Friday, July 25, 2014
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Will Phila. be the graveyard of public education?

Members of the Philadelphia Teachers Union and Philadelphia Coalition of Advocating for Public Schools march on Sunday to Gov. Corbett´s Philly office on Broad Street. The group held a candlelight vigil, aiming a final volley at Corbett for his handling of education funding. (Yong Kim/Staff)
Members of the Philadelphia Teachers Union and Philadelphia Coalition of Advocating for Public Schools march on Sunday to Gov. Corbett's Philly office on Broad Street. The group held a candlelight vigil, aiming a final volley at Corbett for his handling of education funding. (Yong Kim/Staff)

Congratulations! Our state has won national attention in the public schools debate.

Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch told an overflow crowd at the Free Library on Tuesday, "The state of Pennsylvania is ground zero for the destruction and privatization of education."

Who wants to live at ground zero of a crisis? Apparently, we do, and the experts are coming. According to the latest Pew poll that shocks no one, the majority of Philadelphians think that our schools stink, that the city is a good place to live and a lousy one to educate children. Oh, and almost everyone is to blame.

Ravitch's new book, Reign of Error, excoriates charter schools (specifically, Chester Upland) and online charters (Pennsylvania Cyber Charter, K12's Agora Charter). She calls for a moratorium on standardized testing and shuttering "failing" schools, a term she hates, along with "race to the top." She also wants to stop blaming teachers for low academic performance. Poverty and racial segregation cannot be removed from the equation, she argues correctly. In her view, there isn't much that the School District and state are doing right. She said to rapturous applause, "You cannot shift the burden of society's failure onto the backs of teachers."

Michelle Rhee, the former Washington school chancellor and self-described education "radical" - that's the title of her book - spoke Monday at a teachers' town hall at Temple. She was heckled and a couple of unclassroom-like "shut ups" were yelled.

"The civil rights issue of our time is education. We're dooming children to a lifetime of failure," said Rhee, a "reform" rock star among conservatives. "The current dynamic in this country is extraordinarily polarized." Her organization gives Pennsylvania a D+. (New Jersey gets a D.)

On the importance of education, polarization, and that most districts serving the poor are failing, Rhee and Ravitch agree.

After that, there is only fervent disagreement. The School District should have them debate and charge dearly to raise funds.

Ravitch devotes an entire chapter to Rhee, labeling her "the quintessential corporate reformer." Rhee's policies are thin, many aren't working yet remain popular with many politicians.

Rhee believes we're throwing too much money at the problem. Ravitch counters there are not nearly enough funds for the schools and too much is wasted on testing. Rhee advocates for teacher merit raises, and uniform standards for evaluating teachers. Ravitch counters that standardized testing rewards competition, not collaboration, among teachers. Instead, she favors school peer review and principals who are master teachers.

Rhee is no friend of the unions. Ravitch is beloved. Her audience was notably whiter, older, and wealthier. Ravitch may be winning the popularity contest here, and her ideas have considerable merit. But it's Rhee's flawed policies that rule Harrisburg, which has considerable control over Philadelphia's schools.

Ravitch wants for city students what affluent suburban pupils receive: small classes; teaching for knowledge, not standardized tests; counselors; a rich curriculum; robust after-school programs. I do, too. And she advocates, correctly, that we must start helping families earlier: neonatal care to reduce developmental issues, and prekindergarten classes to better prepare.

The trick, as always, is funding and political will. Ravitch offers few funding solutions (other than eliminating tests). She's right that investing in children now will surely save money later by creating productive, taxpaying citizens.

Asked how to keep politics out of the classroom, Rhee said elected officials should make the same education decisions for all students as they would for their own children. Ravitch agrees. But that hasn't happened in Harrisburg. Ravitch wants elected school boards, a potential disaster in Philadelphia. Look how well it has worked with electing judges.

Get politics out of education? Good luck with that! Rhee is the president of a nonprofit and Ravitch the head of a PAC, which both endorse candidates to advocate their radically opposed policies. There's so much politics in public education, it's a wonder anyone learns at all.

Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com. Follow her at @kheller on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

Karen Heller Inquirer Columnist
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