Commentary: Philly educators should unite to serve the common good

By Daniel R. J. Joyce

I'm not sure if it's because Catholic Schools Week - Jan. 29 to Feb. 4 - always occurs in the run up to the Super Bowl, or if it's just that my Catholic upbringing seemed to interweave sports and spirituality so closely, but I cannot think of Catholic education without a football analogy coming to mind. I am now convinced, though, that Catholic educators in Philadelphia find themselves more and more on the sidelines of an increasingly hard-fought game.

The last few years have seen increased battles between public school advocates, teachers' unions, charter school champions, and educational funders. The frenzied competition for a shrinking pool of educational funding is at an all-time high in our urban school districts, and judgments about what makes for effective teaching and sufficient standards of success differ vastly among the players in Philadelphia's educational community.

The School Reform Commission still considers new charter school applications knowing that Pennsylvania's charter law is woefully inadequate and is now outdated as it turns 20 this month. The Wolf administration has admitted that the oversight and accountability of charter schools is insufficient to guarantee quality and has had to put more resources into creating the Division of Charter Schools. This fragmentation of our resources is hurting the funding of traditional public schools created to ensure a free, appropriate, and sufficient education for all.

Philadelphia's Catholic schools are right in the middle of the game, providing crucial opportunities for quality education to thousands of families. Yet Catholic educators are sidelined in the competition for funding, resources, and recognition. The irony is that both traditional public schools and charter public schools have a dependent relationship on Philadelphia's Catholic schools.

Charter school leaders often rely directly on the Catholic school system for recruiting students and teachers while replicating aspects of the school culture. This is often what leverages additional money from corporate and foundation sources, providing well beyond what traditional public schools receive per child. It is estimated that for every child who leaves a Catholic school for a charter, it costs the traditional public schools $10,000.

Moreover, the task of educating our children in Philadelphia will become more challenging as a new administration in Washington catapults us into an era that may be characterized by federal intervention in local education funding in ways never imagined. This will exacerbate the battle between charter and traditional public schools.

I can imagine a day when there is a new level of cooperation between all schools in the City of Philadelphia with the goal of educating each child in the best school setting, thus serving each family in the greatest possible way.

We need to consider ways in which public education can better partner with Catholic school educators to provide particular services in communities of high need. This already happens in isolated cases, and there is no reason that we cannot increase this effort for the strengthening of all schools serving our urban families.

Educators in urban schools measure their success not just by test scores, but with how well they care for and develop the whole child. Catholic school educators, no less than others, understand that the true test of performance is in who their students become and how well they transform society for the common good. The Philadelphia families who send their children to Catholic schools make a personal commitment to better society by creating transformative communities of care. These accomplishments signify realized opportunities that unite all of us in the battle for quality education.

Philadelphia needs a game-changer in education. Equitable partnerships between Catholic schools and publicly funded schools may be the key to a new day in urban education.

This Catholic Schools Week, it may do us well to reconsider the variety of ways both traditional public schools and charter schools depend on the existence of the Catholic schools. The competitive nature of our current reality should transition to an all-city team working for a just future. The quiet example of Catholic educators ought to mobilize Philadelphia's educational sectors to make the best use of what resources we have.

There are heroic educators in every type of school in our city. However, it may be the Catholic school teachers plugging away on the sidelines, removed from a contentious field of play, who can best teach all of us how to collaborate, offering our children a win-win in the game of life.

Father Daniel Joyce, Society of Jesus, is the executive director of Mission Programs at St. Joseph's University.