I admit when I heard of the plan to dissolve the Philadelphia School District and start over, my first thought was, “It’s about time.” The district as it currently stands neither effectively educates children, nor keeps them safe, nor is run with anything close to fiscal sanity. It feels like every other week another eight-digit hole is blown in the budget, with no relief in site. Maybe a fresh start is the only thing that can get the teetering bureaucratic monstrosity back in shape– deciding priorities using zero-based budgeting, which is something our local, state and federal governments could all use, too.
However, a number of very intelligent people have brought forward some thoughtful, well-spoken criticisms of the plan, questioning the tone and scope as well as asking whether the whole thing isn’t merely another step forward in the plot to privatize public education. Listen and learn:
- Author, professor and former federal education guru Diane Ravitch makes the point that the district restructuring, based on similar plans being enacted throughout the country, is essentially smoke and mirrors: “What is so maddening about the reformers’ promises is that they are not based on anything at all: Trust us, they say,” Ravitch writes. “Turn the public schools over to private managers, inject competition into the system, close low-performing schools, and student scores will go up. But nothing in the plan says what they will do to improve teaching and learning.”
- Former Philadelphia principal Frank Murphy savages the notion that critics of the dissolution should just “grow up and deal with it,” in the words of Mayor Nutter. “This new plan for reshaping the school district is taking advantage of a bad financial situation in order to move forward a privatization agenda,” he says. “Education funds are in short supply in the School District of Philadelphia. But this doesn’t mean that the district is broken. It speaks more to the poor financial management of prior leaders, the budget cuts of a new governor and to the ill effects an economy that isn’t doing as well as in the past.”
- Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg of Young Philly Politics takes offense at the idea that the district should live within its means in lieu of receiving more resources and support, comparing the statement to telling starving children they will just have to starve. “Our schools do not have enough money to function properly. The radical restructuring contained in this plan, which does not close most of the deficit, ignores that ugly truth, and provides zero paths to accomplishing that,” Urevick-Ackelsberg writes.
- Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education, probably the most active, informed and credible voice in the city on district matters, tells district Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen, “You’re not speaking to me,” over the dissolution plan, branding it “disaster capitalism.” “You’re not speaking to me when you invoke language like ‘achievement networks,’ ‘portfolio management,’ and ‘rightsizing’ our schools – and say not a word about lower class sizes or increasing the presence of loving support personnel or enriching our curriculum,” Gym writes. “I believe in the value of the public sphere and the responsibilities it owes to the most marginalized of communities — our immigrant students, special needs populations, and young people struggling with disciplinary issues . . . I believe our communities have always been there to pick up the pieces after administrations of hubris pass on. And I believe our public schools are worth fighting for.”
And the outcry grows louder, with a meeting last night where church leaders and other community activists trashed the district plan. This is going to get ugly.