In case you hadn’t heard, Philly’s public schools are kind of a mess right now. Around town, empty school buildings sit marked with “for sale” signs as if it’s normal. Children have literally died due to inadequate staffing. The latest plot point in the government-failing-a-generation saga unraveled on Monday morning when the School Reform Commission (the district’s governing body) unanimously – and secretly – voted to cancel the contracts of the 15,000 district employees.
The most significant implication of this move is that PSD faculty and staff will soon need to start contributing toward their healthcare. Of course, this isn’t at all unusual: almost all of PA’s teachers pay for part of their healthcare. But as many have counter-argued, Philly teachers make significantly less money (by 19%!) than their suburban counterparts, all while working in a much more stressful environment. Regardless of where anyone stands on the issue, this move is expected to save the cash-starved district around $44 million.
After reading a lot about this, here’s what I find most interesting: shortly after ending Monday’s secret meeting, SRC chair Bill Green pointed out that “Every single stakeholder has stepped up to help the district close its structural deficit — the principals, our blue-collar workers…It is time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to share in the sacrifice.”
To be sure, I was not in this meeting (hardly anyone was), and I didn’t personally hear Mr. Green say these words, so I don’t fully know the context. But based on how various media outlets have presented this debacle, it sounds like Mr. Green is saying that many people around the district have had to sacrifice certain comforts to help with the budget issue. Now it’s time for the teachers to suck it up and make a sacrifice too. As if they are the only ones holding out on the district; as if they have some sort of extra obligation to do so.
Here’s the thing about education: we need it. When a major education system is in jeopardy, we all need to make sacrifices to help save it – not just teachers, students and parents, and not just “stakeholders.” When it comes to educating our youth, we all need to think of ourselves as stakeholders.
I frequently get the impression that our society thinks of education as some sort of extra amenity sitting on the sidelines of business and politics. Teachers are thought of as whiny and under-qualified, working less than everyone else. Meanwhile, policymakers are burdened with figuring out how to write standardized tests and scrambling around looking for funding. In a world of wars and economic headaches, education is an afterthought. And good education is a forgotten luxury.
Let’s spend a second talking about why this mentality is all wrong.
One of the most important books that exists – Plato’s Republic – explores a fun little thought experiment: what does the perfect, most just society look like? You guessed it: souls! Good souls make up a good society, which is turn forms more good souls. And good souls require music, poetry, gymnastics, geometry, philosophy – i.e., a solid, well-rounded education. When Plato set out to create the perfect city, he started with classrooms.
And since we don’t always care about the greater good of the whole society, how about this: education is deeply humanizing. In order to be most fully ourselves, we need to be well versed in language, art, mathematics, the natural sciences, and history. We need to learn how to interact with and interpret truth, so that we can come a little bit closer to fully appreciating this world and our places in it.
So yeah, teachers need to make sacrifices in order to establish and maintain an educational system. And so do the rest of us – all of us, no exceptions. Education is no mere afterthought – it is literally essential to our personhood and society and ought to be at the forefront of our minds, wallets, and policies.