As native Philadelphians who have pursued careers — as a state legislator, a founder of a local charter school, and a school principal — focused on empowering individuals and communities, we feel an obligation to Philadelphia’s children to ensure they receive high-quality education. In Philadelphia that has meant establishing charter schools and providing scholarships to support parents’ ability, and right, to decide how best to educate their children.
In an ideal world, this issue would not be so pressing. All schools would excel academically, provide excellent environments for learning, and be accessible to kids from all corners of the city. But we are far removed from that ideal. Many of Philadelphia’s schools fail to provide anything approaching a quality academic experience. Instruction is below par; students are not challenged academically; and the environment can be dangerous. Hence, the growth of charter schools and the community and parental empowerment they foster.
The notion that the closure of several Philadelphia schools was singly caused by greedy charter school operators is ludicrous. The primary culprit was a long-accumulating budget deficit (totaling $1.35 billion), brought on by bureaucratic bloat, inefficiency, and declining school enrollment — which saw more than a quarter of school seats empty and left the district with badly underused buildings in need of millions of dollars in repairs.
The notion that all Philadelphia’s schools would be great if funding weren’t being diverted to charter schools is also ridiculous. Many schools remain inadequate — in terms of academics and security — despite infusions of money. Schools closed for poor performance and low enrollment were refunded and reopened, despite the fact that there was (and is) little demand for their continued existence, as reflected by enrollment at just 20 percent of the school’s capacity.
The film is stunning for yet another reason: Actor Matt Damon, who sends his children to private schools, narrates it. The fact that Damon speaks from a vaunted position of privilege and options, while lending his voice to a film that attacks the concept of choice for people who have virtually none, is hypocritical — compounded by the fact that the initial local screening of the film was held at a private venue.
The documentary is not a discussion or debate over how to meet the challenge of a failing public school system. It’s an attempt to protect the status quo no matter how badly it fails communities, parents, and children. Rather than an attempt to start an important dialogue, the film proffers slick Hollywood propaganda that does nothing to reveal truth or document the reality of what’s going on in Philadelphia.
The filmmakers engaged no working-class families who have chosen to send their children to private schools on scholarship or those forced into underperforming schools because of where they live. The film does not even gesture toward a balanced conversation. Instead, it denigrates individuals trying to remedy a bad situation and parents trying to do what’s best for their children — all because parents who are given the freedom to choose weaken the power and influence of the establishment.
The film pays nostalgic homage to a bygone era. But the system the filmmakers defend today is not the system we knew. Many schools today are unsafe, uninspiring, and unable to challenge academically gifted children or to help poor performers. Yes, many teachers and administrators remain dedicated and hardworking, and many schools strive to succeed and improve. Yet, too many still fail.
That’s the simple, hard truth. And with a decades-long track record that inspires zero confidence that improvement is on the horizon, that truth that requires a forceful, decisive response. The response for many parents has been to pull their kids out of a failing system and send them to schools that work.
The documentary, funded by the American Federation of Teachers, is touted as a public service; it’s not. And that’s the film’s final shortcoming: It makes the case for the status quo without addressing how to establish an effective learning environment for students and teachers and how to give parents access to it. The answer lies in the efforts already underway in Philadelphia to create opportunities for all types of schools to serve children.
Anthony Williams is a Pennsylvania State Senator, representing the 8th District. David Hardy is a Founder of Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School. And Sharif El-Mekki is a Principal at Mastery Charter Schools.
This op-ed is part of the Center for Education Reform’s Voices of Color, Voices of Opportunity series.