Commentary: Blame local officials, not DeVos, for state of Philly schools

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Vice President Pence swears in Betsy DeVos as the education secretary last week in the White House.

Betsy DeVos is officially the U.S. secretary of Education, and judging from the reaction of her opponents, you'd think she was advocating selling underprivileged school children to the meat market in order to feed rich land owners.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) insisted Trump's decision to appoint DeVos as Education secretary should "offend every single American man, woman, and child who has benefited from the public education system in this country."

Vanity Fair film critic Richard Lawson put it more bluntly, tweeting that her policies "will kill children" and lead "queer kids" to "more suicides" because of a lack of access to supports in religious schools.

But if school choice kills, then the Philadelphia School District is Murder Incorporated.

For nearly two decades, establishment Democrats, educational activists, and financial opportunists have gutted traditional public education in the city, leaving it permanently altered.

The biggest blow to Philly public schools was cast by then-state Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.) in the late 1990s, when he fought to pass the Pennsylvania Charter School Law, which opened the floodgates for school choice and took millions of dollars away from traditional public schools and pumped them into privately owned charters. Evans also supported Acts 46 and 83, which enabled Harrisburg to take over the Philadelphia School District, and replace the local school board with a state-run School Reform Commission.

Incredibly, these laws took away the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers' right to strike and limited collective bargaining. This helped the Obama administration, under the leadership of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, implement its "national reform model," which shuttered traditional schools and fired entire teaching staffs. Schools were then "reconstituted" and given over to charter operators and for-profit educational consultants.

And then there was the Great Schools Compact in 2012, the partnership between the SRC and the Gates Foundation. This agreement called for massive overhaul in virtually every aspect of the public school system - from finances, to academics, to central management - and which had a goal of charterizing 40 percent of city schools by the year 2017.

Depending on your point of view, this was either an educational renaissance or the death knell for traditional public schools.

School choice and collective bargaining reform are nothing new in Philadelphia, and educational advocates' latest outrage at DeVos should be redirected at the Philadelphia political establishment, which over the past 20 years, has done more to dismantle public education than DeVos ever could.

To recap: The city doesn't have a local school board, and the teachers' union can't strike or collective bargain; technically, contract terms can be unilaterally forced on the union by the SRC. The school budget has been slashed by hundreds of millions, and staffs are running on bare bones. Many schools lack adequate nurses and counselors.

It's been more than 1,000 days since teachers have had a contract, too. Their seniority has been cut, their degrees marginalized, and they haven't received a raise in nearly four years.

And this is the result of educational policy at the state and local level, all of which has little to do with the U.S. Department of Education. In fact, less than 15 percent of the School District's budget comes from the federal government, and it's not unheard of for states to forego federal funding and opt out of federal reform policies they disagree with.

In short, DeVos is the least of the city's worries. Those who want to preserve public education in Philadelphia should look no further than their own backyard, where establishment politicians have rocked the boat for nearly two decades.

Christopher Paslay, a Philadelphia teacher, blogs at https://chalkandtalk.wordpress.com. cspaslay@yahoo.com