“To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
Fixing the public school system in Philadelphia is like building a house in a storm. It can be done, but it’s hard! Over the past several years, there has been a plethora of public educational plans written to provide a road map of success for our children.
These plans have ranged from David Hornbeck’s “Children Achieving” initiative (1994) to the Philadelphia School District Improvement Plan (2000) to Paul Vallas’ “Diverse Provider Model” (2002) to Arlene Ackerman’s “Imagine 2014” (2009) to The Philadelphia Great Schools Compact Report (2011) to the Boston Consulting Group’s “Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools” (2012).
It shouldn’t be so complicated, but it is. Whoever sits at the helm of the School District of Philadelphia has to be prepared to take the long view, riffle through the debris, and get all the stakeholders to the table to tackle a number of urgent questions that demand our full attention. Amid gusty political and economic winds, our new superintendent, William R. Hite Jr., recently released his own plan entitled, “Action Plan v1.0.”
Hite, I believe, is a good man. I believe that he wants all of our children to learn and succeed. As a concerned parent and pastor of a number of students enrolled in Philadelphia’s public schools, I, too, want all students to be prepared to fulfill their dreams, and to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, teachers, superintendents, mayors, governors, and even president of the United States of America. The plan, however, raises more questions than it answers.
Given the media publicity that surrounded it, I was excited to read Hite’s plan. I expected this plan to be holistic and achieve what the other plans were not able to do: to provide an inspirational vision and plan of action that is student-centered and a road map for educators, administrators, students, parents, politicians and supported by taxpayers.
His plan, however, appears to be missing a critical element — it doesn’t express a heart for our children. His plan, as initially announced in December 2012, proposes to close 37 schools, most of which are in North Philadelphia in Black and brown neighborhoods. Closing buildings will not save nearly as much as the District projects; nor has the District accounted for the substantial financial resources needed to make the transitions/consolidations happen.
The problem with Hite’s plan is not the “v1.0” tech-savvy lingo, indicating this is the first version, but rather that the plan does not inspire, provide a vision, or give the citizens of Philadelphia a visual image of what we can expect as our children matriculate through and graduate from our public schools. Action Plan v1.0 is not student-centered, but Hite-centered.
In his preface, Hite says six times “I have met,” “I have visited,” “I have addressed,” “I have listened,” “I have reviewed” and “I have learned.” Certainly he is to be applauded for his efforts over the past 100 days, but the problem is the superintendent is not an island unto himself. Education is a collaborative process, which includes students, parents, educators, administrators, community leaders and concerned citizens.
If there is one major difference of Hite’s plan compared to his predecessor, Arlene Ackerman, it is that “Imagine 2014” was developed in partnership with over 80 key stakeholders from the entire Philadelphia community. Over a period of months, these stakeholders met, discussed, debated, shared, collaborated, and ultimately produced a comprehensive community vision for all children in the School District of Philadelphia. The problem with Action Plan v1.0 is that is not a “we” plan, but an “I” plan.
Moreover, Hite’s plan describes the District as an “enterprise.” Such language immediately leads one to think of “a company organized for a commercial purpose.” If the District is viewed as an “enterprise” or a “commercial business,” then Action Plan v1.0 is extremely problematic and this would explain why a key strategy of the plan is to “become a top-quality charter school authorizer.”
From a fiscal standpoint, Hite’s plan candidly articulates the District’s financial woes and annual $250 million deficit that will hit $1.3 billion in the next five years. It makes it clear that the District’s deficit is the result of “reduced state funding, a broken system of local tax assessment, charter-driven growth in the total public school population without new revenue, and failure to reduce spending commensurate with the reduction in revenue.” Hite is right in some respects. The deficit has to be dealt with, but deficits aren’t dealt with by reduction in staff, programs and services alone. How are we spending the money that we do have?
Lastly, the plan does not provide a clear rationale for why politicians and taxpayers of the city of Philadelphia and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania should support the School District through increased revenues. Or, why should any parent have confidence that this system is primarily focused on educating his or her child?
An annual deficit of $250 million cannot be solved through school closings and continual budget cuts. Hite’s plan is singly focused on deficit-reduction and raises a breadth of questions: How will the plan reduce high school dropout rates? Increase graduation rates? Decrease truancy? Ensure that all children reach proficient levels in reading and math? Where is the “action plan” for teaching and learning? A plan absent of solutions to address these vital areas lacks heart for our children.
In sum, there are too many unknowns and outstanding questions in Action Plan v1.0. But it’s not all on Hite. At some point, the superintendent, the mayor, the governor, politicians and the citizens of Philadelphia will have to make a decision to support and educate our children through increased revenues and/or student-centered spending focused on educational goals and outcomes. Or they should tell our children and their parents the truth — that the balance sheet and bottom line take priority over delivering a quality education for every child in every community.
If the purpose of Action Plan v1.0 is to solely save the district money and get it back on sound fiscal ground, then Martin Luther King Jr. was right: “…education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society.”
Beloved, we’ve been down this road before and will arrive at the same destination unless we have a passionate vision that is student-centered, fiscally sound, with a heart for our children. We cannot afford to drop the ball again. Our children’s dreams and future cannot wait for the next plan or the next Superintendent.
As always, keep the faith.
The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson is the senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.