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Don't Change a Thing!

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It's hard to defend the status quo when the status quo sucks.

In a nutshell, that is the problem facing PCAPS, the new group set up to oppose plans to reform the Philadelphia school district.

PCAPS, formally known as the Philadelphia Coalition for Public Schools, includes parents, community activists and the teachers union, whose goal is to mobilize public opinion against proposals to change the way the district operates.

Those plans include closing up to 60 underutilized public schools, decentralizing district management, increasing the use of charters as alternatives to district-run schools and holding teachers and principals more accountable for student performance. 

Of all the groups involved in PCAPS, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers stands the most to lose under the plan, which is being considered -- though not yet enacted -- by the School Reform Commission.  For one thing, the PFT could lose members if public schools are turned over to non-unionized charters; for another, the district is likely to seek changes in work rules and seniority rights in the next PFT contract to implement the changes it seeks.

Principals would be given more power under the plan, while the district's central bureaucracy would move away from the French model -- as in 16th century France, with the superintendent as the Sun King.

So far, PCAPS has been sniping at the plan while organizing opposition.  It implies that the proposal is the work of dark and mysterious forces, supported by sinister right-wing outsiders, seeking to privatize the public schools.  The flashpoint is a district proposal to introduce a decentralized "portfolio management" model, which would run clusters of schools.  Under the proposal, managers hired could be from the outside -- such as charter organizations.

But it's hard to rally troops under the flag of opposing "portfolio management," which frankly seems esoteric and small-bore. The words "Portfolio Management" won't even fit on a protest sign.

It should be far easier to rally parents to oppose the closing of neighborhood schools, even if some are ancient buildings that are less than half full.  It's hard for a district in deep financial distress to justify keeping these schools open, but that doesn't mean parents will want them closed. (A list of schools to be closed is due next month.) It's easy to envision very effective S.O.S.  -- as in Save Our School -- signs popping up.

In addition to simply raising a ruckus against all the changes, PCAPS has promised to deliver its own plan for the schools. This is where it will run into difficulty.  Some examples:

The PFT, for instance, is against state testing of student achievement and hates even more the idea of using those results to judge teacher performance. But testing is a state mandate, not a local one, as is using the test results to help evaluate teachers.  You can rail against the School Reform Commission, but you'd have to get the state to change the law to end these practices, and, even if the state agreed, it would run into trouble with the feds. What slogan could rally regular folks to your cause: Accountability? Not My Department! or Stop Being Nosey! End the Tests.

The union is against giving principals the power to decide when it comes to hiring staff, as opposed to the current system where teachers get to place themselves by using seniority. They're also against a longer school day and a longer school year.  These matters are within local purview and subject to negotiations.  But, let me ask -- strictly from a political standpoint -- how do you rally the public around preserving rights and perks for employees who make an average of $70,693 for a 10-month work year?  I can see the signs now: We Want to Go Home! or the universal no sign -- a red circle with a line through the word July.

The organizers dislike the "portfolio management" model, but these same parties have railed for years against the deadening effect of the district's central management, saying it kills innovation in the schools.  Would you like to bring the bad old days back?  Signs: We ♥ Our Bureaucracy! or how about Stifle Us, Please!

The biggest problem facing PCAPS is that it runs into trouble once it begins to make this statement: We do not want to change the way the public schools operate because....

What do you say: because they work so well...? You cannot.  Demonstrably many schools are failing at educating children.

Can you say: because the alternatives offered will not work...? There is no evidence that they will fail.  Besides, more accountability, closing half-empty schools, giving principals more power, ridding the system of its stifling bureaucracy don't seem all that radical.

In politics, if you cannot change minds, you should change the subject.

My best political advice to PCAPS is to avoid substantive discussion of these issues and go for the heart.  Don't talk about accountability, talk about Harrisburg's failure to fund the schools adequately. 

Don't talk about decentralization, talk about the dark and sinister forces seeking to take over the district. Subtext:  It's the man trying to keep us down.

Whatever you do, don't talk about the rights of children to safe schools, where they can learn the skills they need to be successful adults.  Keep the kids out of this.  Talk about worker rights being trampled by the aforementioned sinister forces.

Rent and rave, shout and scream, portray the people who are trying to make this happen as heartless bastards. Blame Harrisburg. Blame Mayor Nutter. Blame Bill Gates. Demonize every opponent of the status quo.

It will work wonders.  It does every time.

-- Tom Ferrick

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