In Philly schools drama, many boo the wrong ‘villains’

I’m not sure how much of this I can take.

It’s so painful to see so much well-meaning energy so misdirected through naivete and misconception.

I speak, of course, again and ever more sadly, of the Philadelphia schools.

The School Reform Commission last week took a preliminary vote in favor of what has become known as its doomsday budget. Staring at a $300 million budget gap for next year, the commission approved a tentative budget that takes a meat cleaver to classrooms, cutting 3,000 jobs, including classroom aides, assistant principals and a lot more.

From the public clamor at the SRC meeting, you’d have thought commission members had just strangled puppies to death in front of everyone.

Understand, neither Superintendent William Hite nor anyone on the SRC thinks this budget is anything but a disaster. By law, they have to approve a tentative budget by the end of May. The real deal has to be done by June 30.

That one awaits action – or more likely inaction – from the city and state legislators whom Hite (along with Mayor Nutter) has begged to take some actions, from sin tax hikes to tools for better tax collection, to close the gap.

Hite and the commissioners are trying a tactic that is known inside the Beltway as the Close the Washington Monument strategy.  In other words, to spur a sense of public urgency, threaten to shut down the iconic things that the public knows and cares about most. 

Understand also that the School Reform Commission itself has no power, none, to tax anyone or raise any revenue itself. It is entirely dependent on the kindness of the governor, General Assembly, Mayor and City Council.

And kindness, not to mention common sense, seems to have fled those precincts when it comes to the Philly schools. Neither moral sense nor a practical regard for the state’s economic future, seemingly stirs this crowd to lift a finger to give school children the resources they need and constitutionally deserve.

Yet it is Hite and SRC who get pummeled by the public.

Council members show up to preen for the crowd, which responds like the pols are their champions. In fact, they are ditherers who are rapidly squandering what little chance there might be to get their counterparts in Harrisburg to lift a finger. The city’s Harrisburg delegation also stumbles and squabbles, failing to align behind any plan to raise more money.

That disarray provides up-state lawmakers, of both parties, with all the excuse they need (and they never need much of one) for another year of numb inaction about the agonies of urban schools, not just in Philly but across the state.

In Harrisburg, even as they whine that Philly should do more to pay for its own schools, they won’t even vote to give Council the authority to pass a new tax for the schools.

Why? Educated guess: They’re afraid some future campaign attack ad against them might include Philly school taxes into some dire but phony total of the taxes they’ve imposed. This even though most of them have gerrymandered their districts so thoroughly they’ll probably never face a credible election opponent again.

Yet these time-serving politicians – particularly the city ones – are also deft at empty gestures of support for the schools. This deflects the righteous public anger onto the superintendent and the SRC, who are more victims than villains here.

I rarely find a grassroots education advocate, or a passionate young teacher, in this city who grasps how this foul chessboard is really set up. They keep yelling at the wrong people, and letting the real culprits skate. It’s like watching Charlie Brown fall for Lucy’s old football trick, over and over and over.

Instead of yelling at Bill Hite, folks, why don’t you hop on the Turnpike and go confront the main source of the problem? It’s a building with a dome on it, and it ain’t on Broad Street. It’s by the Susquehanna.

It’s time for Occupy Harrisburg.

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