NAACP, ACLU steamed over rejection of justice reform billboard
The Philadelphia International Airport’s refusal to display an advertisement promoting criminal justice reform has resulted in a lawsuit filed by the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
The parties assert that by refusing to accept an advertisement, which highlights America’s high incarceration rate, the airport has violated First Amendment rights. The suit was filed Wednesday.
“The walls of Philadelphia International Airport are public space, and city officials do not have the right to suppress any group’s viewpoint based on their own beliefs or political considerations,” said NAACP General Counsel Kim Keenan. “Our First Amendment right to free speech is just as strong as that of the U.S.O., the World Wildlife Federation or any other advocacy group that has graced the walls of the airport,” Keenan said, referring to ads from other organizations that the city accepted.
The city claimed that the ad had been rejected because it does not accept “issue” or “advocacy” advertisements at the airport. However, the airport has accepted numerous other ads relating to political and social issues. The lawsuit is also against Clear Channel Outdoor, which handles advertising for Philadelphia’s airport, because the company acts on behalf of the city.
The NAACP’s rejected advertising says, “Welcome to America, home to 5 percent of the world’s people & 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Let’s build a better America together.” The ads are part of a public awareness campaign surrounding the NAACP’s “Misplaced Priorities” report, which explores the connection between high incarceration rates and poorly performing schools.
“The government cannot pick and choose which speech it deems acceptable and which it does not,” said Chris Hansen, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “The fact that the airport accepted some political issue ads but not the NAACP’s shows the arbitrary nature of the city’s unwritten and undefined policy. It is a clear violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition against the government favoring some speakers over others. ”
The report is part of the NAACP’s “Smart and Safe” campaign, an initiative designed to reform the nation’s criminal justice system. The report offers recommendations to help policymakers downsize prison populations and shift the savings to education budgets.
“We need to be ‘smart on crime’ rather than ‘tough on crime,’ and address soaring incarceration rates in this country,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous. “Failing schools, college tuition hikes and shrinking state education budgets are narrowing the promise of education for young people all across the country. Meanwhile, allocations for our incarceration system continue to increase, sending our youth the wrong message about the future.”
ACLU staff attorney Mary Catherine Roper called the case a freedom-of-speech issue.
“When the government is deciding who gets to speak and who doesn’t get to speak, that really shouldn’t turn on whether the subject of the speech is controversial,” Roper said.
Mark McDonald, press secretary for the mayor’s office, said the mayor does not comment on pending litigation.
Leslie Tyler was looking for a sign from a higher authority.
As first lady of Mother Bethel AME Church, it was her job to determine which neighborhood school the oldest, continuously owned African-American church in the country would adopt.
There were McCall and Meredith, two schools in the changing Queen Village neighborhood that could use a hand — but schools that also have resources and solid reputations.
And then there was Nebinger Elementary, in the shadow of public housing, where 98 percent of the student body comes from homes that meet the federal guidelines for low income; and where 100 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Looking at a map, Tyler noticed that the schools — with Meredith and MaCall on one side and Nebinger on the other — were separated by Christian Street.
And the woman of God got her answer.
“I felt at ease,” Tyler, wife of Senior Pastor Mark Tyler. “People kept saying, ‘You don’t want to go to Nebinger.’ How could we, as Christians, not notice that irony? I should have known all along that this was the place for us.”
Over the summer, Tyler reached out to Nebinger principal Dr. Ralph Burnley Jr. In just his second year at the school, Burnley, who previously served as the South Region Superintendent for eight years, has made it a point to get as many outside agencies as possible working with the school.
He has developed a relationship with the Queen Village Town Watch and the Bella Vista neighborhood group. They are loosely aligned as Friends of Nebinger. As a group, which also includes Mother Bethel, they have committed to donating $10,000 to the school by the end of the school year.
“It was a no-brainer,” Burnley said of allowing Mother Bethel to adopt the school. “They were talking about buying backpacks, notebooks, pens and paper for the children. How do you say no to that? In this era, with the budget cuts that the schools are suffering from, you can’t.”
Tyler said that the 260 backpacks purchased for Nebinger were paid for by the 18 different AME churches in the city. Tyler is the president of the ministers’ wives group. It was after the donations were given that Tyler approached Burnley about adopting the school.
Mother Bethel, along with buying supplies, has begun a plan that will place Nebinger students with at least 25 adult mentors. Mother Bethel has a museum that features the church’s rich history. The museum’s curator will teach the students in the eighth grade about the church’s historic role. They will have ongoing enrichment programs involving Nebinger.
“It’s become apparent to Mother Bethel that our role is not just financial; it’s also about human resources,” Tyler said. “Our job is to stand in the gap. That’s what we are going to do.”
Burnley’s leadership at the school is one of the things that attracted the church. Before he arrived last summer, the school had been chugging along, achieving its goals of making adequate yearly progress, but Burnley noticed that the test scores had stalled.
In 2009 and 2010, standardized test scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment at Nebinger became stagnant. In reading, during those years, 58.3 and 57.8 percent of the student body scored proficient or advanced. During that same time, the math scores were 66.2 percent and 68.1 percent, respectively. In 2011, Nebinger bumped those numbers to 71.8 percent and 82.0, respectively.
The percentage of students scoring below basic at Nebinger also dropped precipitously, tumbling 5.8 percent to 12.7 in reading in 2011. Math saw a 4.1 percentage drop to 7.8.
Asked if the improvements at Nebinger could be tied to cheating, something that has been speculated at other district schools, Burnley laughs.
“Tell them to look under my fingernails,” he says. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”
When he was the regional superintendent, Burnley kept a close eye on Nebinger. He noticed that many of the students’ biggest area of weakness was reading comprehension. To that end, he plans on having the mentors focus heavily on comprehension.
“It sounds beautiful when students read, and they all can read,” says Burnley. “But the key is being able to have them tell you what it is that they have read after they have read it.”
While he is thrilled that the church has helped from the financial standpoint, it is the human manpower of the congregation that he looks most forward to utilizing. Burnley would like to see African-American athletes, entertainers, Greek organizations and others mirror the commitment of Mother Bethel.
“So many of these schools in the city could benefit from the investment,” Burnley said. “Hopefully others will see what is happening here and it will spread.”
With three months remaining in her term, Denise McGregor Armbrister has resigned from her post on the Philadelphia School Reform Commission.
A gubernatorial appointment, Armbrister, appointed in 2008 by Governor Ed Rendell, said she was stepping down early in hopes that a new and fully-complemented commission could be appointed as soon as possible. With Commonwealth appointments – of which there are three – there must be a vacancy before the state Senate confirmation process can commence. When she was appointed in 2008 her confirmation took almost five months.
“I’m hoping this will expedite the process, that a fifth commission member will be named and the confirmation process can quickly begin,” Armbrister said. “It is complex and it is time consuming, it is a lot of work.
“I want to say that I felt honored and humbled to take on this responsibility,” Armbrister, speaking of her tenure, continued “I owe a great deal of gratitude to my fellow commissioners. Hopefully the new and reconstituted commission can be put in place and the SRC can go about the very crucial job of providing the children in the school district the best possible education.”
It has been a time of huge changes within the SRC. Last month former Chairman Robert L. Archie and Johnny Irizarry both resigned. A little over a week ago, Mayor Michael Nutter appointed Lorene Cary to the SRC. And in Sept., Nutter also named Rutgers University-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett to the SRC.
Gov. Tom Corbett named former City Solicitor Pedro Ramos as his choice to replace Archie as the SRC chair. However, Ramos is still awaiting state Senate confirmation. Some have speculated, Ramos included, that he might not be confirmed until Thanksgiving.
Ramos was president of the city's old Board of Education when it was replaced by the SRC in 2001. He is believed to be a strong advocate for Philadelphia’s schoolchildren. Joseph Dworetzky, whose term expires in 2014, is a gubernatorial appointment.
Armbrister rattled off the multiple tasks awaiting the SRC.
“The most important thing is that they continue the upward trajectory in achievement in the classroom,” Armbrister said. "They’ve got the facilities master plan on the table. And there has been success with Imagine 2014. That’s just to name a few.”
The number of Philadelphia schools on the Pennsylvania Department of Educations list of persistently dangerous schools declined from 19 to 10, a drop of 47 percent.
The total number of violent incidents District-wide declined 14.25 percent from 4,921 to 4,220 in the 2010–2011 school year. In the high school subcategory, the total number of violent incidents also declined by 15.4 percent from 2,007 to 1,698 incidents in the 2010–2011 school year.
“The significant reduction in the number of schools designated as Persistently Dangerous is due in large part to the hard work and partnership between students, teachers, administrators, principals and members of the Office of School Safety,” said Dr. Leroy Nunery, Acting Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia.
“We are very grateful for our partnership with the Philadelphia Police Department which has provided us with the leadership of Chief Inspector Myron Patterson and the assistance of many police officers. We have put in place the recommendations from the Safe School Audit of 2009–2010; trained principals and school-based teams through Safety Team meetings; deployed anti-bullying and other tactics to address climate issues; and continue to have ongoing discussions about how to improve our responses to school violence. We intend to continue to work with school communities, the Mayor, the District Attorney and others to remain vigilant on the complexities of school climate,” said Dr. Nunery.
The schools removed from the list are: Roberto Clemente Middle School; Stephen Douglas High School; Thomas Fitzsimons High School; Horace Furness High School; Simon Gratz High School; Olney East High School; Olney West High School; Overbrook High School; Roxborough High School; Edwin Vare Middle School; and Robert Vaux Middle School.
Schools still on the list are: Edison High School; Fels High School; Frankford High School; Kensington Business High School; Lincoln High School; Northeast High School; Sayre High School; Shaw Middle School; South Philadelphia High School; and Strawberry Mansion High School.
Jerry Jordan fears Gov. Tom Corbett’s evaluation plan may be unfair
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan is completely on board with the concept of finding better ways to evaluate and turn out the most productive teachers. But he is leery that Gov. Tom Corbett, in his push to ‘improve’ the evaluation process, won’t recognize the many inequities that he said make school districts in Pennsylvania so vastly different.
“When you have a district that is less affluent, it is simply a greater challenge to ask teachers to perform the same job and get great results when they simply don’t have all of the necessary resources to get the job done,” Jordan said.
Last week Corbett introduced his four-point education reform plan, highlighting four areas his administration plans to address during the fall legislative session: charter schools; the Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program, opportunity scholarships and teacher evaluations. Corbett’s plan marks the first time academic achievement would be used as one of the indicators for evaluating teachers.
The governor said the current evaluation system is flawed and fails to provide useful feedback to allow educators to fully develop the teachers’ professional skills. The Pennsylvania Department of Education found that more than 99 percent of the state’s teachers received passing grades in 2009-10.
But Jordan said the disparity in resources between a district suffering from so many economic problems — most notably the $680 million budget gap the district has been attempting to close — and a more affluent district, creates certain inequities that make evaluating across districts almost impossible.
“One of the things that you have to look at and be honest about is the condition of your resources in a city like Philadelphia,” Jordan said. “Do we have the same resources in Philadelphia that teachers in a more affluent surrounding district might have?
“You have to look at the level of funding for each child,” he continued. “Lower Merion is spending about $21,000 annually for a child. Meanwhile, the district is spending about $12,000 per student. That’s a huge disparity. The playing field is not level. When you fail to give the resources to so many, and then you expect the same kind of results you’d get from children with significantly better resources — well, there’s just no equity in that.”
Matt Zieger, executive director of Team Pennsylvania Foundation, an organization on which Corbett is a co-chair, says that even with limited resources, the time has come for teacher evaluations to be wedded to student performance.
“A time of limited resources is exactly when we have to be asking how we use the resources most wisely to support student growth,” Zieger said. “A quality evaluation system will be able to prioritize support for teachers in the areas where it will have the most impact. Remember that Pennsylvania spends hundreds of millions per year on teacher professional development with little knowledge of exactly what a given teacher may need to become more effective. This will help solve that disconnect in a way that betters our kids.”
More than 100 districts across the state are participating in the governor’s pilot program to evaluate teachers; the School District of Philadelphia is not one of them.
Jordan has a number of other concerns about the governor’s program. He wants to know that his union members will have a clear understanding of who the evaluators will be and how they will be evaluated.
Also important to Jordan and the more than 15,000-member union is what the state’s role will be from a support standpoint if teachers are found to not be proficient.
As an example, Jordan pointed to Philadelphia’s Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) professional development program, established in the current collective bargaining agreement. The PAR program, heading into its second year, enlists expert teachers as a first-line support for struggling teachers.
“We are having success with the program,” Jordan said. “Again, no one disagrees with teachers being evaluated; teachers working with children should be good teachers. But there are some concerns that we feel have to be addressed to make the evaluations viable for us all. You can’t have a system that is set up as a sort of ‘gotcha’ program. There are a lot of issues that have to be addressed.”