400 million to organizations that give out the scholarships. The state's program was cited extensively in the Times investigation for questionable practices. And Harrisburg just approved a new $50 million-per-year tax credit targeted toward students who live in areas with low-performing schools.

Notably, the Times cited the architects of the program crowing about the intricate and ingenious ways they were able to evade scrutiny. Perhaps if fewer people treated this as an “esoteric” subject, there would be more public accountability.

We have more than a decade of money and broken promises poured into the idea that there’s some magic solution to neglected public schools. Philadelphia has been ground zero for every manner of experimentation from reformers touting the miracles of the private sector. When the mayor calls the “public” in public education a mere label, he dumbs down important conversations about what lessons we’ve gained from using public funds for too many failed private enterprises.

He plays into widespread disinvestment in public education and the resulting gross inequities. He gives cover to a governor whose billion-dollar slashing of public education funding and promotion of private and charter enterprises have resulted in school districts across the state starved to the point of dysfunction.

Thanks to such efforts, a Philadelphia public school classroom is $78,000 poorer than a classroom in a surrounding suburb. Three-quarters of our elementary schools lack a certified librarian. We’ve got one nurse for every 1,500 students and a mindset that only guarantees nursing care for the “medically fragile.”  Is it any surprise that the choice debate is here and not in Lower Merion, which generously funds its schools?

The mayor is right that we don’t need meaningless, esoteric debates. What parents want is a free, safe, well-resourced neighborhood public school for our kids and we want to know why politicians can move heaven and hell to make everything BUT that a priority.

We want a smart conversation about the things that our public schools SHOULD provide to every child and what resources it will take to make that happen. We want our political leaders to know that a public school is a communal responsibility, not a matter of individual whims.

Most of all, we need our mayor to understand that – at his level – underfunded public schools serving high-poverty, high-needs children vs. a failed history of exploitation and privatization is NEVER a meaningless, esoteric debate.

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