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Can Philadelphia Schools Be Saved?

February 11, 2014

The NYTimes ran an article today describing the battles Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite faces in attempting to salvage the school district after years of budget cuts, undemocratic oversight by a State appointed board, and privatization. The article describes him as the kind of person who might be able to make it happen… but the odds appear to be VERY high. His first year on the job he had to deal with a $304,000,000 budget gap that required him to close 24 schools and lay off almost 4,000 employees, a cheating scandal that involved several administrators and teachers, a recalcitrant union, a governor who wants to privatize all Philadelphia schools, and no one advocating spending increases. In order to find a “middle ground” through all of this he will need to accept at least a portion of the privatization movement that is tacitly supported by the mayor and wholeheartedly endorsed by the governor, get the teachers union to forfeit hard-won gains in benefits and wages, and entice lawmakers to provide him with more resources. It isn’t promising.

I’ve written before about the Philadelphia schools. I started my career as a teacher there and aspired to lead an urban district based on what was happening during Dr. Mark Shedd’s term as Superintendent under the Board leadership of Richardson Dilworth, a Brahmin liberal who support Shedd’s vision of a progressive urban learning environment where students would use the city as a campus and schools would be learning and service hubs… not unlike the vision of Geoffrey  Canada who recently announced his retirement (see future post on this). Sometime over the past decades that vision disappeared… or perhaps fell into disrepute as voters began to see government as the problem instead of the solution and began believing that “throwing money” at the problem of urban poverty was wasteful. That attitude has led to the sorry state of schools in Philadelphia where per pupil spending is $5,000 less than neighboring suburban districts, schools are in disrepair, and the middle class is rapidly escaping the public schools and, sadly, leaving the city altogether.

I am an incurable optimist… but I fear that the Philadelphia public schools can only get out of this ditch if there is a change of heart on the part of voters either in the city or in the state… because unless there is a change of heart there cannot be a change of mind. And what will be required to change people’s hearts? A visceral realization that a strong democracy requires that voters provide every child with an opportunity for advancement…. and a visceral realization that children don’t get to choose their birthplace and their zip code should not determine their destiny.

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