Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Right Angle Club: 2015
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Charter School Warfare

The Right Angle promptly invited Jason Mayland, school consultant, a second time, after he had mentioned the first time that Charter schools were "a whole different topic by themselves," during the first time he was here. The room was packed, and the intensity of the audience was something to behold. This is a very explosive subject, and most people doubt the full truth of what they have been told. All right, let's have it.

After all, most of us are old enough to remember when the Philadelphia public schools claimed to be the best in the nation, and Catholic parochial schools were also said to be the best. Right now, there is an uneasy feeling the deplorable state of the schools is responsible for much of the city's decline. There is a general opinion the schools are unsafe, expensive, and failing. It certainly is true the claim is being made that they only need more money, at the same time they are said to cost $100, 000 per year for each teacher to produce deplorably bad results. It all goes to reinforce a general feeling in the public that this subject is important, expensive, obscure -- and we are being lied to.

Our speaker did clarify one important aspect pretty quickly. We have about 40% fewer students than we used to have, which creates vacant school buildings and excessive pension costs from the past, a subject he referred to as "sunk costs." He wasn't sure why we had fewer students, but it's probable that we do, and by itself, this issue would account for a large part of the dispute about how we can overspend and underpay the teachers at the same time. It's probably not the whole story, and it doesn't explain where the students went, or why. But it's a fact of the matter and doesn't sound like a sort of thing which is easily fixed. It might even be something which more money could help, and with the passage of time, might get better just by attrition. With the city finances in bad shape, it probably isn't going to get city money, but the local discovery of oil shale might hold out some hope. Unfortunately, the people who live on top of that shale want to keep the tax revenues for themselves, and it is certainly true they are entitled to something after a century of poverty. A situation in which the rest of the state was supported by a Philadelphia surplus, whereas it has been true for decades that the rest of the state is supporting Philadelphia.

String Theory Charter School

About half the schools are now charter schools, but the difference in teaching quality is more controversial. Essentially, the parents say there is a big difference, and politicians are keeping their children from getting it. The teachers say the difference is very small, and the extra cost is very large. The proof of the quality of teaching is difficult to obtain, and worse still is in the hands of the teachers themselves, who want very much to slant the results in their own favor. Even if they don't slant the results, they maintain the good students have been skimmed off, leaving them with inferior students. The rest of the arguments have the same quality: disputed results, and testy disputes. The rest of the Right Angle Club tended to agree with an earlier speaker that random scholarships show that private schools make a big difference until we learned that Charter schools are not private, but part of the school system. So, let's repeat what we think we know: private schools would make a big difference for the kids, but maybe charter schools won't. If we could change the charter schools to be more like private schools in some way, perhaps we should do that. Since we don't know what the essential ingredient in private schools would be, perhaps the conversation should be between private schools and charter schools. Heaven forbid we change the public schools. If we could find out what the difference is, and put it in a bottle, we are ready to make the charter schools drink it. That's what the public schools are demanding, but after all these years of malfunction, their credibility is very low.

There's even another thing we could do. Every seventy years, perhaps we should change the political machine in charge of the city. Come to think of it, that would be about now.

Originally published: Sunday, September 06, 2015; most-recently modified: Friday, September 20, 2019