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Stop the Public Education Blame Game

A longtime university president responds to a recent Citizen column by urging us to work for constructive solutions that support public education for all students

Stop the Public Education Blame Game

A longtime university president responds to a recent Citizen column by urging us to work for constructive solutions that support public education for all students

In a Citizen guest commentary last week, retired Boys’ Latin founder David P. Hardy got a few things right. He says that Philly’s crime problem is “not just Larry Krasner’s fault.” What a relief! In contrast to what Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature believe, impeaching Larry Krasner is not the only way to make crime disappear from Philadelphia streets.

Hardy, however, does not go on to point out what has been working to fight crime in other cities — Chester, PA, Camden and Newark, NJ. Those attending the Citizen’s December 15 Ideas We Should Steal Festival heard that a substantial reduction in crime in Chester resulted from close coordination among mayor, police chief, and district attorney. What a concept! Communicate — that’s something Philly could actually do rather than pointing fingers of blame.

Another idea that Hardy got right — improved education will reduce crime. He writes:

Philadelphia’s crime problem today is — at least in part — explained by decades of failing our students. An inadequate education not only hurts our children’s futures but impacts their communities as well.

But then Hardy goes very, very wrong. His villain is Jerry Jordan, the longtime leader of Philadelphia’s teachers’ union. Jordan’s major sin on Hardy’s list? Fighting against the reallocation of resources from Philadelphia public schools to charter schools and vouchers. Hardy continues the blame game — maybe because it’s easier to do than to figure out what might really work to improve education and reduce crime.

Enough of Hardy. Since I’m against the blame game, I won’t devote any more space to villainizing this charter school founder and senior fellow at free-market public policy think tank, The Commonwealth Foundation. To achieve a balanced view of the issues, I refer you to Research for Action (RFA), founded in Philadelphia in 1982, “to use research as the basis for the improvement of educational opportunities and outcomes for traditionally underserved and marginalized students.”

Of particular interest is The Pennsylvania Clearinghouse for Education Research (PACER). Here you will find studies that relate crime reduction to equitable education for all students.

We must invest resources in Philadelphia public schools

In 2001, Congress enacted “No Child Left Behind” — a law with a great title, even though its provisions, with an emphasis on standardized testing, did not live up to its name. As 2023 dawns, we must revive our commitment to equitable, inclusive education. Diverting funds to charter schools and to vouchers is counter to that goal. Let me be clear: I wholeheartedly support innovative, experimental schools. But these schools must not siphon already inadequate funding from existing public schools.

Why? First, Philly public schools are in serious disrepair. Some schools have lead in the drinking water. That’s a problem that should be remedied before a single penny is invested in a charter school. Ventilation in many Philadelphia public schools is so bad that students were actually better off breathing and learning in virtual environments during the pandemic.

Those urging in-person instruction, which is, of course, desirable, did not take into account the unacceptable threat of infection from poor air circulation. Former Penn President Amy Gutmann did a great thing by investing $100 million dollars of university funds in repairing Philadelphia public schools. But even that sizable amount is not nearly enough to address the situation.

I’m certainly in favor of student and parental choice in schooling. But vouchers cannot come at the cost of abandoning children to schools with unsafe conditions. When schools are repaired, then choice becomes more meaningful.

I’m certainly in favor of student and parental choice in schooling. But vouchers cannot come at the cost of abandoning children to schools with unsafe conditions. When schools are repaired, then choice becomes more meaningful.

Vouchers and charter schools also leave many students behind. Overworked parents struggling to put food on the table do not have the luxury of researching school choice. Students with food and housing insecurity, who might have their one daily healthful meal at school, are not in a position to research the advantages of Boys’ Latin School.

And what about foster kids? Are they in a position to benefit from school choice and vouchers? Perhaps some of the money diverted to charter schools should be invested in making sure those students are not left behind.

Abbott Elementary dramatizes positive possibilities for Philadelphia public schools

If you haven’t already done so, please put ABC’s award-winning sit-com, Abbott Elementary, on your must-watch TV list. The episodes are humorous, entertaining — and true. Creator and star, Quinta Brunson, was educated in Philadelphia public schools. Her mother taught here for a long time.

What’s most striking about Abbott Elementary is that the teachers, who are different in personality and background, love (even like) their students and are committed to educating them. The teachers put up with leaking roofs, inadequate supplies, and competition from the better funded charter school down the street. But they persevere.

This positive image of teachers and classrooms runs counter to the frequently demeaning portrayals of teachers in the media. Teachers — and their unions — are too often characterized as self-serving and money grubbing. It’s hard to watch Abbott Elementary without wanting to campaign for higher teacher salaries. Why should Janine, the character played by Quinta Brunson, have to risk eating a spoiled tuna sandwich or not eat lunch at all? Why must Melissa, played by Lisa Ann Walter, have to use her South Philly connections to get basic supplies for the school?

We must invest in teachers. Whether instruction is delivered online or in person, it’s the teacher who makes it work. It’s the teacher who connects with students in the classroom or on the screen. With no time for preparation, many Philadelphia teachers strove valiantly during the pandemic to use technology creatively. We should not be misled by overall statistics on students’ loss of learning during Covid. Those studies do not take into account the digital divide resulting in low-income students lacking equipment and space for online learning. They do not highlight the success achieved by those teachers who worked hard to make Zoom interactive and rewarding.

If we valued teachers in any way commensurate with their importance to children’s education, we would gladly pay them higher salaries.

If we really want to reduce crime by educating Philadelphia students, then we must invest in all city schools.

I’m a West Philly girl who attended Philadelphia public schools, K-12. I chose John Bartram High School over Girls’ High, the only magnet school available to me at the time. At Bartram, I received an excellent education, preparing me for Phi Beta Kappa attainment and PhD distinction at the University of Pennsylvania. Is that something we can offer to Bartram students today?

In those days, I benefited from Penn’s policy of conferring a full-tuition scholarship to the top student at every Philadelphia public high school. Perhaps, Penn should consider reestablishing that policy, especially if the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits affirmative action in admissions.

Equitable and inclusive education will reduce crime. That will be accomplished by constructive action, not by finger-pointing.

Things we can do:

  • Lobby for inclusive and equitable public education.
  • Invest in public schools before diverting funds to charter schools and vouchers.
  • Support teachers with respect — and higher salaries.
  • Watch “Abbott Elementary” for enjoyment and instruction.

Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.


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