The following commentary by Lisa Haver was published by The Inquirer on September 11, 2008.
July 9 was a great day for the people of Philadelphia. The first meeting of the newly appointed Board of Education signaled the end of our long school governance nightmare.
The new nine-member board has made symbolic gestures toward breaking with the infamous past of the School Reform Commission, such as opening public spaces at district headquarters and refurbishing with some of the artwork confiscated from district schools and offices over 15 years ago.
The board has also begun to institute meaningful reforms, including establishing committees so that those with a stake in the district can engage in more meaningful participation beyond their allotted three-minute testimony, maybe even engage in dialogue with board members. The board even discussed resolutions before voting on them, a sight rarely seen during the 17-year reign of the SRC.
But a true “break with the past,” as promised by former SRC chair and now board president Joyce Wilkerson at that first meeting, means a thorough rejection of the devastating agenda carried out by the SRC.
The SRC was imposed on the city for the purpose of carrying out the corporate, free-market agenda, the same privatization plan carried out in cities across the country: Close neighborhood public schools; expand charters, then make them almost impossible to close when they fail; and force children to take standardized tests every year, then use those test scores to label them and their schools failing in order to justify charter-izing or closing them. Many decisions rubber-stamped by the SRC were made in the boardrooms of private foundations and nonprofits. As it became increasingly clear that this “reform” did little more than destabilize the city’s public schools and neighborhoods, Philadelphians voted by a 2-1 margin for a nonbinding resolution to dissolve the SRC.
The board must abandon the destructive spending priorities of the SRC and implement time-tested reforms.
In addition to lowering class size from 33 students, the district, now enjoying some semblance of financial stability, should bring back the remaining support staff laid off four years ago—reading specialists, non-teaching assistants, counselors, classroom aides for students with special needs. This board could signal its intention to improve the lives of our students by bringing back fully functioning school libraries. It’s a disgrace that there are fewer than 10 certified librarians in a district of more than 200 schools.
The board must bring back an equitable system. A first step would be to abolish the district’s philanthropic Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, whose board meets in private to “help set funding priorities.” Schoolchildren should not be placed in the role of charity recipients.
All funding decisions should be made in public, by the duly appointed Board of Education. We should not maintain an undemocratic structure in which unknown individuals or corporations can decide which schools will be lucky enough to receive money for basic resources.
One of the biggest challenges the district faces is lack of funding from Harrisburg. The board should join with the Pennsylvania School Board Association to become more vocal advocates for fair funding. But we have to make sure that the dollars we get are spent on improving every classroom in every school. Outsourcing millions every year to consulting firms for teacher-training programs of questionable quality do nothing to improve education for our students.
The board must invest in neighborhood schools and stop approving new charter schools. The district cannot afford them. Don’t renew charters that do not meet standards. Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on schools that promised to educate children better than district schools but now want standards lowered when they have clearly failed to do so.
What local control will look like is up to the board members themselves. They must be accountable, above all, to their constituents—the students, parents, educators, and community.