Out of Commission | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Out of Commission

Education "reforms" are mostly old-school politics

Give the Mayor's Commission on Public Education this much: Its Sept. 22 report on reforming the Pittsburgh School District has already served the cause of education. The next time teachers want an object lesson in political expedience and disingenuousness, they can just give their students a copy.

Though it's titled "Keeping the Promise," the report more often engages in bad faith. It hypes both the scope of the district's problems and the efficacy of its own solutions. It decries "[e]xceptionally low turn-out for school board elections" but proposes solving the problem by not having elections at all. Maybe "Only broad, sustained community support...will succeed in bringing fundamental change," as the report argues, but the commission apparently doesn't want to consult the community too often. Instead, it recommends the mayor be given the power to appoint board members -- just as he appointed the 38 members of the commission.

There wouldn't even be a public referendum on that change; the commission would seek only the approval of Harrisburg. (If state legislators don't play along, maybe the commission could recommend they be replaced with appointees too.)

And though the commission claims to have the district's best interests at heart, it seems intent on portraying worst-case scenarios. Its report begins: "The Pittsburgh Public Schools are beset by poor student performance, high costs, high taxes, and a very public record of failed leadership...problems that dim the prospects of more than 35,000 children." It is only 23 pages into the 138-page tome that they allow, "[W]hen compared with other large and troubled urban districts, Pittsburgh's public schools tend to fare well." Test scores are equal to or better than those in other urban districts, in fact, and they aren't part of some "downward trend," as the report's early pages imply; they are, in fact, improving.

Of course, if it weren't for manufactured crises, the commission wouldn't exist. This debacle began last summer, remember, when three Pittsburgh-area foundations surprised school officials and everyone else by pulling funds from various programs. That precipitated all sorts of hand-wringing amongst the city's elite about the school board's alleged recklessness and fecklessness...even though the people who acted most destructively of all were arguably the foundations themselves.

Murphy established his commission, but as it turned out, the schools didn't need the foundations' money: The district is currently sitting on top of an $82 million surplus, and now that's being held against district officials. The same pundits who predicted fiscal ruin for the district a couple years ago now gripe that the district has too much money. (Here's the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's editorial page last December, for example: "No board with 2003's dollars can afford to fund buildings as if it were 1973." Compare that to an editorial last week complaining of "an abnormally high surplus in the district's budget.")

And while faulting the school board's much-lamented divisiveness, the commission's report pats itself on the back for the fact that its recommendations were "unanimously approved" by a panel representing a "cross-section of the city." Thing is, the commission did not include any school employees or administrators, who have been harshly critical of the report. To hear the commission argue that appointees can be accountable to everyone with a stake in education -- while at the same time not including the perspectives of teachers and administrators -- would be ominous if it weren't so funny.

Strike that: It is ominous. Especially when you consider that these appointees could be chosen by Murphy himself, who has already led the city to the brink of financial insolvency -- and whose own appointees have already steamrolled over the public will on projects like Plan B.

The proposal's backers note that Tom Murphy won't be around forever, which is true but not particularly reassuring. Among Murphy's possible successors are former City Councilor Bob O'Connor, who nearly beat Murphy during the 2001 election, and City Council President Gene Ricciardi, who like Murphy backed the district's currently discredited board majority. Would commission supporters be comfortable having either of these two men setting the city's education policy?

Well, anything is possible these days. The commission's chief selling point is a recommendation to reduce the budget surplus by cutting the district's property tax by 2 mills. This despite unknown (and unknowable) costs of mandates like the federal "No Child Left Behind" act. The state hasn't even passed this year's education subsidies yet, and as Murphy has learned recently, there's no telling what Harrisburg will do. Given those doubts, a tax-cut comes across less as prudence than pandering...an ironic way to drum up support for reforms that are supposed to take politics out of education. It is, in fact, the sort of tactic that appeals to those who gripe, "Why should I pay to educate someone else's kids?" It's the kind of appeal that got the current school board elected in the first place.

The schools could be run better, of course. The commission rightly argues, for example, that opening "neighborhood schools" with small numbers of students is a waste of money. But while the commission met over coffee and muffins during the past year, other Pittsburghers were getting better candidates elected. In last May's primary, school board President Darlene Harris lost both the Republican and Democratic primaries to upstart candidate Patrick Dowd, who will take office in January and help forge a new board majority.

Dowd has pledged to bring sanity to the school board, but that's not good enough for the commission. "[M]aking only changes that can be undone in the next election simply will not do," its report primly observes. "The problems are systemic."

But so are the problems that appointed school boards face in other cities. Philadelphia's appointed school board hasn't even managed to keep kids safe. Of the 29 schools deemed the state's most dangerous, 28 are in Philadelphia, which has an appointed board. In Chicago, meanwhile, a mayoral-run school district the commission report praises, school taxes have been hiked five years in a row.

Perhaps what matters is not how people are selected to run the schools, but which people get chosen. And given that the commission has mastered such political skills as false humility and fear-mongering, why not propose its own school board candidates?

Its report claims that electing school-board members by district "leaves the door open" to candidates who "shape policy to suit their narrow constituencies." Maybe so. But that means the door is also open to candidates with a broader vision...if the constituency for that vision gets active. True reformers would live up to their populist rhetoric by putting as much effort into running for school board as they've put into trying to abolish it. Doing so, however, would mean trusting not Harrisburg or the mayor -- who've done little to deserve it -- but the community the reformers claim to serve.