Philadelphia Magazine invited the education activist Helen Gym and the leader of the School Reform Commission Bill Green to debate the condition of public education in that city, where public schools are in desperate financial shape.
A fascinating discussion and dynamic between the two. Most interesting to me was Green’s insistence that the state-controlled SRC was “democratic” and that having an elected board, as 95% of districts in America do, would be a very bad thing for Philadelphia. People would want counselors and nurses, and no one would be willing to pay for them. Unasked was why Philadelphia is shortchanged by the state, why the city should accept the status quo without fighting for the needed funding for nurses, counselors, librarians, reduced class sizes, the arts, and everything else that the students need.
Here is a brief excerpt:
HELEN: And I do appreciate the private talks, but they’re not in lieu of a public conversation and democratic processes. It’s not really what does Helen say to Bill, but it’s really about what are we trying to break open? What are we trying to understand? And what I’ve always appreciated about you was that I think you more than any other SRC chair have been extremely vocal about the level of inequity. The thing I think we’re struggling with is trying to capture different spaces and be in different spaces where we can hear one another and learn and listen.
BILL: I didn’t take what you said about the SRC as an offense, but what you said is factually inaccurate. Of course we’re democratic. Everything we do is done in public; every vote we take is made in public; people have an opportunity to come and speak to us. How is that any different from your ability to go to your congressperson and talk to them, or your ability to go to City Council and talk to them?
HELEN: So you’re saying this is how government works?
BILL: This is the democratic process. And if you want an elected school board, I think it’s far worse. Because you’re not going to actually do the hard things that are going to allow you to balance a budget, because you’re going to be pandering to get elected. I think an elected school board in Philadelphia would be a disaster and the end of the Philadelphia school system.
HELEN: I disagree. How about how we all listen to one another? I’m trying to get at a little bit less about whether we have an elected school board and more about these questions of whether we negotiate, how we listen to one another, how we hear each other.
BILL: From the SRC’s perspective, we have all these advocates coming in, and what are they asking for? They’re asking for actual things that we would want in all schools. More librarians, more counselors, more nurses, etc. But if we take actions to actually free up resources to make it possible to provide them, they will be opposed. And so they’re asking for these things, which no one in their right mind would disagree with, failing to recognize that the money has to come from somewhere. The district proposed to outsource its cleaning services two years ago; all of the advocates and elected officials were opposed. The schools would be clean; it would cost maybe three-quarters, two-thirds of the price. When the district does try to do things like that, none of the advocates support it.
PHILLY MAG: When you hear this, Helen, are you convinced? Are you swayed? How much do either of you, when talking to advocates or to folks in the district, actually rethink your position?
HELEN: I frequently have extremely positive interaction with district personnel. I learn a lot from a lot of them. I’m curious, though, because there’s this idea of power [with the SRC], and needing certainty, and “We know what works, we will put it in. You don’t know — we know.” I feel like there needs to be a lot more humility about this role.
PHILLY MAG: Which role, the SRC role?
HELEN: Well, especially the SRC, because most people on the SRC don’t have a teaching and learning background. They aren’t regularly in school and don’t have a wide breadth of contacts to be able to kind of balance out what they’re hearing and reading vs. what’s actually unfolding. It was interesting; on WHYY in June, you were given the question, “What kind of leverage does the SRC have?” You were like, “We have none,” which I don’t totally agree with because I don’t think you take a position with zero leverage. But I understand what you are getting at. Really, what it made me think about was how much more you need people to be on your side.
BILL: I agree with you completely. Here is the fundamental problem the district faces. The things we’re going to have to do in the future to eliminate our structural deficit are hard. They will cause most of the loud voices and advocates to not be on our side. Most advocates will say, “I’m not getting involved in that; we are not going to support you.” But they are still going to come before the SRC and ask for additional nurses and counselors and things that our structural deficit and our constant scrambling for money don’t permit. So I don’t know how to bridge that.