There is a conversation happening in the city about the issue of local control of the School District of Philadelphia and moving away from a state-run district.
It is virtually inarguable that the state-controlled School Reform Commission has not solved the issues of the District. Indeed, one could argue that the premise that governance was the problem has been proven false. Clearly, the citizens of Philadelphia must have more to say, while still ensuring that those who allocate funding are directly engaged with the decision-making.
Local control most likely means either an elected board or mayoral control, each presenting challenges. There are numerous troubling issues with mayoral control: It has been trendy, but it is not a proven improvement strategy, and people should be wary of it. Furthermore, it is not substantially different from the SRC in that a handful of appointments are made, insulated from the public and other elected officials.
Headed into an election year, voters should be skeptical at best about people who want to be handed the only set of keys to the District.
Tom Wolf won the governor’s race because he made this election about education and he aggressively challenged Tom Corbett’s budget austerity narrative. Wolf put forward bold proposals for funding schools, including taxing shale, closing corporate loopholes, and creating a progressive state income tax.
A landslide vote, running against a strong Republican tide nationally and in local legislative races, allows him to claim a mandate for moving ahead on this agenda.
Four long years of war took the lives of 97 Roxborough graduates. Every time I walk up the steps of the marble hall in Roxborough High School, I lightly touch a metal plaque that honors those who gave their lives for their country during World War II.
The grand hall, the centerpiece of the Art Deco-style public schools built in Philadelphia in the 1920s, rises two stories, its walls covered by paintings in gilt frames. Two magnificent curved staircases lead to the second floor, where the plaque honoring the dead faces a window that sometimes blazes with sunlight. The hall is quiet in comparison to the rest of the building, giving it the feeling of a shrine. A fitting place to honor the dead.
My education is, in part, a product of the best intentions of the School District of Philadelphia. In the early '90s, the elementary school I attended in my neighborhood, James Russell Lowell in Olney, could no longer accommodate students up to 8th grade, so at the age of 11, I began evaluations to attend a school outside of my neighborhood, something most Philadelphia public school students know about.
Of the hundreds of children having to transfer from Lowell that year, I think there were three or four of us chosen — all white — to attend Masterman magnet school in the Spring Garden neighborhood. Some of them I had never seen in Olney before. Some were from families who had come to live there to practice their religious convictions, my first experience with a kind of urban missionary. Others came from families who could afford to send their children to private schools.
By the middle of October in any given school year, students are situated into their routines, snug in their desks. They have finally committed their class schedules to memory. They know what their teachers expect of them. They have begun to know their classmates. Their notebooks are filled with notes.
This year, two weeks beyond the contracted deadline, the School District has used its leveling sledgehammer to collapse classes and smash to smithereens much of what students and teachers have worked so hard to accomplish. The schools become unhinged just as they were settling in. The cost is incalculable.
When leveling occurs, the District must reshuffle schools' staff to match their actual enrollments, and class rosters have to be remade. Children are often assigned to different teachers with different teaching styles or ones who are in a different place in the curriculum. Some subjects are eliminated, and the work done since September is lost.
Following is an abridged version of a statement issued by the board of trustees and administrative leadership of the FACTS charter school.
Why we speak
As members of the Board of Trustees and the administrative leadership of the Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS), we wish to add our voice and our perspectives to this important discussion [about public education and the District's current funding crisis], speaking out of FACTS’ experience as a public charter school now in its 10th year of existence.
FACTS began in specific response to educational needs of Asian immigrant children who were not being adequately served in Philadelphia by the public schools. It was founded by community residents deeply committed to public education who had struggled for many years previously on a number of fronts to remedy the overall lack of public resources in Chinatown, and in Asian communities more broadly.
Like a broken record, for over two years the School Reform Commission has sounded the call for "shared sacrifice." The phrase provided the frame for its decision to break the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers' contract and impose what amounts to a huge wage cut. Their message has been: Everyone else has stepped up, and now teachers must do so.
But not everyone else has stepped up. Banks, corporations, and the mega-nonprofits in this city have not made sacrifices, nor has this body asked them to.
Let me be specific.
[Notebook editor's note: This commentary appeared on NewsWorks Thursday morning. Shortly after, Sylvia Simms said on Twitter that she would like to meet with the student protesters.]
Yesterday evening, students from the Philadelphia Student Union disrupted a screening at the School District headquarters of Won’t Back Down, a film largely critical of teachers' unions and supportive of charter school development.
The students sat silently in the first few rows of the auditorium, only to break out of their seats about 20 minutes into the film to sit in front of the screen and clap and chant in support of a fair funding formula and against the recent decision by the School Reform Commission to cancel the teachers’ union contract.
The sad state of Philadelphia's public schools inspires fury, frustration, and now, from the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf, a really bad idea for fundamental change.
Wolf recently proposed replacing the current five-member School Reform Commission that runs the schools with a locally elected school board.
I know Wolf means well. But establishing an elected school board in Philadelphia will not empower parents and their communities. It will put the selection of our school board members in the hands of the same people who pick judges, state legislators, sheriffs and city commissioners in this town: Democratic ward leaders.
Philadelphia public schools are in a financial crisis. They have been in crisis for the last three years.
Why has this happened? Where do we stand? What needs to happen next? These are the questions we face.
In addressing these questions, we should acknowledge that it is difficult to solve a problem if one is not clear about what the problem is. Even after years of upheaval and drama, there is some dispute as to the causes of our school budget crisis.
Some in our community maintain that the School District is in a budget crisis because it has a “structural deficit.” Others suggest that the crisis results from internal fiscal mismanagement. Still others claim that the crisis was caused by the withdrawal of federal stimulus funding.