GSE on the crisis in Philly schools

When the Philadelphia School District opened its doors to students this fall, it did so with many vacant teachers’ desks and empty supply closets, even as classrooms were more crowded with students than ever.

As the school system faces another academic year with dwindling financial resources, Penn’s Graduate School of Education’s student-run journal, Perspectives on Urban Education, released a special issue offering critical analysis, varying perspectives, and possible solutions to what’s become known as one of the city’s most crippling crises.

The special issue, titled “The Dismantlement of Public Education in Philadelphia,” highlights perspectives from a broad range of stakeholders—teachers, students, parents, nonprofit leaders, and school administrators.

“A number of our board members and GSE students are parents or have personal connections to the families of children who attend schools in the district, so the looming crisis was something particularly acute and particularly real,” says Robert LeBlanc, the issue’s guest editor and Penn GSE doctoral student. “A lot of us know children who showed up the first day of school, if their school wasn’t one of the 24 closed this year, to find the library shuttered and the school counselor dismissed. It seemed to many of us to be a constriction of the very idea of what a public school is.”

The issue also features articles by Penn GSE students, a special statement from the Philadelphia Student Union, and an article by professor and long-time Philadelphia School District veteran James Lytle, which served as a cornerstone for the issue.

“We felt that his article, which was a thoughtful reflection on the nature of the proposed changes and the present crisis from the perspective of someone with 30 years of experience, could serve as both a call for a special issue of the journal and as a model for brief, timely, and accessible writing that could hopefully serve as a springboard for more robust discussion,” LeBlanc says.

Lytle’s article, “Philadelphia School District Deconstruction—A Case Requiring Consideration,” provides historical context to the district’s present situation, as well as some recommendations to keep in mind as administrators move forward.

“There are two years of stimulus funding that created a bubble, but [former Philadelphia School District superintendent] Arlene Ackerman misused those funds, so there isn’t much to show for that bubble period,” Lytle says. “The district is in dire circumstances now. It was just barely able to open this year, but the set of financial problems it faced this fall are going to be even more problematic next year because much of the funding it received was short-term, and it won’t be available next year.

“Although school is now open, there isn’t much talk about reimagining how public school can be organized in ways that could be more cost-effective—much more imaginative and advantageous for city kids,” Lytle adds.

Lytle says that most of the public discourse surrounding the district’s crises has been about creating choices between public  schools and charter schools for students—an approach he argues is short-sighted.

“There’s been a great deal of leadership turnover and discontinuity in the Philadelphia system, but underneath all of this is the concern that city kids are not being serviced well in the public school system,” Lytle says. “The evidence is clear that family income is the greatest predictor by far for student achievement and college access. That’s a clear contradiction of the American dream. Poor families and homeless kids are becoming even more disenfranchised when choice models are put in place.”

Lytle says in order to move forward, Philadelphia needs to broaden its civic discourse and rethink the traditional educational funding model—a goal LeBlanc says the editors of Perspectives on Urban Education had in mind for the special issue.

“We hoped that by showing the depth of the crisis from a number of perspectives and the potential for viable alternatives for resisting this crisis, we might encourage stakeholders who have not yet spoken out or who have not yet realized the severity of what’s happening in Philadelphia schools to step forward,” LeBlanc says. “We hope this issue demonstrates that solutions, notably solutions to manufactured crises, can’t simply come from on high, but must be sought from a broad-based coalition.”

Philadelphia School Crisis