Thursday, September 3, 2015

Too often, Philly buries its talent

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Matt Rourke/ Associated Press
Matt Rourke/ Associated Press

After living in this region more than 15 years, I find myself agreeing with those Philadelphia natives who fear their hometown will never reach its full potential.

Of course, being Philadelphians, they will say it's OK for them to say that, but not some guy from Alabama. Nonetheless, I look at Philadelphia and think of the Parable of the Talents that Jesus told to his disciples. Found in the Book of Matthew, it goes something like this:

A rich man going on a trip left his property in the hands of three servants and gave each a sum of money called talents, based on how hard he had worked. The first servant used his five talents to earn five more. The second doubled the two talents he was given. But the third servant, fearing he might lose his one talent, hid it. When the rich man returned, he congratulated the two servants who had invested their talents. But the one who buried his talent was ordered to give it away and sent to live in darkness.

Leaving the theological interpretations to those qualified to make them, I'll just say one lesson you might take from this story is that you can't be afraid to make investments that could improve your life. To me, that's Philadelphia. This city has made a multitude of cosmetic changes over the years — bigger buildings, even a growing population, slightly — but at its core, not much has changed.

Mayor Nutter was elected to be a change agent, but he has proven to be so much a creature of the political system that has nourished him since he was a young councilman that he's really not that much different from previous mayors in his approach to the job.

Philadelphia mayors tend to work within a small circle that includes City Council, key confidants, and an aristocratic sprinkling of wealthy scions and corporate types. They give an occasional nod to democracy by holding a few public meetings so people can vent.

Nutter rarely uses the bully pulpit to sway the masses, which is a shame since as a mayoral candidate he got the people behind his campaign to clean up City Hall's ethics. But as mayor, he has followed his predecessors' lead in preferring to broker a deal than go for broke.

If Nutter believed Philadelphia's schools deserved a tax increase to improve their funding, he should have hit the streets and fought for it, reminding people that bringing down crime and bringing in jobs requires a much better-educated population.

Instead, Nutter took the less dramatic route of trying to achieve the tax increase by making it part of the revaluation of properties in the city. But he stumbled out of the gate. His administration initially said the Actual Value Initiative would be revenue-neutral, so when it tried to tack on more money for schools, the public roared and the plan died.

Philadelphia won't reach its potential until its schools stop being a reason to not want to live in the city. That takes investment. It also takes a change in attitude. Philadelphians have very little confidence in their schools, so it shouldn't surprise them that the state legislature feels the same way and is reluctant to give city schools more money.

The School District spends tens of millions each year to pay for after-school and other programs to supplement classroom instruction. At the same time, it is on its way toward becoming one of the national leaders in charter schools and other forms of alternative education.

That's all well and good. Students should have options other than to continue attending a school that is not only providing an inferior education but is also dangerous. But it's not good when opting out becomes the only viable choice.

That means people have decided that a traditional school can't be fixed, at least not before it has damaged another generation of learners.

I believe any bad school can be turned around, but it takes investment. That doesn't necessarily mean more money; it means an investment of people — getting the right ones in and the wrong ones out, including administrators, teachers, and students.

The point of the parable is to do something positive with what you have. Have enough confidence in yourself to go after what you need in a forthright manner, whether that's a bigger investment in schools or a smaller investment in programs that wouldn't be needed if the schools did a better job.

E-mail editorial page editor Harold Jackson at hjackson@phillynews.com.
Inquirer Opinion Columnist
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