Ackerman's real mistake

A funny thing happened last week: People got angry at Arlene Ackerman for righting a wrong. 

That followed the superintendent's announcement that the school district had come up with money to preserve full-day kindergarten. The district previously said kindergarten would have to be cut if the city or state didn't pony up more dough.

The announcement was awkward because Mayor Nutter had already called for new taxes for those very items. It was made more awkward by Ackerman's telling the mayor she had found the money only an hour before taking the podium. In the days since, politicians and activists have fixated on Ackerman's seeming shafting of Nutter.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz took Ackerman to task for risking an important political relationship. Shelly Yanoff, of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said the superintendent had hurt her cause.

Fair points. The public schools need an effective advocate in City Hall and Harrisburg, and it's hard for Ackerman to be one when she's busy alienating people. But the criticism misses the larger point that saving kindergarten was the right thing to do.

What people should be angry with Ackerman for is creating this situation by threatening to cut kindergarten in the first place. There were other, less proven programs that could have been cut instead - and, we know now, there was an opportunity to move money around. (The district will be paying for kindergarten with Title I funds reserved for other programs.)

Ackerman said she learned of the opportunity only shortly before her announcement, but that in itself shows she'd failed to do due diligence before throwing kindergarten under the bus.

The point is not to credit Ackerman for changing course - she should be able to find plenty of comfort in her compensation package. The point is that Philadelphians in general should spend more energy getting angry about what Ackerman actually did wrong - threaten a dramatic, unnecessary cut.

Maybe it's because we're used to brinkmanship in this town. Just two years ago, faced with a big deficit and in need of help from Harrisburg, Mayor Nutter introduced a "Plan C" that involved the closing of all libraries and recreation centers, and trash pickup every other week. We can't say for sure that Ackerman and the school district were up to the same thing this year, but it's quite possible kindergarten was being held hostage in an attempt to wring more money from the city - especially when you consider that the district could easily have cut something like summer school instead.

Brinkmanship works. It's hard for a mayor, governor, City Council or whoever to withhold money while constituents worry that, for example, the police department is going to be severely cut. What's more, brinkmanship is often practiced in the name of a good cause. Maybe that was even the case with the district - maybe the administration didn't have to cut kindergarten, but hey, cutting summer school is bad, too. If threatening to cut kindergarten could have saved summer school, would that have been so bad?

But the ends don't justify the means here. Threatening dramatic, unnecessary cuts breaks down the public dialogue: It deprives citizens (and officials) of real information, and forces them to form opinions and make decisions based on guesses.

If an official's cause is worthy, an honest accounting should suffice. Even the school district, right now, has a strong case to make as it stares down teacher layoffs and other cuts.

There's a strange justice in Ackerman paying a political price for rescuing a kindergarten program that never should have been in danger.

But the city can't count on irony to punish misbehaving pols. Brinkmanship should be taboo - and Ackerman held to account for her actual sin.

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