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Our King Canute Moment

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In the unfolding drama called "The Fate of Philadelphia Public Schools," one group has decided to play the role of King Canute.

For those whose English history is a bit dusty, Canute was the 11th century Danish-born king of England who, legend tells us, grew weary of his courtiers' flattery as they told him he was an all-wise, all-powerful ruler. So, he had them transport him to the beach, placed his throne at the water's edge and proceeded to order the ocean tides to halt.  Of course, the tides ignored the king and proceeded to soak his throne and his royal garments and royal feet.

Canute intended it as an ironic lesson for his court. The force of the tides was far beyond his power as a king.

There the parallels end.  There is not a scintilla of irony in the report issued this week by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for the Public Schools (PCAPS), a group that consists of the teachers union, plus community allies such as as the Philadelphia Home and School Council.

Opposed -- vehemently, perpetually -- to changes proposed in the governance and operation of the Philadelphia School District, PCAPS offered a 44-page report that purported to be a "Voice of the People" counter to the district's plan.

To summarize, the people say "No."

They say no to charter schools.  They say no to closing public schools.  They say no to the current level of funding for the schools.  They say no to the School Reform Commission, the state-city board that runs the district.

They say no and no and no and no.

And, like King Canute, they demand that the tides of educational reform that have swept forth in the last 15 years -- the rise of charters, standardized testing of student proficiency, a real evaluation of teachers -- stop.  Just stop. You nasty tides.

The PCAPS report -- I hesitate to call it a genuine plan, it is more of a wet dream -- doesn't offer ways for the district to get out of its current financial troubles (in the red this year, the prospect of a $1 billion deficit over the next four years). In fact, it calls for major new expenditures to hire more teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians and in-school support staff. How to pay for all this? It's simple, PCAPS said.  The state should step forward and provide billions in new dollars to the district.

The district's current deficit, the report says, is a manufactured crisis engineered by Gov. Corbett to weaken public schools and make it easier for (sleazy, for-profit) charters companies to take over operations. 

Once you dismiss the very real financial crisis the district faces as not real at all, everything else becomes easy.

Closing schools?  It shouldn't be done, PCAPS says.  The plan the district came up with to close 40-plus schools did not have the necessary community input.  When you can't argue against the facts -- what to do with schools that are 70 percent empty? -- argue against the process.

Evaluate teachers using test scores?  No, we need subtler, holistic evaluations that minimize student performance and, presumably, also minimize the risk teachers will be held accountable for failure.

The SRC?  The commission is nothing but a tool of the special interests seeking to dismantle public education as we know it and it must go, to be replaced by a locally appointed and controlled board, which will restore things to the way they were.

That last phrase is an important one.  The report never, ever uses the words "the way they were." It resolutely faces the future and declines to look back.

That is wise on the authors' part because the last thing PCAPS wants people to know is that it is not seeking a district of the future, but a district of the past. It wants to go back to those halcyon days when the district was locally controlled, when competition from charters was nonexistent (because there were no charters), when teachers and principals were not held accountable for their schools' performance. It was the "We Pretend to Teach You; You Pretend to Learn" era.

In those days, the answer to all the district's problems was simple: more money from Harrisburg. Each year, the trope was the same: We would do much better if only Harrisburg gave us all we need. (And, parenthetically, the failure of Harrisburg to do so was a manifestation of its racism, pure and simple.)

The needle was stuck on that argument throughout the '90s until the state takeover of the district in 2000. That action resulted in the district getting an exponential increase in state aid throughout the decade until Corbett's first year in office, when he cut the basic education subsidy by refusing to have the state make up for the loss of federal recovery dollars that had sustained educational spending for two years.

Philadelphia was doubly hit because it not only lost its share of the state TARP money; it lost federal money that had come directly to the district.  A $500-million plus deficit resulted.  It has been trying to dig itself out of the hole ever since.

The real question is not: Why did the state cut the school subsidy? The real question is: Why did Arlene Ackerman and company ramp up spending as if it were going to last forever when they knew -- with reasonable certainty -- that it would end? It was a reckless and unsound strategy.  And the current leadership of the district is living with the fallout.

Here is the reality of the situation: The district's financial problems are real.  They are not going to be solved by a magic-wand waving in Harrisburg.

The problem the folks in PCAPS face is not due to a vast right-wing conspiracy to destroy public education.  The problems they face have to do with the injection of competition into public-school choice. Given an alternative to the public schools, parents have voted with their feet.  They have fled to charters -- and data shows they are very happy with their decision. In fact, charters have waiting lists of many thousands of parents who want their children in. Herding them back into the public schools is not a realistic option, no matter the dreams of PCAPS.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which is the engine that drives PCAPS, has the option of competing. It has the option to make the public schools compare favorably with the charters.  But, that would mean changes in its work rules and wage and benefit structure and so many things the union holds dear. 

If you can't or won't compete, if you are in denial about the new reality in education, if you want change to cease and desist now, what do you do?  You order the tides to stop.

-- Tom Ferrick

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