Can public schools be saved in the United States, in Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia? Can they be saved for kids in low- and middle-income communities? Can they do what they are supposed to do? Once again, we ask ourselves the questions. We know some answers: the federal, state and local governments do not fund schools adequately; many of us with choices abandoned our schools; the schools with more poor kids need more but get less support.
As a longtime public-school supporter, I know that government bureaucracies can and sometimes do cripple positive action. We all know that often in the past, top-down theories of change have blocked really good teachers and principals from doing their most creative work. We know that the most important place in the system should be in the classroom and in the school. Yet, too often our schools and classrooms have had the least power. Will this be different, and if so, how and who will be held accountable?
Many of us for years have argued for more power within the schools. The big promise of this proposed plan would be to decentralize, to provide schools with the power to make decisions. That's good — if it also means that our kids will have enough of the basics, that they will have enough good teachers and counselors and nurses and music and art, and a good school climate that will allow our children to flourish. How can we make that happen?
As we look at the needs of those who attend our schools, who will assure parents that their kids are central to the whole structure? We need a center that will ensure that there will be not only accountability for funds but for the essence — for the learning and lives of these children. To me, accountability and transparency mean that all schools supported by public dollars follow rules that accept all children, support children's learning needs, have decision-making meetings open to the public, track and report progress of individual students and the student body as a whole, school climate, and student and faculty retention. To me, equity means that kids who need more get more.
I celebrate the proposal that suggests that schools will have more power, but I worry about these autonomous networks. I want small class size, nurses and counselors and interesting courses, good staff, well-equipped and functioning libraries, care taken with each child, a good teaching and learning atmosphere in all the schools. And I want to be sure that all kids have a chance to dream and learn. As we continue to cut and cut services, there is little mention of what is left. In this decentralized proposed series of achievement networks, who would be accountable, who will make sure that a special-needs child, a new immigrant, a regular kid will find the right place?
I am glad the neediest kids would receive a little more in this new plan, but who will see that it happens? Who will be responsible? Who is measuring progress? Who will be accountable? Who should we, our community, our parents and children turn to? How will equity be ensured in this system of networks in a city where our children and their families move frequently? Blowing up the system is an act of desperation, not an act of hope or trust. Can we not do better than this?
At a recent School Reform Commission meeting, close to midnight, a woman and her child approached to testify. She came with her interpreter to urge that the position of bilingual aides to counselors be protected from cuts. Here she was — someone who needed an interpreter to plead her case for her child — speaking truth to power. As she spoke, she reminded all of us of the power and promise of public education in this country. In any new or old system, how can we help keep the promise? n