Ronnie Polaneczky: I feel terrible about Webcamgate ... and terrible about why

Posted: March 04, 2010

AS A Philadelphia public-school parent, I sometimes forget that most suburban schools are much richer than the city's.

After all, my kid is having a good run in Philly's schools. She's had great teachers - or, at least, enough great ones to make up for some snoozers (but who, in truth, were no worse than the clunkers I had when I was a kid. I survived; so will she. Bad teachers build character!).

And my husband and I have been able to connect with enough wonderful school parents that we feel like we live among trusted villagers who have our backs.

All in all, Philly's schools have done well by my family. So I tend not to think much about schools on the tonier side of the city line.

Until something like Webcamgate comes along. And the imbalance of wealth between the city and the suburbs gets me verklempt all over again.

By now, you surely know about the brouhaha that's set teeth a-gnashing in Lower Merion. A couple in the upper-crust school district has alleged that an administrator spied on their son via a webcam in the school-issued laptop computer that the teen was using at home.

When I heard the news, my first reaction should've been, "What an appalling allegation! If it's true, that administrator oughta hang by a wedgie from the gym rafters!"

Instead, I muttered, "Ya little snot. The district gave you a damn computer? Quit whining."

I'm not proud of this reaction. But I was thinking of my daughter's friend, a super-bright kid who often does computer research at our dining-room table because the teen's family doesn't have a computer.

How much easier would life be with a personal laptop in every home?

So, yeah, my empathy for my kid's computerless friend displaced what should've been my horror that a Lower Merion student's privacy may have been electronically invaded.

I had a similarly petty woe-is-us reaction a few years back, when some students at a Bucks County elementary school came down with mysterious rashes and headaches that had their poor parents worried silly.

When it was finally determined that a fluid used to clean the school's carpeting probably caused the children's afflictions, I didn't say, "Thank goodness their nightmare is over!"

I said, "Wow, they have carpeting?"

I remembered how tickled we parents were, when my daughter was in kindergarten, that another parent donated a big, beaten-up but still cozy Oriental-style rug to the classroom, so our kids wouldn't be sitting on the cold tile for "circle time."

If the kids had carpet at that Bucks County school, they doubtless had other "frills" that my kindergartner and her tiny classmates were routinely going without.

Like toilet paper.

Reading the coverage these past two weeks of Webcamgate, my suburban-school envy has kicked into gear all over again.

Last year, wealthy Lower Merion spent $21,663 per child on its schools. Philly spends less than half that, thanks to our miserably low tax

base, which funds public education.

Lower Merion has a gleaming new high school and a second one in the works, both with multiple gyms and state-of-the-art technology that guarantees that no child will be left behind unless he's too lazy to crack his laptop open.

At my daughter's academically excellent middle school, only a handful of classrooms even have "smart boards." Even fewer have air-conditioning.

It's a testament to a teacher's greatness when she can engage 33 kids on a sweltering afternoon in a classroom so small and tight, waving a handmade fan can cool three kids at once.

So, yeah, I get kind of pissy when I hear some parents impacted by Webcamgate act like the debacle is the end of education as they know it.

"Try walking in a Philly public-school parent's shoes for a week," I wanna tell them. "Then you'll see what education hardship looks like."

My pissiness, though, hides a deeper sorrow. As nutty and hysterical as some Lower Merion parents have acted over Webcamgate, at least they're engaged in their kids' schooling in a way that we desperately need more parents to be in Philly.

If one third of the city's public-school parents were even half as committed to their kids' education as most Lower Merion parents are, the entire school district would be transformed.

Educationally committed parents demand accountability from themselves and their children. And from the teachers, principals and administrators who are paid to serve them. And from the elected officials who have the power to change where and how money gets spent in our schools.

Yeah, some Webcamgate parents are nuts. But I sure wish we had a few more of their kind in Philly.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ronnieblog.

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