Save (All) Our Schools

(September 2013)

The concept of public schooling means a lot to me, which is why -- despite the fact that my children are getting the "best" of public education in Philadelphia -- the state of the School District and the debate over its future are downright depressing.  It doesn't take a Pew poll to tell us that confidence in Philadelphia public education is desperately low.  A glance at the dwindling number of children enrolled in district schools and the long waiting lists to get into even the most abysmal charter schools, confirms that the District is operating as an option of last resort for far too many families.  More depressing is that, instead of demanding major change in the way the Commonwealth delivers educational services, we are pointing fingers and fighting amongst ourselves here in Philadelphia while our children, and the city, suffer.

I am a passionate believer in the value of a system of public education that exposes each generation to the diversity of our communities and the struggles we all share to make our world a better place.  If we don't experience that in school, we certainly will never learn it in life and maybe even if the only thing we learn in school is that people from different backgrounds exist and can come together in the classroom, on the sports fields, and in social environments, that's a pretty good life foundation.  

I attended neighborhood public schools in Northeast Philadelphia.  My grandparents graduated from Southern and Olney.  Mom was a Germantown Bear and Dad was -- like me -- a Northeast Viking.  I married a Central woman (something not many Northeast men could claim before women were admitted just a generation ago) who shares my feelings for public schools and we had our children certain that we would make public schools work us.  

We purchased a home in a neighborhood with an elementary school that had a decent reputation, but the playground question we heard was always something like, "will you send your kids to private school or leave the city?" Many, many of our young play-date pals have moved out or committed to spend tens of thousands each year to enroll in a non-public school.  With the emergence of credible charter options and some new choices within the School District, that conversation changed in an exciting way and suddenly young parents were talking about new schools and new reasons to believe in Philadelphia's system of public education.

Twelve years and three children later, my good news is that the system remains the right choice for us.  The elementary school in our neighborhood is "one of the good ones."  Still, we took a chance and were lucky enough to win a spot in a high-performing charter school that stresses international citizenship and language immersion.  Our students performed well enough to be accepted into the District's best academic magnet school.  We were fortunate that we could afford to pick our neighborhood, we were lucky that we "won" the lottery to get into a great charter school, and we were blessed with high-achieving students who got the grades to be accepted into the best school in the Commonwealth.  

Make no mistake, the schools my children attend are suffering the stress of budget cuts and the District's woes -- we get regular emails asking us to volunteer for once-staffed positions and to donate paper and pens -- and we certainly have a long "wish list" for our schools, but the system of public education in Philadelphia is basically working for us.

However, I know all too well that not all parents can afford to choose their neighborhood and move to the catchment area of a "good" school.  I know that not every family gets lucky enough to end up in a high-performing charter school (and I know that many charter schools are lousy schools or even outright frauds).  Certainly, I know that too many children are not fortunate to have the necessary support in their schools and in their homes to succeed academically.

It remains a tragedy that across Pennsylvania public school districts are underfunded and constantly fighting a losing battle for resources.  We can quibble over the details but the dominant themes of public education here remain that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania does not provide adequate resources to ensure all students’ academic success and that, as a result, local districts are forced to levy higher tax rates to try to provide adequate resources -- or do without necessary funding.  Yes, I know that there are plenty of places where Philadelphia's School District wastes money and where we should absolutely do more with less, but compared to other states, Pennsylvania contributes less to public education and forces localities to pay more for public education, damning too many children in less-wealthy jurisdictions to do without adequate educational resources while forcing taxpayers in wealthier jurisdictions to dig deeper in their pockets to try to compensate.

Fighting to change the way Pennsylvania funds public education -- and how state leaders fail so miserably to meet the State Constitution's mandate to provide a thorough and efficient education -- is a fight that Philadelphians should fight along with residents of Pittsburgh, Altoona, Lock Haven, and Benezette.  Instead, in Philadelphia, too many of our leaders and educational advocates are fighting among themselves, pitting advocates of the "traditional" neighborhood schools against special admission and charter schools, all in a battle to slice the pie of inadequate resources.

If we do not end the local squabbling and do not work together to make major changes at the state level, we are destined for failure and the system of public education that my family believes in so strongly will be no more.  Public schools cannot be only a lowest common denominator.  One of the strengths of Philadelphia's system of public education has been its ability to serve high achievers in academics, stand-outs in the performing arts, and students with so interests from agriculture to engineering to foreign affairs.  Public school as a one-size-fits-all, no-choice system has not been the Philadelphia way for generations and the options offered to today's parents are giving so many reasons to believe in public education.  A great way to build on that success would be to stop the infighting and to mobilize together to fix the inequities in state funding so all public schools can have the resources to succeed.