Our schools are in a world of hurt, and it’s our fault

What are we doing?

The Philadelphia schools just laid off another 1,400 people, on top of more than 1,800 last year.

The Chester-Upland schools are flat broke. Teachers there are working for free right to keep classrooms open. Repeat, for free.

And the Catholic school system announced closings of nearly 50 schools in the Philadelphia region. 

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What in the world are we doing?

I say we, I stress we, because it’s too easy, way too easy, to treat this slow-motion cataclysm hitting our country’s education system as the fault of Them.

Different people have different Thems they like to blame: teachers unions, absentee parents, secular humanists, unfeeling politicians, or that handy, unholy trinity: waste, fraud and abuse.

This misses the point.

Educating our children is our collective, communal responsibility. All of us have a stake, if we want to have any hope of living in a civil, decent, productive society.

And we, folks, are flunking our responsibility.

We are selfish. We are cheap. We want it to be somebody else’s job.  We chase phantoms and delusions. In the end, it’s on us.

Tom Corbett is a pretty bland guy. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s governor of what used to be called the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but is now apparently the Everymanforhimself of Pennsylvania.

Yep, Corbett sure is dull, but he said something infuriating last week. This man, who swore to uphold a constitution that promises every child in Pennsylvania a quality education, told a Philly talk show host that he felt no need to help the Chester schools “just because they don’t know how to control spending their money.”

That statement betrays either culpable ignorance, or breathtaking deceit. Does the governor not know that for much of the last decade his state government has either been directly running the Chester schools, or supervising them in a receivership? So its woes are at least as much Harrisburg’s fault as any local players.

Beyond that, the fiscal crisis is rooted in decisions made by Harrisburg. In the short run, Corbett’s first state budget included a massive, historic disinvestment in public education. Longer term, Chester, like poorer towns around the state, has long suffered from the state’s refusal to replace the property tax with a fairer, more effective system to pay for education.

In a democracy, such failures are things we all have to own. We could vote for people with the guts to run and pay for our schools properly. But we don’t. We vote for people who cut a billion dollars from education, then blame the victims.

Those politicians should be ashamed of themselves.

But so should we.

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