There's one thing that's always been true about Philadelphia -- this town loves a fighter. You know, the ballplayer who may not be the second coming of "The Natural" but who loves to get his uniform dirty, the little guy who leaves everything out on the hardwood. Last night, Mayor Nutter went on national television -- MSNBC's "All In" with Chris Hayes -- to talk about the future of Philadelphia's public schools, where lives -- of thousands of kids from rough-and-tumble neighborhoods looking for a way up and out, and the dedicated men and women who teach them -- are hanging in the balance.
A fighter is absolutely NOT what the TV audience -- in Philadelphia and across the nation -- saw last night. In fact, Nutter looked the opposite...punch-drunk, dazed and confused. Or maybe like one of those hostages reading a prepared political statement while his captor with the AK-47 is right off camera, as if Nutter was going to start blinking "h-e-l-p" in Morse code.
In a weirdly robotic tone, Nutter told Hayes some things that he's doing right -- acknowledging that the schools have been underfunded by the state (it doesn't take a degree from Wharton to understand that) and noting that he's pushing in Harrisburg for city booze and cigarette taxes and increased state finding in a desperate last-minute bid to close a $304 million budget gap and avert at least some of the 3,700 pink slips that were handed out on "Red Friday" last week.
But he wrapped those things deeply inside a bizarre defense of the current status quo -- saying in so many words that he's perfectly fine with the shutdown of 23 schools that are ripping apart already struggling neighborhoods, and implying that charter schools are essentially the same thing as public schools -- except that unlike public schools they can be selective and that too many have been plagued by scandal (or enriched their owners) and that studies have shown they don't improve student performance. He referred to the bloodbath taking place at 440 North Broad Street as "honest budgeting."
You really have to watch the video for full impact, but here's an excerpt of what he said:
"My job is to make sure we have a system of great schools all across the city of Philadelphia, that they are properly funded regardless of who manages them, that our children get a high quality education, that their parents are actively engaged in their education, and that the elected officials, certainly myself included, are providing the proper funding for a high quality education regardless of what school a parent decides to send their child to."
I'm trying to bend over backwards to be fair to Nutter, I really am. I understand that he's in Harrisburg as I write that, lobbying for more funding, and so you can understand why he might resist Hayes' insistent goading that Nutter be more critical of Gov. Corbett and his cuts to education (although if he didn't want to offend Corbett or lawmakers, maybe he should have politely declined MSNBC's invitation?...just a thought). Secondly, while I think the metaphorical link between closing 23 schools and the state spending $400 million on a new prison is powerful, Hayes went further and suggested a direct link (the segment was called "Lockup Philadelphia") that seemed to have thrown the mayor for a loop.
I even asked people on Twitter if Nutter looked as bad to them as he did to me. "He recited political jargon & was unconcerned," one said. "Hard to tell if it's apathy or defeat, but yeah, it feels like the towel got officially thrown," said another. The education activist Helen Gym blogged about Nutter's "surprisingly cold, listless drone."
Tone matters, and what was so striking about Nutter's appearance was all the things that went unsaid. Where was the anger and dismay over the likely loss of dedicated longtime teachers like Harvey Scribner of Crossroads Accelerated Academy? Where was the empathy and sadness over the little girl who in September will be walking over unfamiliar and ragged city streets to find her new classroom now that that her neighborhood school has been boarded up, adding to a sense of decay?
Philadelphia's public schools that have nurtured so many -- including the mayor's own daughter -- are on the ropes. Where is the fighting back?