Quick fixes don't work; schools need new leaders

Posted: June 19, 2011

Helen Gym

is a Philadelphia public school parent and a cofounder of Parents United for Public Education

A decade ago, Philadelphia families were told that a state takeover was necessary to fix a failing, bankrupt school system. As we face the third school financial crisis since then, we have to ask whether this experiment has finally run its course.

Back then, privatization and education-management organizations were promoted as the saviors of failing schools, even though they had limited success elsewhere. After investing hundreds of millions of dollars, there has been little measurable benefit.

Today we chase after other quick fixes - Renaissance Schools and Promise Academies. There is also a strong push in Harrisburg for vouchers.

Yet, what good are these "fixes" when high school science programs face the layoffs of 42 chemistry, biology, and physics teachers? The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers reports pink slips going to 115 English teachers, 121 math teachers, 66 social studies teachers, and 323 special education teachers. We should think about the effect of losing 50 art teachers across the district.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and her team have played games with the public's trust. They threatened to cut essential programs such as full-day kindergarten and transportation, while refusing to let go of questionable priorities such as Promise Academy Saturday School. As a result, it's challenging for those of us who are deeply supportive and invested in our public schools to figure out the best long-term solutions for the district.

City Council's marathon session last week exemplified that difficulty. The major barrier for more money was clearly the lack of credibility of district leadership.

In the end, the modestly appropriate sum allotted to the schools was a smart compromise by Council members. It required the district to rework its budget to make room for certain essentials, and it keeps open other options for next year.

And be clear: The district will cost more. Its problems cannot be solved painlessly or with tweaks here and there. In coming years, we will have to debate the effect of higher taxes or even fewer services in order to invest in education. But that day is not today.

Today, the issue is the lack of accountability on the part of district leadership and its inability to communicate with parents, students, teachers, and residents.

During a testy exchange with Council, Ackerman pointed her finger at me and asked: Where were you three years ago? What have you done for this district? And I responded, "With all due respect, Dr. Ackerman, we were here before you and will be long after."

Her retort: "And this district will still be a mess."

At the time of the takeover, we were promised that Philadelphia schools would get the best leadership money could buy. So we chased after a handful of superintendent superstars - Paul Vallas and Arlene Ackerman. We upped the ante each time with bigger salaries and perks.

Along with these headstrong managers came a demand for unquestioning compliance and cheerleading of each superintendent's agenda.

Unfortunately, the current School Reform Commission members are the head cheerleaders, failing miserably in their oversight responsibilities in the process. Contrast that with the SRC of 2007, which faced a $73 million deficit. The SRC publicly excoriated Vallas; let the chief financial officer and, eventually, Vallas go; instituted financial controls; and dramatically curbed spending and contracting.

This SRC, with full knowledge of the impending budget calamity, approved a budget last year that spent down its surplus and gave the green light to new initiatives, including a $40 million summer school. They failed to make public the specifics of the staggering $629 million deficit until late in the year, and they still fail to veto significant spending requests. (Naming Pedro Ramos to the SRC will make little difference if the board remains unaccountable to the public.)

What's particularly frustrating is that this administration has benefited from a decades-long campaign to adequately fund our schools. Gov. Ed Rendell poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Philadelphia. Add hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus funds, and a world of possibilities should have opened up to our students.

Instead, the SRC frittered away taxpayer money on contracts that have at best become tangential to the life of our classrooms. Just last week, the SRC approved more than $300 million worth of contracts with little debate, including a lavish networking institute for the superintendent and an $8 million discretionary fund for small contracts.

As parents, we have never been more saddened and distressed by the state of education in Philadelphia. Out there is a messy, imperfect democracy of parents, students, teachers, and residents fighting for our schools.

It's time for a change to a leadership that hears these voices.


E-mail Helen Gym at Parentsunitedphila@gmail.com.

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