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Essay: The unfulfilled dream of the School District of Philadelphia

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    Library Company of Philadelphia




When the School District of Philadelphia has a major problem, poor old Jonah Thompson is surely fidgeting in his grave. And the District has had some pretty serious problems since 1818, when he helped establish it.

All that tossing and turning has probably popped a few nails out of his coffin, which would be a fluke, because manufacturing nails was his business. But in 1816 he was tapped to help run a different kind of business — the business that Quakers inherited from William Penn in 1701 and that Christopher Ludwick, a German immigrant, bankrolled 100 years later — the business of free schooling for the poor children "of all denominations, in the city and liberties of Philadelphia, without any exception to the country, extraction, or religious principles of their parents or friends."

In hot haste

It was a laudable effort, except this early schooling system wasn't comprehensive at all — one school for poor children does not a system make. Plus the run for the money pitted Quakers against the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. Quite literally, Quakers won the right to establish the free school because their speedy horses got them to Lancaster faster. It was a matter of getting to the rolls office first to register the charter. In those days, private or "pay" schools were scattershot around the city; early attempts to make education public were scattershot as well.

As Philadelphia's non-system expanded, school by school, boards of managers meddled with who could attend, who could teach, where classes could be held. Favoritism, graft, and cost overruns plagued the administration. Does the term "inefficient" come to mind?

Sixteen tons of nails and spikes per week — that's what Thompson and his brother were producing in Phoenixville when he signed his name to a scathing report in 1817 denouncing the system then in operation as "injurious to the character of the rising generation ... a benevolent fraud upon the public bounty."

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks


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