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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Testimony to the School Reform Commission October 15th, 2015
Susan Gobreski, Parent, Philadelphia resident, Director of Education Voters of PA

Thank you for the time. Lots of us have some cognitive dissonance because we care deeply about this district, believe in it and want it to succeed. We both believe the District does not have the resources to succeed and yet also that there are things happening here that need to change.

One of the reasons we (Education Voters and parents in general) work so hard on funding and resources is because we believe that organizations that are deprived of appropriate and adequate resources are not only doing without, but can operate from a deficit perspective leading to dysfunction. It affects not just what decisions can be made, but the quality of decisions.

Someone used the term low self-esteem to apply to the district, and also quoted Kevin McCrory – so I’ll echo those sentiments. “In essence, Philadelphia School District officials believe so little in the district's own ability to substantively improve student outcomes at these schools, they are willing to incur greater costs to hand the job over to an entity they believe will do better." 

There are a number of worrisome things happening and I came today to raise concerns about several specific issues. The proposal to re-structure schools via Renaissance Charters.

1. First, we believe it is a very significant concern that the law, legal issues and financial landscape for charter schools is so uncertain, and in conflict, and thus potentially filled with significant problems and threats.

  • The state law is truly a mess, with lots of questions, and in need of updating. The funding system doesn’t match the means of delivery. We don’t have a funding formula that accounts for charters and we do not have adequate resources. 
  • There are numerous open questions, including the future of enrollment caps, and the whether or not communities will have any local authority. 
  • So you are opening a Pandora’s box - you can start out with one set of expectations, but you don’t know how these things will play out. (i.e. you could approve a Renaissance Charter now under one set of conditions, and any one of these issues could lead to changes that affect the agreement in ways you don’t have any control over). 
  • It may be the case that you have to consider charters when they come before you, but there is nothing that says you must seek them out. 

Given these factors, it would be fiscally irresponsible to make the district more vulnerable in such an uncertain environment. In fact, at this point under these circumstance, to authorize more charters would be to knowingly de-stabilize the district.

 2. There is a big opportunity cost. I am worried about what you are not doing when you are putting time and energy into this. We know the district is understaffed, so the argument cannot be made that all other bases are covered while you do this. What about other areas of focus, like focus on academic planning, training, instructional practice (or raising money, working with principals or…)? Which leads directly to my next point:

3. I would like to know why you don’t have your own model with clear strategies for interventions at this point. We should have an internal model by now – we shouldn’t even have to have this conversation. 4. There are clearly issues of process. We’d like to know why those schools? Chosen by what criteria? By whom, on what timeline? What work was done on the ground to analyze the challenges and needs of the people in these schools beforehand? (Etc.) Not to mention the recent issues with the engagement.

5. The matter of time. Although fall is better than spring for having these conversations, we really need more time to work through these things. There needs to be time for authentic discussion, feedback, adaptation, change. You shouldn’t have your back to the wall such that you don’t have time for all that. There needs to be more time for these things.

The other matter is the Soure4Teachers contract. I am sure you are aware of the utter level of debacle this is. There are so many problems caused by this, this year has been damaged. Teachers and principals are spending extraordinary amounts of time in coverage* (and again – not doing other things); morale is low; people are stressed and frustrated and children’s safety is deeply at risk. Tens of thousands of people have been negatively affected in ways that affect learning, culture and well-being.

It seems like the problem wasn’t properly understood, and appropriate checks and mechanisms were not in place to ensure the system would work or to have a back-up. Will there be an analysis of how all this happened – of what went wrong, an internal review? Who championed this? What got missed and why?

And this is hard, I know, but sometimes a plan goes so badly, a decision has been so badly made, that someone needs to resign or be fired for it. Thank you.

*And the district is racking up costs for coverage in the form of prep time payback. Will those costs be subtracted/covered by the contract? 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Asking Philly Mayoral and Council candidates about education…

Public education is THE hot topic this year, yet City Council members, Council as a whole, and the office of Mayor have a limited role in decision making in the ongoing direct management of schools. They ARE responsible for providing local funding for the district, which is a significant responsibility and they can impact our City’s approach to public education through the platform of their office by how much or little they pay attention to the district, how they use their time to interact with the people who run the District and whether they try to advocate for certain things (like whether we move toward a community schools model, have enough guidance counselors, etc). 

Good public schools are vital to the prosperity of the City, so we need to know what the candidates believe in, and how they would use their office to affect and support schools.

In upcoming forums, community meetings, debates, Council members and Mayoral candidates will be stumping for votes.  We want to make sure we are pushing them to provide a little more depth when they answer, because everyone is “for the children” – so it is time to drop that tired trope and ask: what exactly does that mean and do you understand how to use the elected office you seek in order to have an impact? 

If you get a chance to ask a question, or suggest one, we recommend the following topics. And when you ask, remind them: please address the answers to how to use the elected office they seek to affect schools: what specific steps and initiatives would they support and in what ways would they take action?

·       Do you think that Philadelphia schools have enough money to provide an adequate learning opportunity for children? If you think funding isn’t the main problem, what is the main problem and what would you do about it?
·       If you believe there should be more funding, what can members of Council and the Mayor do to increase available funding? (Since state funding is not a city issue, please address only that which is in the purview of city elected officials.)  How can we increase local support for schools?
·       For state funding: how would you go about getting more funding from Harrisburg? What do you think it will take?
·       Do you believe we should change the way we use money now? If so, what should we do differently and how could you have an impact on that, since you don’t run the schools?

What should the Superintendent’s top priority and how would you support or push them?

Community schools: What can city government officials do to support the development of community schools, including improving and aligning city services to address the needs of children.
·       How can City Council and/or the Mayor facilitate the integration of services and supports into the school environment?
·       What can you do to ensure that every community has good schools and that schools are centers for community and access to services?  Which services would you prioritize doing this for, how and on what timeline?

Governance and Accountability. 
·       What should be the primary focus of the governing body of the District?
·       What change(s) do you support to the governance of the district? 
·       If you support a different model, please say how that model would bring about change?
·       What steps can city government take to improve accountability of those who govern and run the schools?

So – what do you think needs to happen to settle the teacher’s contract?  Who should do what?

Charter Schools:
·       What is the appropriate role for charter schools in Philadelphia? 
·       Do you believe that the City of Philadelphia should have the right to limit the number of charter schools?  Do we have enough charter schools now? Too many? 
·       What needs to happen to improve charter school accountability?

·       Do you support vouchers? Why or why not? If you were asked by the Senate Majority Leader if you would like to see additional funding allocated to vouchers, would you say yes or no?

Expand Pre-K and early learning opportunities:
·       What will you do to expand the number of children in PreK? What policies will you pursue and what will be your strategy to make it happen? Please provide a target # or percent enrollment increase goal for the next four years.

Healthy Learning Environments:
·       What can you do (as Mayor or a member of City Council) to help ensure that school buildings are healthier for children?
·       School Discipline: How could you, in the role of Council person or Mayor, affect the use of city and school district resources to impact school climate and improve school discipline policy to end the “school to prison pipeline”?

Disclaimer: Yes, there are too many questions here, and they will not all get answered in every setting.  But, over time, in various venues and through the materials the candidates issue, we hope that we get a more complete and detailed sense of what they would do, how they would use their actual power and the bully pulpit that comes with holding elected office and what their priorities are. Most important is that we work together to draw them out – to push for a deeper dive, and stop the pat answers, like "I am for the children; school funding is important, I’ll get more money from Harrisburg.”