Mayor Nutter forgot the meaning of "public" in public ed

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to hear a Pennsylvania politician questioning the very definition and premise of public education. It may surprise you that Philadelphia’s leading Democrat is on record saying public vs. private ought to be meaningless when it comes to education.

At a press conference Thursday, Mayor Nutter said parents deserve school choice and that public, private, religious designations don’t matter. In his talk, the Mayor went on to say:

"I’m not getting caught up in all this. At my level, these are esoteric debates that ultimately don't mean anything to these young people sitting here in this room.”

Children care about their teachers, recess, lunch and whether they’re in a safe learning environment.

“That’s what this is all about,” he cried out.

While the mayor certainly hasn’t been hanging around the high schoolers I know, he may be right that my nine-year-old isn’t really paying attention to such discussions.

Does that mean we shouldn’t either?

Ask a parent who can’t dream of paying a $26,100 tuition bill from Penn Charter whether a quality free public elementary school in their neighborhood is a matter of meaningless “esoteric debate.”

Philadelphia public schools are 85% students of color and 80% economically disadvantaged. We have 20,000 children classified as special need and almost 12,000 English language learners. Is it “meaningless” that private and religious institutions hold the right to discriminate against and exclude those whom they choose not to serve? There’s no mandate for private schools to provide language services for new immigrants, serve special needs students, or take recently adjudicated youth. They have the right to promote religious scripture and denounce same sex orientation. They have the right to deny collective bargaining and employ non-certified teachers.

Would the Mayor consider it a matter of meaningless “esoteric debate” to take some lessons from Philadelphia’s failed history with privateeers like Edison Schools Inc. which exploited public funds for private gain with miserable results? Is it meaningless to take a look at our neighbors in Chester City and consider the fractured relationship they have with a charter school run by a for-profit company and a bankrupt school district?

I’m sure our governor would love for us to call concerns about transparency with voucher programs like the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) “meaningless” and “esoteric.” A recent New York Times investigation found that EITC programs nationwide permit forfeited tax dollars to go toward private and religious institutions that might otherwise be blocked from receiving public monies.

No matter to Pennsylvania. Since 2001, PA has diverted close to $400 million to organizations that give out the scholarships. The state's program was cited extensively in the Times investigation for questionable practices. And Harrisburg just approved a new $50 million per year tax credit targeted toward students who live in areas with low-performing schools.

Notably, the Times cited the architects of the program who crowed about the intricate and ingenious ways they were able to evade scrutiny. Perhaps if fewer people treated this as an “esoteric” subject, maybe there would be more public accountability.

We have more than a decade of money and broken promises poured into the idea that there’s some magic solution to neglected public schools. Philadelphia has been ground zero for every manner of experimentation from reformers touting the miracles of the private sector. When the Mayor calls the “public” in public education a mere label, he dumbs down important conversations about what lessons we’ve gained from using public funds for too many failed private enterprises.

He plays into widespread disinvestment in public education and the resulting gross inequities. He gives cover to a Governor whose billion dollar slashing of public education funding and promotion of private and charter enterprises has resulted in school districts across the state starved to the point of dysfunction.

Thanks to such efforts a Philadelphia public school classroom is $78,000 poorer than a classroom in a surrounding suburb. Three-quarters of our elementary schools lack a certified librarian. We’ve got one nurse for every 1500 students and a mindset that only guarantees nursing care for the “medically fragile.” Is it any surprise that the choice debate is here and not in Lower Merion which generously funds its schools?

The Mayor’s right that we don’t need meaningless esoteric debates. What parents want is a free, safe, well resourced neighborhood public school for our kids and we want to know why politicians can move heaven and hell to make everything BUT that a priority.

We want a smart conversation about the things our public schools SHOULD provide to every child and what resources it will take to make that happen. We want our political leaders to know that a public school is a communal responsibility – not a matter of individual whims.

Most of all we need our Mayor to understand that - at his level - underfunded public schools serving high poverty, high needs children versus a failed history of exploitation and privatization is never a meaningless esoteric debate.

This Mayor Thinks the Chamber of Commerce is God

Great article as always, Helen. But this comment from Nutter should be no surprise. He's the guy who went to the Chamber of Commerce to veto a modest measure to require paid leave for workers too ill to go to work. He figured that the Chamber was such a highly respected entity in Philly that the Chamber's endorsement of his veto would be all he needed to get him respect and credibility for screwing sick workers. To top it off, he cited as his sole rationale for the veto, the fact that the Chamber had produced a study that said it would be bad for business. Who could doubt the veracity of that study?

And of course Nutter is hell-bent on privatizing PGW because adding a profit margin to PGW bills is something all we ratepayers so desperately need.

Nutter will soon be done with the public sector. You can expect much additional sucking up to big business in coming months as he tries to find the most lucrative landing spot available to him in January, 2016.


Lisa Haver

Great piece, Helen. I guess when you have an SRC which no longer feels compelled to listen to the people--the non-money people, that is--then you have no need for any kind of discussion.

its impossible for philadelphia to have the same funding as

Lower merion while there is local funding of schools. In Australia the fed govt hands out100% of the money for schools to the States based on how how many pupils there are in each state. The state then hands out the money to each ind school on an equal per pupil amount. There are no local school boards and no local control. Obviously this will never happen in America. One thing that philadelphia could copy from Australia is our sysytem where starting in 11th grade calculus and one of physics or chemistry are compulsory as core subjects and all core subjects have to be passed in order to graduate. Every student has a pretty good idea whether or not that's doable for them and if they know they cant,they switch over to a 100% vo tech, 0% academic program for 11th and 12th grade and graduate at 18 years old as a certified electrician, plumber, or nurse etc. I realise there is one hs in Philly that does that for c.n.a. and I think bok has a welders program but these schools are very few and the kids still only get about 50% of their time in trade training and 50% of the time for academics. I realise the unions maybe against such a program as we have in Australia ( the electricians union only takes in 50 apprentices a year,while in my home town of Newcastle ,with a pop of 400k we have about 150 certified electricians coming out of 12 th grade every year. ) but its something to consider. My step grandson just graduated from a non.magnet h.s.and teaching him regular academic work these last two years was the biggest waste of tax payer money imaginable .he is def not college bound and has no skills and now has to get a 6 k loan to enrole in ITT Tech. Electricians program in January ( since hes a p. Rican he had zero chance of making it into the the electricians union apprentice program). I have been told ,but dont know if its true ,that Philadelphia as recently as the 60s had a rigorous votech program in every school but that the do gooders got rid of it due to chargers of racism in terms of who was put on the academic track and who was put into vo tech. Time to consider bringing it back.


First, yes on voc ed, and the SRC has chosen to make this an articulated priority. It would be worthwhile to ask the SRC if voc ed is to be a priority how we can make it so in our schools when we're constantly cutting them. I think Bok lost $1M last year. How is its new principal experienced in voc ed field and how will she promote it? It would be nice for the building trades to engage on this issue as a priority as well.

Second, the point was not to equate Lower Merion and Philly, but to point out that the Governor's defunding of education has put more emphasis on localities, exacerbating inequities between wealthy and poor counties and destabilizing districts across the state. The Mayor plays into this by saying public, parochial, private - at his level, it shouldn't matter when the exact opposite is the case. Language and rhetoric matter for a head of government - especially in these times.

def yes on promotion

I have a step niece who graduated frankford who is paying 1500 to do a c.n.a. course at some for profit college,and she had absolutely no idea there was a Philly h.s where she could have done the course for free

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