Philadelphia School District

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.

How we run our schools: the budget fight within the budget fight

Yesterday School District officials presented their budget request to City Council - an additional $70-100 million above the regular allocation - to fill an over $600m projected shortfall. The hook is that the District has threatened to otherwise end a slate of programs that are more integral than accessory: full day kindergarten, schools that serve the most vulnerable kids, tokens that get students to and from school. Today Council will hear public comment, and has a long list of people already signed up to testify.

So despite reports that the mayor has already committed to find the money, there is no straight line to how this would get done. There seems to be deep public and political support for fully funding public education in the city, but no consensus yet as to the least painful way to raise the money.

And there are also sharp questions about the District's own spending priorities, powerfully outlined by Parents United (and posted by Helen, below). These questions only get fueled by reporting like today's Inquirer tally of the cost of the District's internal investigation into whistleblowing over its contracting practices. The District should respond, and hopefully this budget process can become a tool to compel a real two-way conversation.

While working for Councilwoman Sanchez, I had the opportunity to visit Fairhill Community School, one of the drop-out prevention programs that is threatened. Most often when kids are corralled onto a panel to talk to a bunch of politicians, no one says anything particularly interesting. But there, every student who spoke told an arresting story - of how they came to the school, and how the respect and engagement they felt there was unlike anything they had experienced before. Each kid was 1000% clear that they would have never made it through their regular high school, or had already dropped out, because the lack of safety and size at places like Fels made it impossible for them to get the support they needed to deal with school on top of pretty harrowing life circumstances. And many, many of these students were girls raising children. If the District did go through with ending alternative schools like Fairhill, aimed at drop-out prevention and returning kids to school, there is no substitute. These kids will not graduate. We can't seriously allow them to be treated as a bargaining chip in the budget, and at the very least any additional funds should be securely targeted for the threatened programs.

But there will surely be additional cuts (language support is proposed to be halved), given the shortfall. We have to look beyond the obvious crises and consider the full budget picture, and insist on a real role for the mayor, Council, and public in deciding priorities and how and where cuts are made.

Desegregation almost 40 years on: update on the School District settlement

This is what happens when a desegregation lawsuit is almost forty years old when it gets settled: the problem's still there, but what is understood as necessary for effective desegregation has evolved. So today when a settlement agreement is presented to the court for approval, the balance of power between the district and its unionized teachers is on the table as well.

The same schools that are defined as 'racially isolated' (90% or more African-American or Latino) are stuck with many of the most inexperienced teachers, with damaging rates of attrition and unfilled permanent teaching positions. The consent decree that would settle the lawsuit would commit the district to ditching the current system (a result of contract negotiations with the teachers' union) where the most senior teachers have first choice of school assignments. The switch may be necessary, but it's an open question whether it would be part of meaningful reform or simply be another one-way shift of power between Ackerman and the teachers:

"Site selection" ideally means that a school counsel, or selection committee made up of a principal, peer-selected teachers and perhaps community members, may interview and hire teachers at that school rather than have teachers assigned by district headquarters.

Under the current PFT contract, a 50/50 site-selection system is in place, with half of a school's vacancies filled by seniority and the other half by site selection.

Some teachers say that they accept the idea of full site selection at the targeted schools - with some conditions.

"A site-selection panel needs to consist of the principal and teachers chosen by their peers to ensure integrity and not favoritism in the selection process," said Sharon Newman Ehrlich, a member of TAG and a teacher at Edison/Fareira High School.

"The bottom line is, the poorest students and the students of color have the highest number of inexperienced and ineffective teachers, the highest rates of teacher-turnover at their schools, the largest number of vacancies, long-term substitutes, teachers teaching outside their subject area and a host of other issues," Nijmie Dzurinko, of the Philadelphia Student Union, said Friday.

As of Friday, the union was reportedly considering its legal options with regards to the proposed consent decree.

Helen, Parents United get the School District More Money

This happened today:

In a surprise move apparently orchestrated by mayor elect Michael Nutter and State Rep. Dwight Evans, the Philadelphia Parking Authority said it would transfer an additional $6.77 million to the city's general fund and school district over the next two fiscal years.

The funds - which come principally from the agency's reserves and non-parking enforcement divisions - will allow the Parking Authority to meet its budgeted payments to the city and, for the first time 2004, have a little cash left over for the School District of Philadelphia: $1.25 million this year, and $1.75 million next year.

Nutter announced the plan - which was detailed in a letter from Parking Authority Exectuive director addressed to Nutter - at an authority board meeting this morning. Parents of public school students were in attendance, and they had planned to sharply criticize the agency failure to fund the schools.

"You should be commended for your effort," Nutter told the parents, but he reminded them the authority was "not created solely to solve all the financial problems of the school district."

He said his administration and the state-run parking authority would work closely together.

Make zero mistake as to why the school district will be getting a little bit more money over the next couple years: Because of the leadership of Parents United for Public Education, and our own Helen Gym (Mansei).

Obviously, it is not going to cut a hole in the billion dollars or two we need to really get schools going, but, this is a small victory won totally on the backs of caring, dedicated parents. Is it enough? I don't think so, considering that the whole rationale for taking the authority over was to give far more money to the schools. But, it is a start, and I will defer to Helen as to what the next steps are with the PPA and their school funding.

In the end, the bloated PPA needs to be returned to the City, and needs the patronage wheel ended.

In the meantime, great job, Helen.

PFT Contract terms

I know Michael Nutter has a big job ahead of him with negotiating many union contracts, including the PFT contract which is due in August 2008. I am wondering what the current terms of the PFT contract are but have not been able to locate a copy online, which I thought would be available because it is a public contract. Does anyone know where (or if) I could get access?

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