Two rival visions of education reform clashed this week in Philadelphia, a city whose school district is suffering an acute funding crisis, forcing many students to go without libraries, guidance counselors or a safe way to get to school. Despite sweeping austerity measures, the district still faces a deficit of about $300 million and closed 24 schools this year.
There are a host of reasons for this situation, including a more than $1 billion budget cut to Pennsylvania public education orchestrated by Gov. Tom Corbett. There is a limit to how much more revenue can be choked out of a city with a poverty rate exceeding 25 percent and one of the nation’s heaviest tax burdens. It appears that Philadelphia has reached it.
For school advocates Michelle Rhee and Diane Ravitch — who spoke, respectively, on Monday and Tuesday — this cataclysm represents very different things. It also offered both a chance to present their vision of education in a city desperate for something, anything, to improve its lot.
“Budget cuts suck,” Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system, told a mostly full 200-seat auditorium at Temple University’s Student Faculty Center. But as Rhee wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, “In a crisis, we ought to recognize opportunity. I see a clear opportunity in Philadelphia to use this moment to implement education reforms.”
At Monday night’s presentation, Rhee promoted a merit pay system, where teachers are offered cash incentives for improved student test scores. She also talked up publicly funded alternatives to public education, like charter schools and vouchers, and argued for the elimination, or at least dramatic weakening, of job protections. These policies are among those endorsed by Rhee’s advocacy group Students First, formed after her 2010 resignation from D.C. public schools. Rhee said she supported judging teacher competence based on test results, seniority and a variety of other factors, though she did not name any exact calculus for determining an employee’s future.
“Not everyone can do this job,” she told the crowd. “If you have a pulse and pass the criminal check, a lot of school districts will just stick you in the classroom.”
The Temple audience was largely receptive to Rhee and her fellow speakers: George Parker, former head of the D.C. teachers union and current consultant for Students First, and Dr. Steve Perry, who runs a magnet school in Hartford, Conn. and has a history of controversial statements about teachers. While a large knot of protestors outside sported creative denouncements of Rhee, several teachers in attendance confronted the panelists throughout the hearing.
The very first question concerned Students First’s alleged ties to the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative policy shop that hands ready-made bills to legislators. Rhee denied funding from these sources. (Students First does not disclose its funders. Reporters at Reuters have found that the group receives funding from hedge fund managers, Michael Bloomberg and the Waltons, the family behind Walmart.) The questions were more tightly controlled after that. Still, the proceedings dissolved into acrimony around the midway point, prompting moderator Ralph Smith, senior vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a Rhee ally, to command the crowd to “Shut the hell up.”
For an event that promised “an open and honest conversation,” the panel was noticeably one-sided. Perry trash talked “union bosses,” Parker described his conversion from the labor movement and Rhee decried the “extraordinarily polarized” national debate. She said that Students First wasn’t lobbying Corbett for more funding because its policy priorities place a greater emphasis on how education funding gets spent. Rhee also expressed a desire to “get politics out of public education,” which felt a bit odd given her organization wields a substantial war chest in local school board fights, backing its favored candidates with sums many times what their opponents can muster.
Perry concluded that Students First and its ideological allies are winning. “Education reform has already happened,” he said. “The people who are fighting this have already lost.” That may come as news to education historian and activist Diane Ravitch, who celebrated the release of her latest book with a lecture that offered, the next night, almost an exact inverse of Rhee’s position.
Ravitch spoke to a packed house at the Central Branch of the Philadelphia Public Library, which had to include an overflow space with a projector for those unable to find a seat in its 400-person auditorium. She was introduced by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a dedicated foe of Rhee.
“You are ground zero for the destruction and privatization of public education,” Ravitch told listeners. As though she’d heard Rhee’s Monday arguments, she almost seemed to actively counter each claim. Ravitch dismissed merit pay (“It’s never worked”), denounced the assessment of teachers based on testing, and claimed job protections for teachers also safeguard academic freedom. “Absent tenure,” she said, “there will be places in this country where the word ‘evolution’ is never heard again.”
Charter schools are the only aspect of Rhee’s agenda to which Ravitch seemed even slightly amenable, though the concept she supports bears little resemblance to the current iteration of the idea. Charters were originally meant to augment public schools, functioning as laboratories to test possible policies for districts. Today they are set apart from public schools, functioning as direct competition. In Philadelphia last year, there were 149,535 students in district schools and 55,625 enrolled in charters.
The essential issue, in Ravitch’s telling, is not school choice or union protections. The latest data, released earlier on Tuesday, found 16.1 million children in poverty. “Teachers are not the highest determinant of test scores,” Ravitch said. “The most important determinant is income. Teachers are life changers, teachers can make a huge difference, but we cannot expect teachers to bear the burden of society’s failure.”
By contrast Perry, on Monday, denounced the notion that poverty could undermine good teaching: If that were true, he said, “we may as well shut down all the schools in North Philly, because there are a bunch of poor kids up here.”
Ravitch and Rhee embody two entirely different approaches to education. The latter seems to be ascendant for now, with major figures from both parties — including President Obama — embracing policies like those supported by Students First. But Rhee failed to offer convincing answers to the enormous problem facing Philadelphia. As Jesse Montgomery wrote in n+1 last week:
This week, students are returning to understaffed buildings with overcrowded classrooms. The district will average one nurse per 1,500 students and place no counselors at schools with fewer than 600 students. Teachers are working without a contract and $45 million allocated by the state remains dangled over the negotiating table. There is still no money for books, supplies, or librarians. Without more money from the state, that is regular, reliable, and borne of a commitment to the equitable funding of poor districts, the public schools in Philadelphia are going to get much worse.
Rhee didn’t mention Corbett’s billion-dollar cut to education in her Inquirer op-ed. Ravitch, meanwhile, won accolades at her lecture for noting the Pennsylvania constitution’s oft-cited but rarely heeded line regarding public education: “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” As she noted, there’s nothing in there about school districts or towns going it alone. Philadelphia schools have been inequitably funded for a very long time, and a sustainable solution cannot come from within the city.
“I agree with a lot of her points,” said Kimberley Brassfield, a public school teacher who works in the Kensington neighborhood, standing outside the library after Ravitch’s speech. “The hope would be full, stable funding. If we don’t get it, there will be a crisis every year.”
Jake Blumgart is a contributing writer at Next City. His work also appears regularly in Al Jazeera America, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pacific Standard.