Philly schools go on your report card, too

Posted: August 12, 2013

A READER CALLED to complain about the coverage the Daily News gave to Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite's announcement that our dead-broke schools might not open on Sept. 9.

"I'm sick of reading about the schools," he bitched.

(Yes, I just used the word "bitched." I am that angry.)

He no longer has school-age kids, he said. Besides, he sent his children to parochial schools, so the state of public education has never meant anything to him.

"Not everyone in Philly uses public school," he said. "Why don't you write about something that affects everyone?"

"And why don't you use your damned brain?" I asked.

(I told you I was steamed.)

I then set about schooling him in the ways that Philly's public education does, indeed, affect every last one of us.

My caller owns a house in Northeast Philly. It was big enough to raise his brood of four, and the day will come when he wants to sell it.

But what family will buy a nice, roomy house in a city that can't run its schools, much less open them? Or, more precisely, who will give the caller the healthy asking price he hopes to retire on, when the house is located in a city in such a decline?

Bye-bye investment.

My caller said he works for a Center City employer. How long will any employer last here if he can't find hires who know more than their ABCs? Which is precisely what will happen if the district doesn't hire back the assistant principals, secretaries, counselors, classroom aides and lunch ladies who keep our schools from being more than warehouses.

That's because the teachers will be too busy pitching in to answer phones, find records, quell hallway tension, counsel the troubled and stop food fights.

So, my caller better keep 9-1-1 on speed-dial. Because kids denied an education that helps them dream big are kids who look for stimulation elsewhere.

Including my caller's neighborhood, I presume.

Suburbanites, too, ought to worry about the state of Philly education. Because the city's traumas have a way of becoming the suburbs' traumas. Just look how crime is rising in towns just beyond Philly's poorer borders. Think that's gonna improve if our schools tank? Think the towns just beyond inner-ring won't eventually feel the pain, too, as the ills spread outward?

And don't expect Philly's expanding downtown to be immune. Who will pay top coin for the luxe condos and high-end rehabs that are sprouting like dandelions in gentrifying neighborhoods? A city that doesn't know how to run its school system is a place that 1) makes potential home buyers wonder what other systems are lacking a grown-up's hand on the steering wheel, and 2) looks like Detroit.

And once it does, the do-nothings in Harrisburg will have further reason to marginalize us. But they'll do so at their own peril, because Pennsylvania without a healthy Philly is a state with diminished national clout.

So good luck, Harrisburgers, getting any federal money for your tiny towns.

The bottom line is that the people who don't care what happens to public education in Philly are people who think they have no skin in this game. But we're all connected. Philly's woes will become their woes. Maybe not right away, but in time. Bet on it.

Back in June, when the public schools' doomsday scenario was painted, I allowed myself to believe it wouldn't come. I really thought that we were better than a rescue plan called "Screw it."

But doomsday is here, and Hite said this week that schools might not even open on time without an additional infusion of $50 million by Friday. It's unfathomable that we've thrown kids under the school bus rather than sit down like adults and figure this out for them.

Not just because it's the moral thing to do, which ought to be enough. But because even the worst cynics ought to have the enlightened self-interest to push for a fix of this disaster, lest their own fortunes take a hit.

I could go on, but I have to respond to an email that just landed in my inbox. It's from my kid's school, pleading for volunteers: The principal is stuck answering the phones when she's not in district meetings, and only one roster person is organizing class schedules for a school of 1,200.

This time last year, the front-office staff included the principal, assistant principal, a roster person, secretary and a nonteaching assistant, all bustling full time to ready the school.

And by school's start, the staff had expanded to include two more secretaries, another roster person and three counselors.

But this year, astoundingly, the staff will include only the principal, a secretary and a roster person - who will also teach.

In any other circumstances in this city, if kids' needs were neglected like this, we'd call DHS.

It's a disgrace. The fact that people still don't get that it affects all of us, well, that's so frustrating, I could scream.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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