LAST WEEKEND, I saw "He Called Me Malala," a profoundly moving documentary about the life of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani teenager who was shot through the head because she advocated for the education of young women. The Taliban made a huge mistake in trying to silence her. Not only did Malala survive, she won the Nobel Peace Prize, and is today a widely admired activist for change.
Far from muzzling this one courageous voice, the Taliban managed to amplify it, sending it into thatched classrooms in Africa, the White House, onto the stage of the Constitution Center here in Philadelphia and throughout the halls of Buckingham Palace.
This is a good example of how devotion to education in its purest sense and motivation is a force that will not be intimidated into silence.
I thought about Malala when I happened upon an article in the Daily News this week, documenting a conflict between School Reform Commission member Farah Jimenez and a group called the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.
Full disclosure: I am friends with Farah Jimenez. We first met several years ago when she joined the regular group of panelists on "Inside Story," the current affairs program that airs Sundays on 6ABC. While I like and get along with all of the panelists, it was a special treat to have Farah in the bullpen with me. Smart, an attorney, a Latina and conservative, she was a direct rebuke to the stereotype of the "independent" woman who could only be a liberal Democrat. Like my other co-panelist Renee Amoore, herself a conservative, educated, feisty woman of color, Farah's voice brought depth and nuance to the discussions. Girl power!
After a few years, Farah was lured away to the SRC, and 6ABC's loss was the city's gain. The SRC is charged with overseeing the School District of Philadelphia, which often puts it at odds with the various institutions that have a vested interest in the status quo. What would that be? Well, nothing less than the perpetuation of the iron choke-hold held on the public system by unions and other self-styled advocates for the "children."
In my experience, which encompasses five years as a teacher in nonpublic schools, some of these advocates are more concerned with consolidating power among a choice, philosophically pure (and often affluent) few, than with making sure each child has the best possible education.
Which brings me to the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. I wondered about the nature of the organization with the lofty name, and a simple Google search turned up this:
"The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools is an organization dedicated to the preservation of public schools. We support full and equitable funding which provides students with the high quality education to which they are entitled."
So far, so good. Then I checked to see what type of organization it was from a legal perspective, and found that it isn't registered with the Department of State. That means it essentially doesn't exist as a formal entity.
Which leads me to believe, and this has been borne out by other sources, that the group is a loosely structured amalgam of union leaders, community activists and others who are fighting for Philadelphia schools to be independent from state control.
There is of course nothing wrong with advocating for excellent education. Malala does it. My friend Farah, who, like the other members of the SRC, does it without any remuneration. Pro bono publico, as my Latin teacher would say. And if the alliance and its unregistered membership does it, more power to them.
The problem I have is with the personal attacks of unethical behavior and conflict of interest being made against one of the most competent and ethical women I know. The alliance has written to Gov. Wolf to have Farah removed from the SRC because of her attenuated connections to charter schools. Public-school "advocates" hate charters as much if not more than they hate the idea of school vouchers. They want that monopoly they used to have to be reinstated. They don't really care about poor parents who want to provide their kids with a solid education - one denied them by the public schools - because this undermines their hegemony.
So they engage in name-calling. They sue the city (and get settlements and don't have to divulge where the money goes after they get it because they're not a registered entity). And they come close to defaming a woman who has the intelligence and independence sorely needed in this commonwealth, for these children.
A review of the public record indicates that in the year and a half Farah has been on the SRC she has recused herself over 25 times when conflicts of interest arose. My friend has s lot more integrity than, say, Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg who spent one weekend officiating at same-sex marriages and the next voting to make them legal across the land.
It's easy for people to make "allegations" of wrongdoing against public figures. And New York Times vs. Sullivan, the Supreme Court case that defines the limits of defamation, protects them from accountability.
But the people who care about the children, and not the entrenched special interests, won't be silenced.
Not with bullets. Not with letters. And not with innuendo.
Christine Flowers is a lawyer