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As Newton’s Third Law tells us: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
It’s true not only in physics, but in the messy world of public school politics as well.
All the action in recent months has been centered on two things: attempts to extract more money from the state, the city, anybody! for the district; and attempts by the district to extract work rule and wage-and-benefit concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
Both attempts have failed.
As a result, Superintendent William Hite — determined to live with a balanced budget — laid off nearly 4,000 employees. Some have been brought back, but most schools are still struggling. There are not enough counselors, school nurses, office aides, librarians, etc. and so forth. It’s a mess, and it is likely to be a mess for the foreseeable future.
Enter the reaction.
The public is disgusted. Asked in a recent Pew poll to rate the public schools, only 18 percent said they were good or excellent. (At last the public schools have something in common with Gov. Corbett. Both have lousy approval ratings. His is currently 16 percent.)
As Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative points out, the district’s numbers have been declining steadily. The public schools approval rating was 30 percent in 2009; it dropped to 24 percent in 2010; slid to 23 percent in 2012. And so it goes.
When asked how much a difference the school crisis will make, 23 percent of those polled said it will mean families will start leaving the city; while 48 percent said it will prompt families to look for other educational opportunities within the city.
When 71 percent of the people say, in effect, “Help! Get us out of here,” you’ve got a problem.
The public schools are becoming our Albania, circa 1985; a dismal place where no one really wants to be. A footnote: when the Communist regime fell in 1992 and the borders opened, more than 900,000 Albanians fled their country.
In short, the reaction is likely to be far more lasting and significant than the action.
The public schools, which always have had a fragile hold on public opinion, are sinking to new lows. Small, hopeful gains made over the last 10 years — more specialized schools, more diversity of educational offerings, a more serious effort to attract and hold middle-class parents — will be erased by the current toxic mix of stalemate and instability.
Imagine yourself as a parent with a three year old. What do you see on the news? Stories about schools without nurses, about Central and Masterman closing their libraries, about the lack of basic supplies, about how one guidance counselor is serving 900 students in three schools. It’s a dystopian nightmare.
Public school advocates dream that this bad news will mobilize the public to pressure the city and state to cough up more money.
In reality, according to the polls, the bad news is far more likely to mobilize parents to grab their car keys and go looking for homes in the burbs. Or get on the waiting list at city charters. Or consider sending little Johnny to that Catholic school around the corner.
If parents mobilize for anything, they are likely to push the district to open more charter schools or smile upon the request of existing charters to increase their number of seats by 15,000. Charters currently have a waiting list in excess of 30,000.
Because of its money woes, the district has put a hold on charter expansion. Charters are independently-run schools paid for with public school funds. The money come from the district’s budget and make up an ever increasing part of it.
Ironically, there is a way to get more money from the state in a way that will help the district and the charters.
One thing Gov. Corbett did upon taking power in 2011 was to zero out a state program that helped districts meet the costs of charters. The fund totaled $300 million and was meant to be disbursed statewide, but since Philadelphia has such high charter enrollment, it got a big chunk of the money.
If Corbett restarted that program in next year’s budget, $100-million plus could flow to the district, helping it balance its budget and allowing it to restart charter expansion.
Odd that the public school advocates never mention this in their pleas to Corbett to help the schools. It would be a perfect way for the conservative governor to help Philadelphia without looking like he is helping Philadelphia.
But, they are silent on this issue because charters are anathema to them and they do not want to see them helped in any way, even indirectly. They want parents to keep their children in Albania. Excuse me, I meant the public schools.
Once people begin to cross the borders, though, it is tough to herd them back. For the last 10 years, public school parents have been voting with their feet and fleeing to charters.
The current troubles will push more in the same direction. It’s the only option for parents who don’t have the means to send their kids to private schools or move to Narberth.
This is a new day in public education. Competition is the norm, not the exception.
That’s the message Hite keeps sending out when he talks about changes in work rules. A longer school day, giving more power to the principal, ending school assignments based solely on seniority, will create public schools better able to compete against the array of other options out there. Alas, he keeps getting drowned out by the shouters.
The PFT would prefer not to dwell on such matters. The union has already decided to sacrifice several thousand of its members rather than make economic concessions. And it has no desire to change work rules. It doesn’t do compete.
There are those within the union who believe it must change in order to survive. But, none dare speak that heresy out loud. The narrative the unions and its supporters insist upon is that they are engaged in a fight to uphold the rights of workers and to slay the evil forces out to kill public education.
To them, it looks like a noble crusade. To me, it looks like a suicide in progress.