Miracle in Philadelphia or Shuffling Deck Chairs on the Titanic?

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More than 220 years ago, the eyes of our emerging nation were focused on Philadelphia, as our Founding Fathers gathered there to try to create a more perfect union by crafting a new Constitution to replace the flawed Articles of Confederation.

Today, those interested in the future of public education should keep their sights on the City of Brotherly Love again, as its leaders try to remake – some say dismantle – its public school system.

What happens in Philadelphia may well determine the fate of urban public education elsewhere in the nation.

Philadelphia’s woes are similar to those in other urban school districts. The district is in deep financial debt and plagued by violence in many of its schools, and it has too few students reading or doing math at proficiency levels and too many dropping out with no jobs to go to.

Faced with these financial and academic failures, the School Reform Commission (SRC), the school district’s five-member governance structure, recently unveiled a major blueprint to overhaul the city’s schools.

This won’t be the first time an attempt has been made to overhaul the district. In fact, the SRC replaced the former local board of education in 2001, when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took over the city schools. Regardless, the debt has grown worse, and test scores, while improving somewhat, have not kept pace with other cities.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter, both of whom have appointing authority, recently appointed new members to the SRC, setting the stage for the recently announced “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools.”

The blueprint does indeed call for an unprecedented overhaul of the school district: Close 40 of its 257 school buildings in the next 12 months; reduce the central office bureaucracy from 600 to 200 employees; demand financial givebacks from its major unions to the tune of $156 million; increase the share of students attending charter schools from 25 percent to 40 percent; outsource (perhaps) the running of support services such as transportation, facilities management and food services; and, finally, reorganize the remaining schools into small groups called “achievement networks” that will be bid out to be overseen by nonprofits, charter management companies, universities or possibly existing school district employees.

Needless to say, the ink on the plan was barely dry when the battle lines were drawn.

The unions, which are in the crosshairs of the restructuring, are calling it union busting; prominent African-American church leaders are calling the “dismantling” of the district a civil rights issue; others claim it is wholesale privatization. Diane Ravitch, the New York-based nationally renowned education historian and analyst, weighed in, calling the plan no more than “shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Helen Gym, founder of Parents United for Public Education – Philadelphia, told district officials the plan was wanting because “the most basic things parents and staff and students have called for – more teachers in our schools, bilingual counselors, nurses, arts and music, libraries, fresh food in the cafeteria, new buildings and playgrounds – are completely and utterly absent from your plan.”

To the plan’s critics, Nutter barked back, “Grow up and deal with it.”

Time will tell whether the critics will heed the mayor’s advice. It is doubtful. After all, Philadelphia is a tough union town – and the teachers’ union is among the toughest. It is also a city of prideful neighborhoods that don’t take kindly to change, particularly to their neighborhood schools.

But the very fact that this dramatic plan is now in play and some powerful state, city, and school district leaders – Republicans and Democrats – will try to implement it speaks to the frustration over the dismal state of urban public education.

As of now, it is simply a plan on paper. Scores of public meetings need to be held and many details have to be fleshed out before implementation can begin.

More importantly, pressing issues should be addressed: If public education as we know it is dismantled, what actually takes its place? And just how will that improve the educational attainment of tens of thousands of the city’s children who come from impoverished homes with little or no constructive parental involvement or support?

For those concerned about the future of urban education, the Philadelphia story is worth keeping an eye on. Will it prove to be another “Miracle in Philadelphia” like the one in 1787 or, as Diane Ravitch predicted, simply another attempt at “shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic”?

Phil Goldsmith has held several senior positions in Philadelphia, including chief executive officer of the School District in 2000-2001.