Having the Conversation

In a longer piece that is eminently worth reading in its entirety, communications consultant and writer Jeff Bryant (@jeffbcdm) analyzes recent comments from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the crisis in Philadelphia. If you haven’t followed this story, the short version is that a slow and steady strangling off of funding from state and local sources has come to a head, and opponents are beginning to mobilize against the latest proposed budget cuts in Philly, which would eliminate counselors, security, classes in art, music and PE, as well as lifting the cap on class sizes.

The secretary’s comments, via the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“There’s no excuse for a public school system anywhere in the U.S. to be in this situation in the 21st century…”I strongly urge everyone involved to continue working together to avert this educational crisis.”

Bryant smartly calls out this appropriation of “no excuses,” long the mantra of ed reformers who sought to blame teachers and their unions for most of the problems with American education. Duncan, having long been associated with that camp, seems an odd candidate to shift the terms of this debate so dramatically, but that’s just what he’s done, according to Jeff Bryant. The excuses, in this case, come from bureaucrats and policymakers, legislators and executives–Duncan is right that the public should not accept excuses from these leaders of public school systems.

Unfortunately, the funding crisis in Philadelphia, sharing much in common with Rahm Emanuel’s move to shutter 54 schools in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods in Chicago, is little more than cover. Budget austerity has long been used to justify structural changes to public institutions and, when it comes to schools, teachers and schools tend to face the brunt of the suffering. Low-income students are also most likely to be affected. This is a real problem, not only for the students and educators affected in Philly and Chicago, but for everyone concerned with the country’s educational future.

“Budgets are moral documents,” as many a wise man has attested, so shortchanging money for city schools reflects official priorities. We substitute austerity and talk of finances in place of a legitimate debate about how to utilize resources that are legitimately limited. The state of Pennsylvania is investing $400 million into a new prison complex outside Philly, money that could more than fill the budget gap faces the city’s schools. Chicago is building a stadium development for a lame basketball team while closing schools and laying off teachers there. There are certainly budget deficits in both locales, but that isn’t a coincidence; Arne Duncan and his predecessor Margaret Spellings have promoted school competition and grant programs that shortchange the neediest schools and students. As high-stakes accountability based on test scores chokes off money for poor districts and the disadvantaged students enrolled, it is beyond hypocritical for municipal, state or federal leaders to wring their hands and stress about limited resources. It’s just not honest.

Worst of all, inventing financial crises to justify dramatic changes to the school system eliminates the possibility for honest debate. While the cuts noted in linked pieces above seem draconian, it’s impossible to argue against any school closures in a place like Chicago, where enrollment has dropped by 145,000 since 2010. Instead of engaging in democratic dialogue over how best to restructure a struggling district, the mayor has attempted to push through changes without any consultation or collaboration with the affected populations.

As so often happens in education debates, we never get to the most important part of the conversation (and if you made it this far, I appreciate your dedication! almost there…). How can districts respond to shifting enrollment patterns and other demographic changes? School closure need not be a political third rail, because oftentimes it has produced measurable positive affects. The campus model, where large schools have been on the chopping block in favor of new smaller schools, has made a huge difference in a number of communities. In New York City, new schools have transformed school cultures in a number of buildings that not long ago were unsafe and made learning difficult for students. A few examples include the Julia Richman campus (Upper East Side), Park West (on 10th Ave in Hell’s Kitchen), Prospect Heights and South Shore in Brooklyn, Kennedy in the Bronx, the list goes on and on. While all new schools certainly don’t outperform the schools they replaced, the totality of the evidence (including an oft-cited MDRC study) suggests that small schools of choice with greater principal autonomy leads to better results. This isn’t always the case, though, and closing a school is a decision that has to based on the conditions in that specific school. What are the conditions that would justify closing a school? I bet even Randi Weingarten and Karen Lewis would concede that some set of conditions might merit the closure of a single school, but I’m equally sure they won’t talk about that in the current climate of reform.

Education isn’t about making excuses, but it is about having the conversation. A democratic society demands collaboration, and there is no excuse for shirking that essential responsibility.