But let's recognize that we're in this position today in part because we didn't deal with the reality of our financial situation yesterday. It was a fact that our school district — regardless of good intentions — lived beyond its means. Passing a thoughtful budget for the 2012-2013 school year was a critical step. Late as it may be, our city's ability to face reality and strategically address our budget is essential to our ability to generate funds from other sources in the future.
Nobody wants to see Philadelphia falter; we have to do our part to demonstrate our sincere commitment to dramatic change. It isn't enough now to simply complain about actions being taken without contributing realistic solutions. And it isn't enough to propose bold new changes without being transparent and responsive to legitimate concerns. This has to be a two-way street. Community members have to be open to new ways of thinking or propose new solutions that are based on financial and political reality. And the district has to create processes that honor parents and community members by giving straightforward answers to their questions and real consideration to proposed alternatives.
To be clear, the School Reform Commission should be commended for the tremendous effort and energy it's exhibited. Has the process of community input been perfect? No. Can we do better moving forward? Absolutely. And we should.
With the combination of district schools and 80 charter schools, today parents have more options. Recent state rulings have opened the way for further charter expansion ,and parents have been choosing to exercise those options in increasing numbers. That genie is out of the bottle; the 40 percent charter figure released by the SRC is a projection of the current trend, not a proposal. The education landscape is changing and we — as a city — can choose to let the world around us change haphazardly, or we can take the helm and manage it to meet our pressing needs.
Closing schools in neighborhoods is a traumatic. But so is spending $33 million annually on unused and underused space. Some facilities and programs have to be closed or combined. The process has to look at multiple factors — including the quality of the program — and shouldn't steamroll a community. After all, school closure is not the end of the story for that community or student. The real work is to ensure that every student has a good school to attend and that neighborhoods are left not only intact but strengthened.
Moving ahead, the foremost need is a financially sound structure that provides high levels of support for principals and teachers, as well as a high degree of accountability at all levels. This work is hard enough without adding misleading information and inflammatory language to the mix. That confuses people, deflates enthusiasm and wastes precious time and resources. We need to focus on identifying underlying needs and collectively solving our problems.
As we work to come to some agreement on what transformation should look like, let's remember what brought us here. Despite the efforts of many good people, the current structure is failing our children and our city. And it cannot continue. n
Darren A. Spielman is executive director of Philadelphia Education Fund.