This isn't school

MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Protester at (Thursday's SRC meeting, when a bare-bones budget was announced.)
Posted: June 02, 2013

USED TO be, when young urban parents asked me if they should send their kids to Philadelphia public schools, I'd give them my "gap" speech. It was honed from 12 years of using district schools to educate my daughter, now a high-school junior.

"When you use the public schools," went my patter, "there are gaps. Thankfully, my husband and I have been able to fill the gaps that come with educating a child in the chronically underfunded district."

For example, I'd say, our kid's elementary school had no art instruction. So we sent her to classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The school's music instruction was lacking, so we paid for private piano and guitar lessons.

Her gym classes were laughable, I'd add. So we enrolled her in a kids' karate program, where she got a great workout.

And when one of her teachers lamented that the district never came through with workbooks for our daughter and her classmates, we swallowed hard and bought books for everyone.

Obviously, all of this stuff cost money, I'd concede. But it was still cheaper than private-school tuition or moving to a financially healthier suburban district.

"Overall," I'd conclude, "our daughter had good teachers, her schools were well-run and, when problems arose, administrators responded appropriately. So don't write off district schools without checking them out. You might be surprised how well they can work for your family."

Now, I don't know what to tell prospective public-school parents. Because the budget just passed by the School Reform Commission doesn't have gaps.

It has canyons that not even the most resourceful parent can cross.

When schools open in September, our kids won't have counselors, librarians, assistant principals or secretaries. Are we parents supposed to quit our jobs so we can guide children, maintain library catalogs, administer the staff, answer the phones and maintain student records?

Gone will be the aides who monitor the schoolyards and lunchrooms. Are we supposed to carve out time for those functions, too?

Classroom sizes will be bigger and there will be teacher layoffs. So maybe we're supposed to fill in at the front of the class - as if the skills of a veteran teacher mean nothing to a child's education.

At least we can save money on the district's athletic facilities. Because sports have been axed, too.

So tell me, when does a school cease to be a school and instead become a warehouse to store children for seven hours a day?

At this rate, we might as well send our kids to one of those doggie day-care places that are popping up around the city. At least they'd get plenty of fresh air and exercise.

Over the last 12 years, plenty of district financial crises have had the acrid whiff of disaster. When the state took over the district in 2001, for example, I was appalled when then-Gov. Mark Schweiker told worried parents not to fret about the changes upon us because our schools would definitely have books and heat under the new regime.

As if books and heat were signifiers of a top-shelf education. Still, we got through that mess.

We also got through the budget crisis of 2006, when the schools fell short of $73 million. We kicked that can down the road until 2009, when we came up short $150 million. And we kicked it some more until, this year, we had to borrow $300 million to balance our budget (the interest on the loan is $22 million a year - for the next two decades).

And now we are here, with nowhere left to kick the can, apparently, except at our kids' heads.

For perspective, I called former school board member and perennial mayoral candidate Sam Katz, hoping he'd say something consoling about how this crisis would pass as the last ones had.

He wasn't feeling very hopeful.

"The biggest problem is that no one owns the schools" - not Harrisburg, not City Council, not the mayor - "so no one owns the problem the schools have become," Katz said.

And the power of public-school parents, who have the moral authority to advocate for our children, has diluted over the years as more families have opted out of the public system, taking their energy and resources to private and charter schools.

So the collective yell of those who remain is not as loud as it needs to be in screaming for help.

As my years as a public-school parent draw to a close, I feel heartsick for parents who are willing to give blood, sweat and tears for their kids' schools - but whose kids still won't get the schooling every kid deserves.

Providing our kids a decent public education shouldn't be so hard. It shouldn't be so unfair.

It shouldn't be so wrong.


Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly



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