Commentary

Philly Parents Need Freedom

What better example of public schooling failure could there be than Philadelphia? Whether it’s surprise deficits that no one can nail down, the empty promise of state control or polarizing curricular decisions, the City of Brotherly Love has it all.

The most recent Philly disaster, of course, is the “discovery” of a deficit that has ranged from $21 million to $100 million, depending, it seems, on what day of the week it’s been tallied. It’s a debacle that has, as one would expect, generated significant breast-beating and tough rhetoric, but with the outcry coming mainly from the people who were supposed to fix the district after the last round of beating and grandstanding, there’s little reason for optimism.

Recall that it was just five years ago that the state-backed School Reform Commission (SRC) arrived in Philadelphia with promises to save the city’s sickly schools, and soon after Paul Vallas rode into town to orchestrate the system’s revival.

Today, both seem much more part of the problem than the solution.

“The last three months have not been one of our better moments,” Vallas recently conceded. “We justifiably hurt people’s confidence in us.”

And the SRC? Chairman James Nevels has appeared to be in damage-control mode ever since the deficit news first broke, at one point soothingly calling a $70 million deficit “a manageable situation.”

As bad as the deficit fiasco has been, however, Philadelphia’s educational woes have not all been financial. Indeed, perhaps one of the most painful developments in the last few years had nothing to do with money. It had to do with race.

Last year, Philadelphia became the first major district in the nation to require that students complete an African-American history course to graduate from high school. It was not an unreasonable idea, given that the majority of students in Philly’s schools are African-American, but what about those students who aren’t? What about the Hispanics, Asians, Poles and so many others who shouldn’t have their histories ignored just because they are not in the racial or ethnic majority?

“It’s not fair,” declared one mother after the new history requirement was approved. “Why should it be singled out black? Why can’t it be Polish, or German or Mexican?”

Said another, simply: “I don’t think it’s fair to a lot of students.”

The discontentment created by this decision, importantly, was not driven by malice or incompetence. No, it was an inescapable byproduct of a system that, by its one-size-fits-all, monopolistic nature, can offer just one educational option for the people it’s supposed to serve, no matter how diverse those people may be.

So is there any hope for Philadelphia? The answer, sadly, is “no” if Philly continues with its current system and just keeps switching the people at the helm. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope at all. There is, but only if public education is turned on its head, with schools and those who run them answering to parents, rather then parents being held captive by the schools. There must be, in other words, school choice.

The salutary effect that parent-controlled education would have is easy to imagine. All parents, for one thing, would be empowered to select schools that provide the instruction they want for their children, rather than having to take whatever the majority demands. Even more importantly, when schools fail, parents would have recourse other than just having to hope that the latest district savior will live up to his press clippings. With choice, parents could take their children elsewhere.

The good news is that Pennsylvania has already planted the seed for real educational freedom. The state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program, started in 2001, gives corporations credits for donations they make to organizations that provide scholarships to low-income students, scholarships parents can take to schools of their choosing.

On its own, unfortunately, this program is not nearly big enough to provide universal choice. Couple it with an education tax credit for all Pennsylvanians, however, and at long last, real reform will exist. Moreover, it will be in places like Philadelphia - where many people do not on their own have the wealth to move to good districts or pay for private schools - that it will do the most good.

Imagine, Philadelphia parents with the power to say no to empty reform promises, and to seek out the schools they want for their children. There would be a whole new City of Brotherly Love, which instead of being the poster child for public education’s failures, would become a gleaming example of an education system that really works.

Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.