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Don't ignore a house on fire

A house on fire
A house on fire
Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Over the summer and the past year, there have been many articles, national and local, about the state of public education in Philadelphia. Many have discussed the “miracle” budget that will keep the doors open. Some have provided research and data to support the ever increasing rates of poverty, unemployment, and racism that exist in cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and Detroit (read here). A few have provided substantial evidence that the reason for the pension scare tactics is directly related to the deep cuts in funding and demonstrating that the proposed pension reform will only lead to deeper financial woes (read here). A few more show the spidery connections between corporate and political partners that continue to work towards the annihilation of public education as we know it (read here). The School District of Philadelphia and their urban peers have been utilizing band aid tactics for what ails them for years. The lack of funds that continue to be siphoned from central school districts always finds its way somehow to independent operators that offer the secret to safety and high academics for urban children in the form of charter schools. Well today, there is a new plan, the School Redesign Initiative.

A combined focus group featuring local advocates, parents, educators, and stakeholders came together and created a plan that will basically allow a school the opportunity to be redesigned. And guess what? The staff will not have to reapply for jobs because “forcing a teacher to reapply for their jobs demoralizes staff” but they will have to “opt-in” to the new program. Just like all good ideas that come out of a crisis, at times it can prove bad news for the children. Despite the push for transparency and for EVERYONE to be engaged in the development of the new initiative, there is no mention of the larger question, the elephant in the room. If the School District of Philadelphia recently lay off 342 employees and is expecting to lay off 1000+ more if the cigarette tax is not passed then where is the magic money coming from to support such an endeavor? And how is this different than “school transformation” or “school privatization” or "school report cards"?

Once again another weapon of mass distraction is keeping us from focusing on what is vitally important. Months ago some of the same stakeholders were requesting for the SRC to be absolved and for Philadelphia to return to a fully elected school district. Request for calls to Harrisburg to pass the cigarette tax inundated my email box and social media pages. The immorality of the school district once again barely opening its doors with just enough staff to subsist was being yelled across most media channels. And then a switch occurred. Now all that is being discussed is the School Redesign Initiative. An article by one of the top minds in education lauded what it might do and even continued to push for external partnerships to fill the need for internally hired support staff (read here). Despite the fact that all research states that external partnerships with public health and welfare services works best when full health and wellness staff exists internally first. Simply providing parents with the number to the nearest public health facility is not a solution for the high trauma exhibited in high poverty areas.

There is evidence in the proposal that the writers expect unrest and disagreement because there is an entire section “regarding strategies to mitigate conflict in school redesigns being led by design teams that did not involve the existing school leadership and/or existing school staff.”

Partnerships are only productive when then they are added to a strong foundation and structure without strings attached. When they are promoted and proposed while the structure is being held on by a thread, it is bound to give the illusion of repair and distract us all from the real work that still needs to be done.

New ideas are not all bad, but in the midst of a crisis, it is the same as deciding to get married to your kidnapper once you are saved. Instead of a focus group attempting to push through the same policies with a different label, there should have been one created resulting in an action report about how and what can the School District of Philadelphia and the City of Philadelphia attempt to achieve in regard to work conditions, poverty, unemployment, racism, segregation, pensions, and the creation of a more financially solvent entity. These are just a few of the items on the list that are still occurring. It could result in a report not unlike the one created and distributed by the Chicago Teachers Union to promote real change that does not include more band aid tactics but honest to goodness healing. That is what usually occurs when the house is burning. You do not simply watch it burn with all of your precious possessions and valuables without a fight to save it unless the plan was never to save anything at all. And this is the truth that continues to appear time and time again.