Many in public education have long argued they are fighting a war against conservative interests that want traditional urban schools abandoned rather than improved so that charters and private academies can replace them.
The argument gains credibility when you consider how badly the Pennsylvania Department of Education has messed up the Chester Upland School District. Now it is trying to remove Joe Watkins, the district's chief recovery officer, from the position he was appointed to by former state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis in August 2012.
Acting Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq asked Delaware County Court to replace Watkins with a former state education secretary, Francis V. Barnes. But Delaware County Court President Judge Chad F. Kenney ruled Thursday that Watkins should remain in his job for now, citing the limited progress Watkins has made and criticizing the state for not doing more to help him.
The judge's decision is disappointing. Watkins never should have been appointed in the first place. His selection set off alarms with the Keystone State Education Coalition, which pointed out that Watkins' only education-related experience was as chairman of the Students First PA political action committee, which supports charters, vouchers, and other alternatives to traditional public education.
With about half of Chester's students already enrolled in charters, Watkins' lame scheme to lure them back had nothing to do with improved academics. Instead, he and Superintendent Gregory Shannon offered Chromebook laptops and Beats by Dr. Dre headphones to any student who returned to a traditional district school in September.
The final straw for the state apparently was Watkins' announcement of a plan to partner with a Chinese investor to open two high-tech schools in Chester. He was preparing to go to China to firm up the deal when the state, citing Watkins' failure to restore financial and academic stability to the district, announced it was firing him.
Watkins contends he made progress. He says violence at Chester High School has dropped 40 percent, elementary school reading levels have increased 380 percent, and kindergarten reading readiness levels are up 900 percent. "There's a growing sense of optimism throughout the district," he said.