Waller was Right – to #PhillyEducation reporters

On March 13 the School Reform Commission met, heard testimony, and closed 24 schools.  It was supposed to close my school, but then it didn’t.  I was there, I testified, I tried to keep my nerves together.

The meeting was an incredible spectacle, but even more incredible is that the results have sort of drifted away from the public consciousness.  Even in the education sphere, the talk is of the immediate crises.  This is a mistake.

I don’t mean to write for the SRC or the people who supported the Facilities Master Plan (FMP).  This isn’t a call to conscience.  If the people who shuttered two dozen schools were reflective, thoughtful people they wouldn’t have shuttered two dozen schools.

I teach children about language, and I’d like to talk about narrative.

The fight over school closing was set up, as most conflicts are set up, as a binary.  The people versus the SRC; the passionate teachers versus the finance gurus; North Broad versus Center City; most importantly Pathos versus Logos.  Check out these clips detailing the Facilities Master Plan hearings1.  Read remarks from the guy who ran the show:

““It’s heart-wrenching,” said SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos.

But Ramos said years of financial “gimmicks” and “kicking the can” on tough decisions had finally caught up with the District. With a projected $1.35 billion deficit over the next five years, officials say they can no longer afford to pay for 53,000 “empty seats” in half-empty school buildings across the city.”  Source

Nobody wants to be labeled as cold-hearted – except when their opponents have the moral high ground.  Then your cold heart can talk about “hard decisions”.  This is finance and governance, most people will take the accountant over the preacher.

Except I was at that meeting.  The preacher had it right.

As I shifted through my notes and wondered if Helen Gym2 approved of my outfit, Reverend Dr. Alyn Waller of the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church rose to speak.  I have transcribed some of his remarks, emphasis mine:

“…the reality is we produced a document that used the data you said you were using to make these decisions.  What came out of this was #1 – the data was inconclusive.  What came out of that was #2 – best practices from other cities said “Don’t do what you are about to do.”

No one in here is suggesting that, at some point, some schools won’t close or that there will not be a radical redistribution in pedagogical approaches to taking care of our children.  What we are saying is that this approach is not good.  Why?  There is no vision for it…if you cannot say for certain that you know what it will look like when you do this, then you shouldn’t do it.

Another principle simply says that “form follows function”.  If you don’t know what the function is going to be you can’t give it form.  I am convinced that if you take time, the language being used is a one-year moratorium, if you would take that time, if you would vote that down, you could call people from this room to make a better decision.

 

You should watch the whole thing if you can find it.  He’s really good.

This is a data based argument with nuance, compromise, and poise.  This is a community leader, with (to my knowledge) zero monetary stake in the process, making a detailed argument for a better course of action.  Neither the SRC nor the FMP had a vision to move thousands of kids during a labor conflict3.  Waller was dead-on.

And, yes, there were some people in the room who believed no school should be closed, especially under the auspices of an unelected school board.  But many of us were not anti-closing, we were (are) anti-nonsense.

District leadership traveled around the city promising a better education through smarter allocation of resources – knowing that they would soon be asking for massive labor concessions.  So we have children sitting on radiators, teachers being re-shuffled mid year, too few guidance counselors, a catastrophe disguised as “safe streets”, an appalling lack of nurses and counselors, and more cuts on the way.  If the goal was to provide a better education right now, promote faith in the District, or right the financial ship then the FMP has been a failure.

Dr. Waller, correct on every angle, was not in the paper or the news.  Instead it was the passion of University City or the compassion of Taylor Elementary or the rage of Reverend Pamela Williams4.  Narratives are powerful things.  The story of “passionate vs. professional” was established and Waller, armed with real data and true conviction, simply didn’t fit.

So here we are in a new crisis.  Dr. Hite continues to crisscross the city focusing on a “reasonable”, “professional”, and “modern” contract, while the teachers are presented in tearjerkers, spending their hard earned money on supplies.  Sound familiar?

So, hey there, all you education reporters.  Most of you do a good job, and I like you.  But please remember the deeply flawed narrative of the FMP. People who look at the big picture miss a lot of important details, people who are in the classroom have more astute observations than those who sit in an office.  People who support their schools are passionate and loud because it’s worth getting passionate and loud about this stuff.

We need a better narrative.  We can’t assume that the “professionals”, the predominantly male, majority white group that makes decisions, actually fit the role of “expert”.  And we can’t make the mistake of believing that people who yell are doing so to hide their argument.  Waller was right.  Let’s not forget it.


  1. and, as my Dad noted, ponder why they all seem to start with the angriest African American in the room 

  2. sitting one seat away – NO PRESSURE 

  3. and don’t tell me they didn’t know, the guy who would propose a 15% reduction in wages is in the room 

  4. If you watch one clip, watch Waller.  If you watch 2, watch Williams. Wow 

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