Where’s the will to fix schools?

Opinion May 8, 2013 6 Comments

by Pete Mazzaccaro

As the school year enters its final six weeks, the future of Philadelphia’s public schools looks as grim as ever.

Short more than $300 million and having no interested parties willing to act to close the financing hole, the School District of Philadelphia has proposed a brutally austere budget that would limit nursing staff and eliminate art and music teachers, security officers and counselors.

The school district has asked for more funding. It would be funding that looks as if it would have to come from a tax increase locally, which City Council is not eager to do. The district has asked the state to give it $120 million, another amount that does not at this point seem likely.

Urban school districts have had an incredibly difficult time educating children and being fully funded for as long as I remember. And yet, as old as the problem is, the will to make changes – to actually fix the problem – remains elusive.

It’s easy to guess why that is. We’re not a nation that tends to care a whole lot about other people’s problems, particularly if we think they’re the problems of people who are poor – people who haven’t worked hard enough to move to a better school district. I’ll watch my block, you watch yours.

Instead of answering the real question: “Are we doing everything we can to make sure our children are getting a good education?” we debate about that which is difficult to quantify, such as optimal expense per student, and punish schools who score poorly on national tests, when reason should indicate those are precisely the schools that need the most help.

Politics aside, we’re allowing a pretty terrible thing to happen – we’re preventing thousands of children from getting a solid education in a school where they can feel safe and supported. The right thing to do is to do whatever it takes, regardless of money and regardless of established institutional safeguards. What we have doesn’t work. It’s time to figure out why and do something about it.

The effect of continued neglect of children – particularly at the early elementary levels – is devastating. Poor educational opportunities have dire consequences on future prospects –from mental well-being to socioeconomic achievement. Every year that goes by is an opportunity lost for these kids.

I won’t pretend to have answers on how we can fix schools. Clearly it’s easier said than done. We’ve been struggling with the issue for generations.

What we can do is recognize that education is an essential component of a healthy society. It should not be just about parents looking out for their kids. Whether you have kids or not, you have skin in this game. A better education now will absolutely lead to better future for everybody.

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  • donnaw34

    As a Chestnut Hill resident and English teacher at one of the Philadelphia public high schools that will be closed in June due to a lack of funding, I can tel you the answer to your question in one word: apathy.

  • Michael

    I don’t think anyone would disagree with you Pete, but the issue is unfortunately highly political and intimately involves a major political power broker: unions. I think the problem is that the Teachers Union needs to expand membership, and the way they have done that is by forcing the School District to become and remain bloated with highly-paid, dues-paying administrators that really have no bearing on the overall quality of either the education provided or academic environment, but do indeed drastically increase costs and drag down the District’s finances – how else would a district that spends nearly $10k/pupil underperform so badly? Its because instead of putting that money to use by hiring/keeping good teachers, buying the children good supplies, and supporting enrichment programs such as art and music classes like suburban or union-free schools with half the budget manage to do, the union that is heavy on administrators in power positions “poisons the well” every time the district tries to rein in costs by intentionally trying to inflict the highest pain quotient on parents and students by putting teachers who should be paid more and should also be the last ones to be cut out on the chopping block and insisting that whole schools be shut down instead of everyone else who isn’t teaching or adding educational value who really need to be cut…then screaming in demonstrations that the district is “hurting the children.” It’s really an awful, cynical dynamic and until it is changed, nothing will really improve – I sure won’t be sending my kids to the PSD, even if Jenks is an exception to the rule.

    • Dave L

      Is there anything some people won’t blame unions for? This has nothing to do with unions. This is about a country that for no good reason except to be unfair, bases education funding on property taxes. It’s about a country that specializes at spending astronomical amounts of money to put people in prison, but won’t invest money in keeping them out of prison in the first place. This leads to the chaos that nearlly all PSD schools routinely deal with. And to some extent, it’s about people like you, that use unions as a scapegoat and distract people from the real reasons. And as Donna mentioned…it’s about apathy.

      • http://profiles.google.com/pmazz04 Pete Mazzaccaro

        I agree with you Dave. I can understand how unions have not always acted in a way that puts the in the best light, but they’re not the issue here. I think teachers should make more, not less. There isn’t a more important job.

        • Michael

          Dave, first of all I have no idea how you turned my comment into something about ‘fairness’ or there not being enough money…again, the school district ($14.5k per pupil!) already outspends the national and PA average on a per-pupil basis, so its not about the property tax funding system not providing adequate funds…the district already receives and spends more per pupil than the average district in the state. Also, shouldn’t that imply the issue here in Philly is more about spending the money more wisely rather than just blindly throwing more money at the issue? Pete, as I said above, I don’t disagree with you that teachers should make more – in fact, I wholeheartedly agree, but you’re throwing out a false choice here by saying it is either i) we must spend more money on a failing district with not much history of success or ii) shortchange our kids. There is a better way if there could be a dialogue of alternatives were introduced into the current dynamic, again, keeping teachers at the front-and-center of the conversation since they’re the ones out on the front lines, but the PFT (again, NOT teachers) has every incentive here to keep things as the status quo – and teachers are unwittingly being exploited by this dynamic.

          • http://profiles.google.com/pmazz04 Pete Mazzaccaro

            The teachers union takes too much of the blame here. They do have an interest in making sure teachers get paid fairly. If they didn’t, lawmakers would no doubt cut back. Accountability is another thing altogether and there, yeah, the union needs to help here, not hinder.

            And not throwing out a choice (false or otherwise). I think everything dhould be on the table. We’re clearly not getting it right. Fresh thinking and fresh action are necessary.