Best and Worst Education Moments of 2011

NOVA-Arlene Ackerman

Last year I named Arlene Ackerman – and her penchant for making any and all news all about her – as my number one choice for the Top 10 education story of the year. Indeed, Dr. Ackerman did not fail to hit a homer in that category. 2011 was a year that made education watchers and opinion-makers of us all. Here’s my pitch for the best and worst moments on the (mostly) Philadelphia school scene.

Grinch of the Year: Arlene Ackerman
Her three year tenure was marked by a combination of ruthlessness (firing whistleblowers for example), profligacy ($40 million summer school anyone?) and neglect (ignoring cheating and violence in schools) – all while claiming sole rights to the voices of “the children.” She brought the District from its greatest wealth to the brink of financial collapse; drew national attention with a million dollar public buyout and filing for unemployment benefits; hired controversial underlings in P.R. and human resources who allegedly abused the powers of their office; and spearheaded a prejudiced response to racial violence at a local high school that earned the District a racial discrimination lawsuit from the U.S. Dept. of Justice. Within a week of her departure, she was urging parents to “vote with their feet” and flee the public schools she had helmed just a few days earlier. She relentlessly played race, gender and class politics to pit and divide communities and fomented a base of support known for hyperbolic, no-holds-barred rhetoric. Her Promise Academy effort may have been initially been well-intentioned but like most things under her watch, the execution was flawed, budget needs were not considered, and in the end hanging onto the effort became more about the Superintendent’s ego than sustainability of the program. She left as she came – with her reputation for bitter and reactionary politics solidly, and sadly, intact.
Runner-up: Gov. Tom Corbett for being the first governor in two decades to cut education spending in the Commonwealth – a billion dollars worth – at the same time he gunned for a costly voucher program, shielded the natural gas industry from taxation, and sat on a state surplus.

Worst Abdication of Responsibility: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on Chester-Upland School District
One of the state’s poorest districts, Chester-Upland became the experimental playground for an ideologically-driven state takeover in 2000 that forced EMOs and charters upon an already vulnerable community. Student walkouts and organized parent protests eventually drove out EMO operator Edison Schools and resulted in a state takeover of the original state takeover board. (Philadelphia activists studied Chester-Upland’s experience closely, and as a result succeeded in limiting and diversifying Philly’s EMO effort.) When the state ended its takeover, Chester-Upland’s resources and internal capacity had been effectively decimated. Last month, Chester-Upland begged for a state advance to keep itself running, a plea that the state rejected leaving the future of thousands of schoolchildren up in the air. Today teachers in Chester-Upland got their last payday and yet voted to continue working without a salary. Notably AWOL: the ideological politicos and educational operators who plundered the district in the name of reform.

Best Quote from an Unexpected Person: Newly installed SRC Commissioner Lorene Cary
SRC Commissioners appeared on WHYY’s Radio Times and in a discussion about vouchers, a commissioner remarked that the “devil is in the details and there are a lot of details.” To which Cary quipped, “There are a lot of devils."

Worst Charitable Effort: SRC Chair Robert “I’m just a volunteer” Archie.
When you’re out to lunch while a district goes bankrupt, engage in backroom wheeling and dealing that earn you an ethics slap on the wrist, and approve an atrocious contract extension that contributes to the million dollar buyout of your superintendent, playing that charitable line falls just a little flat.

SRC Chair Cuts Off Fox 29 Reporter: MyFoxPHILLY.com

Best Innovative Effort in Education: The “open campus” plan by Penn Manor, Hempfield, and Manheim Township High Schools.
The most promising rethinking of education came from, gasp, three “traditional” school districts in the Lancaster area which recently announced an effort to pool resources and create an “open campus” where high school students could take classes online and have flexible scheduling. The plan was designed to save jobs and was driven by the belief that “district teachers can deliver a better education program than anything offered by a cybercharter school.” Philadelphia’s education delegation should be heading to Lancaster, not Denver, for real ideas on how to expand a vision of educational delivery.

Worst Use of Poetry: Ackerman invoking “oil wells” and Maya Angelou
Former Supt. Arlene Ackerman drained the poignancy and inspiration out of Maya Angelou’s beloved poem “Still I Rise” and recited it as a bitter kiss-off to the public and her bosses.

Best Use of Poetry: The Daily News’Arlene Ackerman Haiku-Fest
Hey if you’re not crying, you might as well laugh with Haiku-Fest gems like this:
Let’s all Imagine
2014. We’ll still be
paying Ackerman.

Worst Back to School Kick Off: Ackerman supporters burning newspapers in front of 440
Because nothing says back to school like a good old-fashioned newspaper burning.

Best Grassroots Parent Group: The parents of the Martin Luther King High School Advisory Council
These stalwart parents outed and publicly decried the machinations of SRC Chair Robert Archie and State Rep. Dwight Evans around a multimillion dollar contract for their school. In collaboration with dogged reporting by the Notebook/WHYY team, they helped expose a shocking scandal that brought down the SRC Chair and unmoored the credibility of the SRC as a whole.

Worst Astroturf Group: The District public relations office under Arlene Ackerman
They fronted Protect Philly Ed – which claimed to represent citizens but was uncovered as a District p.r. creation that functioned largely as an apologist for the District and, not surprisingly, ran a visionless and weak political game in Harrisburg.

Best Orwellian Newspeak Effort: District Chief Finance Officer Mike Masch
In late January 2011, Masch averred: “We don’t have a budget crisis.” A few weeks later the District revealed it had a budget gap somewhere between $400-500 million. And a few weeks after that, the District adopted a budget addressing a $629 million budget crisis “unprecedented” in its scope and impact.

Worst Apology (not) by a Public Official: District CFO Mike Masch
The CFO’s wife wrote a cringe-worthy letter to the public begging forgiveness for the couple’s failure to pay several years of real estate taxes on time. “I failed my responsibility as a citizen. And I am devastated that I violated Michael's trust in me.” The letter reinforced a negative image of Masch, whose evasion of responsibility for the District’s financial crisis seemed to go hand in hand with letting his wife prostrate herself before the public for an otherwise personal issue.

Best Journalistic Addition to the Ed Beat: Patrick Kerkstra and Plan Philly
Investigative reporter Patrick Kerkstra and the team from PlanPhilly provided much needed depth to education journalism with a Public School Notebook to series analyzing the crucial intersect between schools, taxes, and the future of the city. Recently they joined forces with the Notebook to look at the impact of school closings. All in all, a smart look at the consequences of educational neglect and the possibility of neighborhood turnaround through education.

Worst Know-it-all Education Columns: Gene Marks and Tom Ferrick
Gene “I was a poor black kid” Marks set a jaw-dropping low point in race and class-based patronizing and all-around idiocy though he did launch quite a few inspired parodies. Meanwhile local columnist Tom Ferrick ignored a decade of experience and data around charters and choice in Pennsylvania to write this choice for choice’s sake piece. $100,000 in Gates money and a 6-page piece of paper heralds education change? Imagine what we could do with $180 million in dedicated funding under a takeover of the public schools? Oh right we did that in 2002 with Education Management Organizations. Don't remember them? Yeah, they sorta failed too.

Best Education Know-it-all: The Notebook of course!

Worst Hail Mary: Mayor Nutter
Good intentions aside, the Mayor's last minute stabs for education funding resulted in a lackluster pitch before Council that brought the Mayor grief on multiple fronts (Council, big soda and Ackerman herself) and resulted in an unexpected property tax hike for the second consecutive year. His plan to partially fund Ackerman’s near million dollar buyout with private donations backfired as ethics watchdogs and the public cried foul.

Best (or worst) Campaign Fail: Senate Bill 1 and the statewide voucher effort
Gov. Corbett called the passage of vouchers his top legislative priority. His voucher campaign was years in the making and fueled by millions of dollars of investment, the establishment of Astroturf groups like Students First, multiple visits by Students First founder Michelle Rhee, and a flip-flop by former Supt. Ackerman who became a voucher advocate days after leaving the District. In the end, the Governor’s refusal to fund basic public ed soured the public on other experimental and expensive educational ventures. Read more on the unraveling here.

Worst Bait and Switch: Universal Companies and the Promise Neighborhood
Despite an unsatisfactory history as an EMO and no experience running high schools, Universal Companies gained approval amid great fanfare to take over Vare Middle School (a school removed from them as an EMO for its poor performance) and Audenreid High School. The decision was influenced by the claim touted by the Ackerman administration that Universal would win a multimillion dollar federal grant to establish a Promise Neighborhood. Universal failed to win the grant. Although Universal says it still intends to deliver on its Promise Neighborhood, the question is whether the SRC – which had already expressed some misgivings – would have turned schools over to Universal without that promised grant.

Best Transitional Interview: SRC Chair Pedro Ramos
In a smart and focused interview before his appointment, Ramos laid out a clear priority on financial stability, ethics, school safety and the public trust. A sharp and stark contrast to the overworked "for the children" messaging of the previous administration.

Worst Video: the Arlene Ackerman tribute video
A 13-minute testimony to the departing superintendent’s craven insecurities and stunning solipsistic (un)reality.

Most Inspirational Video: South Philadelphia High School student activists Bach Tong and Wei Chen at Netroots Nation
Tong and Chen, who helped lead a boycott around racial violence at their school and continue to organize for education justice, gave an acceptance speech for the Freedom From Fear Award in front of thousands at the annual Netroots Nation conference. True “hometown Philadelphia heroes” said Netroots Nation Chair Adam Bonin, who named their speech one of the highlights of the conference.

Best 2 Minute Shot of Optimism in Philadelphia Schools' Future: Sinnea Douglas
2011 Science Leadership Academy grad and spoken word poet Sinnea Douglas performs "When I Become a Teacher" - and reminds us what this education struggle is really all about.

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