The very first job I had in public radio was working for a weekly show at NPR called Options in Education, hosted by John Merrow. I was just a researcher/production assistant, but I learned a lot watching Merrow and his crew bring educational issues to life on tape.
30 years later, Merrow hasn’t lost his touch.
He had a sobering TV piece recently on the PBS Newshour about the effects of the economic downturn and state education cuts in Mifflin County, in central Pennsylvania. The school district had invested in a new, state-of-the-art high school before the recession hit and Gov. Corbett lowered the budget axe.
The result: five of 13 schools were closed, and 80 percent of the district’s staff ended up moving to different buildings as officials tried to patch a workable system together. Many were laid off.
The district isn’t what you’d call affluent. It’s blue collar, and Merrow reports that nearly half the kids are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches.
The piece is a reminder that education cuts don’t just affect poor neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Watch it above, or at this link.
And I had a flashback when I learned of Mayor Nutter’s outside-the-box appointment of writer Lorene Cary to the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, the body that governs the city school system.
I’m old enough to remember another way outside-the-box appointment, when recently-retired basketball star Julius Erving was named to the Fairmount Park Commission.
It was praised as innovative thinking – bringing someone in with star power who could get high profile attention to the park’s needs and attract a non-traditional following.
Erving was appointed to the board in June of 1987. He didn’t make it to his first meeting until December, and attended very few after that. He quietly left the commission three years later, having accomplished pretty much nothing.
I don’t mean to suggest Lorene Cary will be a similar disappointment. Besides her literary career, she’s an educator who founded and runs a non-profit – all experience that should help.
And given the stresses confronting the district, I have to believe she and Nutter had a long, serious conversation about the commitment she’s undertaking.
That said, Cary is a bigger player in the school system than Erving was in the parks. Erving was one of 16 members of the Fairmount Park Commission. Cary will be one of five governing the schools.
She’ll have plenty to learn about the system’s budgets, contracts, union issues, educational challenges, and political pressures.
But mostly, we’ll need her to fearlessly ask tough questions and stand up for what’s right. We’ve seen enough of commissioners who sit mutely and ratify decisions made in private.
I wish her the best. When she’s done, there has to be a good book in this.