According to a recent article in The New York Times about Philadelphia’s dire public school situation, “There is no talk of resorting to bankruptcy. But the problem is so severe that the city agreed at the last minute on Thursday to borrow $50 million just to be able to open schools on time. Even with that money, schools will open Sept. 9 with a minimum of staffing and sharply curtailed extracurricular activities and other programs.”
Although the article’s deadpan headline, “Philadelphia Borrows So Its Schools Open on Time,” is almost satirical in its directness, the sustained erosion of public education is no laughing matter.
Still, it can be hard to completely grasp a situation without talking to someone with boots on the ground. Which is why I felt privileged to sit in on a recent roundtable conversation with a well-regarded former superintendent. Newly retired, with 12 years of experience in a number of large, economically disadvantaged districts, he engaged us in a lively, open-ended discussion about today’s contentious education climate.
I was particularly struck by his humbleness in the face of the unique (and often conflicting) demands placed on today’s superintendents. Besides balancing competing stakeholder interests with state and federal mandates, superintendents are also responsible for much of the day-to-day minutiae of running a district. But — rather than complain — he stressed his role as a public servant and the value of frequently and substantively engaging with stakeholders. As he discussed his experiences with students, teachers, staff and various board members, he displayed a wit, intelligence and humility I’m sure served him well during his tenure.
To me, those are the characteristics of a remarkable public servant. Unfortunately, as our society becomes more polarized, the role of public servant is more often derided than lauded. This is why politicians and special interest groups across the country feel emboldened to defund and privatize public education.
At K12 Insight, we stress the need for two-way dialogue. And school districts across the country are eager to engage their stakeholders in conversations about the challenges — and opportunities — they face. Unfortunately, many of us don’t feel the need to speak up until something goes wrong. Rather than let our voices be heard on behalf of our embattled superintendents and teachers, we sit silent while their resources are stripped and then wonder why class sizes continue to increase.
To be fair, there are people and groups working tirelessly to ensure the long-term viability of the public education system. But its rapid erosion will continue unabated until all of us — students, parents and non-parent community members — demand more from our political leadership and each other. Engagement must become more than a conversation; we, as stakeholders, must see it as a call to action.