We Are Not Customers

School District of Philadelphia Board of Education Action Meeting Testimony

October 20, 2022

by Diane Payne

Action Item 7,9,17,18, & 21 all fail to include the dollar amount of each item on the agenda. It would be easy to assume these are no cost items yet the total of these items comes to $877,000. The agenda should be trusted to give us the dollar amount for each Action Item. Dr. Watlington has concluded Phase 2 of his transition plan. After completing 90 listening sessions and 900 surveys there is reason to be concerned about the results of all this “listening”. Wikipedia defines community engagement as: “a dynamic relational process that facilitates communication, interaction, involvement, and exchange between an organization and a community for a range of social and organizational outcomes.” With that definition in mind, looking at district claims to “engagement” raises the question of whether these efforts are performative or substantive.

Early indicators from actions taken are cause for concern. When the Superintendent identifies district stakeholders as customers and goes so far as to create a new position devoted to “customer service” a worrisome concern of performative arises. It hard to believe the listening sessions or surveys produced any stakeholder referring to themselves as customers. It is insulting and disengaging to use this term. Words matter.

In her doctoral dissertation, Kerry McKeon, Univ of Texas studied the rhetoric and linguistic choices of Betsy DeVos in her pursuit of advancing the privatization of public schools. McKeon stated, “DeVos sought to create a market of education choices and so-called freedom by depicting families as customers and education as a product.” To hear Dr. Watlington echo DeVos language yet lay claim to listening is not reassuring.

District claims to engagement are frequently perceived as nothing more than performative. Far too often, district actions do not mirror what participants are saying.