From visions to promises
by Len Rieser on Feb 25 2009 Posted in Education law corner
"Promises" is a word you don't hear much in school reform circles. Instead, we tend more toward visions, declarations, plans, strategies, and the like. There's a need for those, and I agree that the District's latest effort is exciting and important (though, like many people, I don't agree with everything in it).
But as a lawyer, I'm also interested in commitments – things that people can actually count on happening. And I don't think I'm alone. In fact, I suspect that many Philadelphians would trade even the most exciting of long-term visions for a promise of some things that will actually happen for their children next year, and perhaps some more the year after.
In legal circles, the difference between good intentions and an actual promise is a big deal. Take, for example, the celebrated (and ancient) case of Balfour v. Balfour, which may not at first glance seem especially relevant to Philadelphia school reform.
In that case, a British officer serving in Ceylon returned home to England on leave. While he and his wife were there, she became ill, and decided to stay behind when he returned to Ceylon. Before leaving, he told her that he would send her 30 pounds per month. He didn't do it. She sued, but he won – the court finding that neither party had really understood his statement as a binding promise.
The bottom line: statements of good intentions, unaccompanied by a clear commitment to be held accountable to the letter of what was said, do not a promise make. If the intentions aren't fulfilled, the intended beneficiary is simply out of luck.
And so it is with our public pronouncements on school reform, including many that have been made (and then not fulfilled) right here in Philadelphia. And indeed, education law itself shows something of the same tendency to avoid making real commitments.
For example, although the laws say that students should achieve at high academic levels, there are almost no legal rules on class size or the quality of school facilities – both of which play a big role in determining whether students can actually achieve at those high levels. On other issues, the law makes grand gestures, but in vague and unmeasurable terms. (For instance, a Pennsylvania regulation says that schools must provide counseling services, but says nothing about counselor-to-student ratios – so in practice, a student who needs counseling may have no access to it at all.) And then there are laws such as Section 1119 of No Child Left Behind, which says that teachers must be "highly qualified," but provides no remedy for a child whose teacher is not. (For more insight into when-is-a-guarantee-not-really-a-guarantee, see the recent Third Circuit decision on NCLB in Newark Parents Association v. Newark Public Schools.)
My point is not that schoolchildren are entirely without rights, or that education laws are meaningless. It's just that those laws, like many of our public statements about fixing schools, are made up more of Balfourian good intentions than on actual, you-can-hold-me-to-it promises.
But we can do something about this, and we don't need to wait for the laws to change. We can balance our grand visions with some concrete, and equally well publicized, commitments.
To be sure, the things that we could actually promise, if we chose to do so, would inevitably be more short-term, and more modest, than the enormous smorgasbord laid out in “Imagine 2014.” They might be about redesigning particular high schools, or reducing certain class sizes, or establishing positive behavior support programs in some schools, or upgrading computers or laboratories or libraries – or something else, but probably not all of those things at once. The important thing, it seems to me, would be not to promise the stars, but instead to pick realistic goals and deadlines, allocate enough funds, and adopt the firm intention of following through on our promises – all the way, and on time.
This may be what the District intends to do next. I hope so, because then we could finally tell Philly's students, families, and teachers not only what we're "imagining," but what they can count on happening. Dreaming is important, but there's a sense of security that comes from actually knowing.
And then we could keep our promises.