Philly is in the midst of a heated conflict over the future of public education, and everyone is watching to see what new Superintendent William Hite will do. After months of misleading language from politicians and shadowy groups that have taken up the city’s schools as their cause, we desperately need an honest broker.
The doublespeak began in April, with the release of Boston Consulting Group’s (BCG) “blueprint” for restructuring the school district, closing dozens of schools, potentially privatizing those that remained, breaking unions and decimating district headquarters. The plan projected that charters would teach 40 percent of students by 2017. Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen pre-sented the plan in corporate speak: “portfolios,” “right-sizing,” “entrepreneurialism” and, of course, “competition.”
This summer, the rhetoric continued with a “school choice” fundraising campaign by the Philad-elphia School Partnership (PSP), which framed the debate as about more “high-performing seats” and fewer “low-performing seats.” Their program individualizes the solutions to public education’s ills — and sidelines communities that want to turn their schools around. On Monday, PSP finally made a donation to a public school, after months of heavy criticism.
Education reformers, flush with corporate and foundation dollars, have changed the terms of the debate, pitting “bad teachers” against “bad parents.” And Mayor Nutter has helped trivialize it, calling questions about the blueprint “esoteric debates that ultimately don’t mean anything.”
These are the standard talking points. And they’re misleading. There is a serious difference of opinion, and major political forces are colliding. It does Philadelphians a disservice to pretend otherwise.
Last Saturday, 300 teachers, students and com-munity members gathered at a Kensington high school to develop an alternative to the BCG plan. They highlight the flip side of the school district’s message, asserting that charter schools are contributing to the fiscal crisis; that they lack oversight despite rampant corruption; and that they fail to outperform public schools even while erecting illegal barriers to student entry.
To swing the pendulum, the movement to save public schools must unite the community to fight for fair funding and real schooling — and against poverty, segregation and the conversion of schools into test-prep boot camps. The striking teachers in Chicago made those demands in clear language, and advocates here need to do the same.