Commentary: Will Mayor Nutter match his education rhetoric to reality?
by Helen Gym on Sep 07 2012 Posted in Commentary
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter took the national stage last night at the Democratic National Convention to deliver a key platform issue of President Obama’s agenda: education.
I, for one, couldn't be happier to have education, and especially public education, play such a central role in the president's campaign message.
But I also found it an interesting choice of topic for Nutter. The mayor has been aggressively involved in a controversial re-making of public education in Philadelphia. Recently, the Inquirer editorial board questioned a statement he made that dismissed differences between public education and non-public options as "esoteric."
This week the Democratic leadership laid out an education agenda that eschewed controversy and instead shored up support around core issues like adequate funding and small class size. Decrying the "gutting" of education funding, President Obama linked the loss of hundreds of thousands of educator jobs to threats to a stable economy and a strong middle class. He talked about “crumbling school buildings” and overcrowded classrooms.
“That is not our future!” Obama said.
Earlier, First Lady Michelle Obama referred to the impact of meeting public school teachers in Chester, just down the river, whose union voted last year to keep teaching in the face of district bankruptcy. Jill Biden, the vice president's wife, talked about how being a full-time teacher “isn’t just what I do – it’s who I am.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke about not teaching to the test.
Mayor Nutter’s convention speech, by his own admission heavily vetted by Democratic Party leadership, also laid out an inspired call for government responsibility in education. Supporting lower class sizes. Saving educator jobs. Touting early childhood programs. Making college affordable.
The mayor’s speech derided corporate influence and shamed Romney for meddling in education as a “corporate buyout specialist who closed down steel mills.” It uplifted the mayor’s role as a public school parent who said he didn’t want his own child or any child to attend schools where there weren’t enough desks or teachers.
"[Mitt Romney] recently visited a school in West Philly and told teachers he knows more than they do about what works for their students. He said class size doesn't matter. Doesn't matter? If our teachers can't give our children the attention they need, that doesn't matter? If our students spend the day on their feet, or the floor, because there aren’t enough desks in a crowded classroom, that doesn’t matter?”
I’m glad the mayor is defining public school advocacy in this way on the national stage. But matching rhetoric to reality is, needless to say, complicated.
It’s incredibly encouraging to have a mayor talk about lower class sizes, a crucial issue for parents and school staff. But how do we achieve lower class sizes when the mayor’s education team has come out aggressively for mass school closings and “rightsizing” facilities? Reduced class size has not been considered enough, if at all, in those conversations.
Jobs? We lost 3,000 teachers last year in Philadelphia schools alone – scientists, mathematicians, writers, poets, and musicians. We have one nurse for every 1,500 students and a librarian may be an even rarer sighting. Maintenance workers and bus drivers were sent layoff notices in a showdown over “efficiencies” so aggressive that it attracted the intervention of City Council members. The contract finally settled late last month. We need a mayor who recognizes the importance of preserving these jobs when he talks about strengthening Philadelphia’s middle class.
Nutter opened his convention speech with a snub to corporate influence over a “we the people” approach. This is a sentiment raised by many education groups dismayed by the lack of transparency surrounding the Boston Consulting Group in reshaping Philadelphia’s education strategy. The mayor’s education team, meanwhile, has been at the table with BCG and other outside interests. We need the mayor to understand how BCG has become a polarizing entity, symbolic of the very monied and politically connected interests decried throughout the convention. We need the mayor to support public processes that uphold the public interest and prioritize the stated goals in his convention speech.
We also need so much more.
We need a strong advocate to push for an equitable school funding formula in Harrisburg. We want a mayor who will make space to listen to teachers, school staff and parents. We want a mayor who will invest in improving and renovating public school buildings. We want a mayor who pushes back against corporate interests and ideologies around school choice. We need a mayor who supports great schools but prioritizes his commitment to our public school institutions.
It’s easy to draw contrasts at the national level, when you can appropriately villainize careless comments from the far right like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who compared school choice to shopping for milk. It’s harder to do when those very same struggles are unfolding in our own city.
The mayor says “Mitt Romney doesn’t get it.” Here’s hoping Mayor Nutter returns to Philadelphia to prove he “gets it” so much better.