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? 

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