Yes, schools can improve
By Robert Maranto As happens every few years, the Philadelphia public schools face a crisis. In Christmas week, no less, dozens of academic-oriented school activities including debate, the Science Olympiad, and the Northeast High Space Research Center, were slashed. National Public Radio blames budget cuts, with new resources going to charter schools.
By Robert Maranto
As happens every few years, the Philadelphia public schools face a crisis. In Christmas week, no less, dozens of academic-oriented school activities including debate, the Science Olympiad, and the Northeast High Space Research Center, were slashed. National Public Radio blames budget cuts, with new resources going to charter schools.
Yet NPR never mentions how much money the School District spends, slightly more than $13,000 per child - about $16,000 if you count all pension and capital costs, as does the pro-market Cato Institute.
In fairness, Philadelphia district schools spend less than the suburban public schools they compete with for teachers. Still, Philadelphia district schools spend 20 percent more than city charter schools, which also compete with the suburbs, and which, like the district, serve special-education students. (I serve on the unpaid board of a nonprofit charter school, where 26 percent of the students receive special-education services.)
Further, Philadelphia's per-pupil spending rose from $6,860 to $13,167 from 1996 to 2012, rising about twice as fast as inflation. Why didn't all that extra cash improve learning?
Some of the answers are found in two remarkable new books that should be required reading for educators. In Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities: Who Wins and Who Loses When Schools Become Urban Amenities, Temple University professor Maia Cucchiara portrays Philadelphia public schools as mired in dysfunctional race- and class-based politics.
With a novelist's eye for a good story, Cucchiara details how then-schools CEO Paul Vallas sought to serve yuppies by prioritizing Center City public elementary schools. Those schools got makeovers. Moreover, the district modified attendance rules to privilege neighborhood (and mainly white) students over the African American kids who had traditionally chosen Center City schools.
In one case, a brusque African American principal was replaced with a more parent-friendly leader, arousing resentment from some black parents, one of whom commented that "as an African American woman, when you see a group of white people coming after you, you feel like you're going to get lynched." Another African American mom grumbled about the patronizing assumption that once her child's school attracted "rich white parents . . . our lives are miraculously going to do a 180."
The yuppie newcomers made changes: "Time after time, they saw something happening at the school that seemed unsafe or unacceptable to them, and time after time they made phone calls, arranged meetings, or otherwise made sure the problem was fixed." Not surprisingly, African American parents, who thought the local schools already worked well, failed to appreciate the busybody reformers.
Fundamentally, Cucchiara's book is about public schools "perceiving families as unequally valuable." Wealthy (mainly) white parents who add to the tax base get respect; low-income (mainly) black parents don't.
Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities does miss two points. First, not all public schools disrespect the disadvantaged. Philadelphia's 86 brick-and-mortar public charter schools, supplemented by online charters, tend to respect all parents since their funding depends on parents, not politics. Parents keep charter schools open, and if those parents choose to, they can close a charter overnight by sending their kids elsewhere. That keeps charters accountable to parents - all parents.
Second, Cucchiara understates her own fieldwork, which suggests that desire counts almost as much as deep pockets. For that lesson, educators should also read Nathan Levenson's Smarter Budgets, Smarter Schools: How to Survive and Thrive in Tight Times.
Levenson, the former Arlington (Mass.) school superintendent, shows that school budgets are determined by grown-up turf battles rather than kids' needs. Adult jobs come before student learning. Indeed, schools rarely collect data on which programs help kids learn and which do not.
In the funniest example, Superintendent Levenson got in hot water for trying to downsize the roughly one-third of school crossing guards who had no students to help cross the street. No one cared that he wanted the savings to improve learning.
Together, the Philadelphia story in Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities and the Massachusetts morass in Smarter Budgets, Smarter Schools offer both school board members and citizens great ideas about what we do in schools, and how we should do it better for all our children.