Release Date Set for ‘The Village Proposal’

The Village Proposal: Education as a Shared Responsibility, a book on school reform written by Philadelphia School District teacher Christopher Paslay, will be officially released by Rowman & Littlefield Education on September 28, 2011

To preorder a copy, please click here.

The Village Proposal is based on the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. Part education commentary, part memoir, the book analyzes the theme of shared responsibility in public schools and evaluates the importance of sound teacher instruction; the effectiveness of America’s teacher colleges; the need for strong school leaders and supports; the need for strong parental and community involvement; the effectiveness of multiculturalism and social justice in closing the achievement gap; the relevancy of education policy; the impact of private business and politics on schools; and how the media and technology are influencing education.

 About the Author

Christopher Paslay teaches high school English in the Philadelphia School District where he’s worked since 1997. He’s a frequent contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer, where his articles on education and school reform often appear.

Ending the Myth that U.S. Spends More on Incarceration than Education

by Christopher Paslay

Have you heard the news?  America spends more money on locking-up its citizens than on educating them.  The NAACP’s recent report, “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate” makes this assertion.  It examines incarceration and education data in six cities, Philadelphia being one of them (click here to read the report).     

My wife, who does clinical counseling for the Philadelphia Prison System, has made this very claim herself.

Hey Chris, she said the other night at the dinner table, did you know that the state spends more money on prisons than on schools?

The idea that Pennsylvania invests more in its jails than in its classrooms is quite alarming.  The only problem is, of course, is that it’s not true.      

An actual look at state financial data reveals that in 2010, Pennsylvania spent 10 times more on education than on prisons.  Ten times more.  According to PA’s 2010-11 Enacted Budget, the Commonwealth spent $1.6 billion on Corrections (which included General Government Operations, Inmate Medical Care, Inmate Education and Training, and State Correctional Institutions), as opposed to $10.1 billion on Education. 

For the record, in 2010-11, PA spent $4.8 billion on Basic Education Funding; another $1 billion on Special Education; $318 million on Penn State University; $214 Million on community colleges; $164 million on Temple University; $160 million on the University of Pittsburgh; plus another $3.6 billion on 75 other educational programs and interventions, such as state libraries, teacher professional development, adult and family literacy, school food services, Head Start, and youth development centers, just to name a few.  

This is just at the state level.  At the local level in 2010, the city of Philadelphia spent 12 times more on schools than jails—$239 million on prisons and $3.2 billion on education.  This ratio is consistent in most cities and states across America.    

But these actual numbers aren’t being reported.  The Philadelphia Inquirer’s recent story headlined “NAACP blasts U.S. trend for spending more on incarceration than education” opened with the following line: “In his 1984 presidential run, the Rev. Jesse Jackson took issue with the nation’s priorities—spending ever more money on imprisoning people than on educating them.”

Both Jackson and the NAACP might want to open the books and take a better look at city and state budgets before suggesting America is scrimping on education.  I say this, of course, as a dedicated Philadelphia public schoolteacher who knows firsthand the value of education. 

America should continue to invest in education, and it must continue to finance those high poverty urban districts most in need; schools are indeed a beacon light of hope for many communities.

Those communities that take advantage of their schools, that is.  Tragically, about 40 percent of Philadelphia public school students pass up a multitude of programs and learning opportunities by dropping out of school every year.  This is a common trend in urban districts throughout the nation. 

Which further weakens the NAACP’s argument that America doesn’t have its priorities straight.  Our nation, in fact, does care about school.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of many urban communities; the fact that only 30 percent of Philadelphia public schoolchildren eligible for free breakfasts are currently taking advantage of them is a case in point.

Instead of Jackson and the NAACP railing against the system, as they do so often, a bigger effort must be made to make education a priority in urban areas.  Granted, unemployment, institutional racism and a general feeling of hopelessness undoubtedly plague many blighted neighborhoods, but we can still strive to instill in the poor and disenfranchised core values and principles that ultimately transcend skin color and politics; and organizations such as the NAACP should be leading the charge.

Funding for incarceration might be on the rise in the U.S., but what about the deterioration of family values?  The NAACP might want to address the startling statistics reported in the Educational Testing Service’s 2007 policy report titled “The Family: America’s Smallest School,” authored by Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley, which found that 44 percent of births to U.S. women under age 30 are out-of-wedlock; that only 35 percent of Black children live with two parents; that 59 percent of Black eight-graders spend at least four hours watching television a day; and that 20 percent of American schoolchildren misses three or more school days a month.

The reality is, education can’t work if communities don’t invest their own time and take advantage of interventions.  While America should continue to fund public schools, our country must take an honest look at its own attitude toward education, and develop a national resolve to better generate a culture of learning.

A Letter to PA Governor Tom Corbett

Dear Governor Corbett,


I am writing this letter on behalf of all the hard working Philadelphia public school teachers who will be losing their jobs next school year because of your proposed cuts to education (yes, I know the general public thinks schoolteachers are greedy bums protected by villainous unions, but the reality is, most schoolteachers work extremely hard and have to provide for their families).  I am also writing this letter on behalf of all the city’s schoolchildren, the 165,000 students who will be losing badly needed supports and programs because your proposed budget cuts will stop education funding mid-stream.          


Before you balk and give me a lecture on fiscal responsibility, just stop for a moment.  Breathe.  Count backwards from ten. 


I know how the game works, Mr. Governor.  I know all about politics.  Although I’m registered as an Independent, I feel your pain.  Obama and the Democrats were smart.  They got everybody hooked on that Federal Stimulus money like crack.  They made state politicians adopt liberal agendas and vote for progressive bills before getting rewarded with a boatload of federal green (green that the government didn’t even have in the first place).  It was a good plan.  Genius.  And everybody and their mother bought-in. 


The Philadelphia School District jumped right on board.  After all, former District C.E.O. Paul Vallas broke camp for New Orleans and left the Ackerman administration a “surprise” $73 million deficit.  Why wouldn’t the SRC grab hold of that Stimulus cash?  At the time, the District even had a long term budget plan for developing a surplus by the year 2011.  The plan was titled, “Five-Year Financial Plan: Fiscal Year 2008-2009 through Fiscal Year 2012-13” (click here if you want to read it).


In 2009, to Dr. Ackerman’s credit, the District balanced its books.  Of course, around this time, that Stimulus cash started to look mighty tasty.  In three short years, from 2009 to 2011, the District’s budget went up almost a half a billion dollars (this was in spite of their own fiscal plan which called for a budget in 2011 of $2,646,495,847 instead of the $3,216,000,000 they actually spent).      


Again, much of this overzealous spending was politics.  All part of the Democrats’ plan.  Get people hooked on free stuff so when it runs out, bang!  You find yourself in serious withdraw—to the tune of $629 million.  You also find yourself cursing the bastards who took half your free stuff away.  Example: those damn Republicans!


I feel your pain, Mr. Governor.  I really do.  I understand that “free stuff” really isn’t free, that money doesn’t grow on trees.  I understand that the well eventually runs dry, and that if we want to replenish it, we have to make cuts.  I also understand your politics, the games played by the Republicans.  We can’t waste too much money on public programs, because that will ultimately offset private wealth.  Taxes will have to be raised to make-up the difference, and we can’t have that.                  


So how about if we compromise, Mr. Governor?  You have to cut irresponsible spending, but don’t cut us off cold turkey.  Seriously.  Cutting $293 million from Philadelphia public schools is just too drastic, even if the SRC did overextend itself over the past three years.  We admit our mistakes, and the fact that we could have planned better, but dropping this kind of hammer on us is too harsh.  How about cutting our funding by $150 million instead?  Do half now and see where the budget stands next year. 


I know I’ve just talked a lot about politics, but for the record, your cuts are affecting children.  Do you truly understand how your decisions will be impacting our city’s youth?  Schools will be losing counselors, nurses, reading specialists, ESL teachers, special education teachers, police officers, art and music teachers, librarians, summer programs, and athletic programs.  Did you know this?  Do you even care?         


I know you need to appease your constituency by coming into office and reeling in “reckless” spending with a swift hand, but even you can exercise some moderation.  Don’t think of it as failing to corral the Democrats, but as investing in the future of Pennsylvania’s children.             




Christopher Paslay      


Philadelphia schools don’t have to be violent

“Compulsory education laws make it extremely difficult for administrators to address the startling level of violence in Philadelphia’s school system. The law says that all students have a right to an education, and that right extends even to the most troubled and unruly children. Simply throwing chronic rule-breakers out of classrooms and onto the streets is not an option.

Violence in schools, however, is not totally unmanageable. Here are 10 ways district officials could help improve safety and foster a better learning environment in the city’s public schools: . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Philadelphia school don’t have to be violent.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Tragically, District Ignored It’s Own Five-Year Financial Plan


by Christopher Paslay

 Recently, I was perusing the Philadelphia School District’s website when I stumbled across an interesting budget document titled, “Five-Year Financial Plan: Fiscal Year 2008-2009 through Fiscal Year 2012-13.”  (Click here if you want to review the document yourself). 

Dated June 30th, 2008, the financial plan was put in place to help close the $73 million “surprise” budget deficit left by Paul Vallas, former C.E.O. of Philadelphia public schools.  The plan went on to make several ambitious promises in its executive summary:


“In future years, District finances are projected to continue steady improvement based on strong continued state funding levels, combined with tight fiscal restraint for District spending. Accordingly, the first year of this Plan is critical for establishing sustainable fiscal health.


A Gap Closing Plan is in development to achieve full and sustainable balance for the fiscal year ahead. The SRC Chair has requested that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Secretary of the Budget and City of Philadelphia Director of Finance work with the District to construct this approach, and the process has begun. Assuming that at least half of the initiatives in this Gap Closing Plan recur, the District is projected to produce operating surpluses in FY2010-11 and FY2011-12 and to begin to rebuild a positive Fund Balance reserve.    


Here are the yearly budget projections quoted in the Five Year Financial Plan (p. 14 of the document):


FY2008-09:  $2,280,602,991

FY2009-10:  $2,483,103,289

FY2010-11:  $2,646,495,847 

FY2011-12:  $2,806,419,243

FY2012-13:  $3,025,631,379


To the credit of the newly appointed Dr. Ackerman and the SRC, the District did manage to successfully balance the books in 2008-09.  Shortly thereafter, however, the District’s philosophy of efficient spending went out the window.  This was undoubtedly due to the fact that a gigantic pot of Federal Stimulus money landed at their doorstep.  Here are the District’s actual budgets from 2009 to 2011:


FY2008-09:  $2,794,000,000

FY2009-10:  $3,057,000,000

FY2010-11:  $3,216,000,000


The District’s spending not only went up nearly a half a billion dollars in three years ($422 million), but their 2010-11 costs were 570 million dollars over their original budget projections in their financial plan issued in June of 2008.    


The irony of the situation is two-fold.  One—the District somehow forgot to exercise “tight fiscal restraint.”  And two—there is no operating surplus for the year 2011-12.  In fact, there is a deficit of $629 million dollars, according to District projections. 


Most ironic, however, is the fact that if the SRC would have simply followed their own Five Year Financial Plan, which estimated a budget of only $2,806,419,243 for the upcoming 2011-12 school year, there would be a more manageable deficit of $111 million dollars, based on the District’s most recent budget projection for the 2011-12 school year of $2,695,000,000.   


Interestingly, as District spending went up almost a half a billion dollars in the last three years, the student population has gone down.  In 2008, there were 169,742 students enrolled in District operated schools.  In 2010, there were only 162,662 enrolled in District schools.          


The question is, where did the money go?  In the 2010-11 school year, nearly $200 million went into Dr. Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 reform plan.  According to an official District News Release dated April 21, 2010, “The proposed FY2010-11 budget provides $180 million for the implementation of Imagine 2014 Phase Two initiatives, including $119 million for the continuation of initiatives implemented last year and $61 million for new or expanding initiatives.”  (To read the whole document, click here.)


Specifically, the money was spent on things like expanding summer programs, Renaissance Schools, Newcomer Learning Academies, Reengagement Centers, Student Success Centers, Regional Talent Centers, Parent Ombudsmen and Student Advisors, expansion of the Parent University, improved counseling services, reading supports, and reduced class sizes, among other things.


Tragically, the District was investing in an ever-growing reform plan with money it didn’t have.  In the 2010-2011 school year, $116 million of the District’s budget came from Direct Federal Stimulus Funding, and $193 million came from PA-Provided Stimulus Funding ($309 million total).  It was public knowledge that both of the sources of this funding were temporary, and that they would be gone at the end of the 2010-11 school year.  


So why did the District recklessly continue to expand its programs?  The District News Release dated April 21, 2010 might give a hint at the answer: “Imagine 2014 builds on the District’s past successes in increasing student achievement and provides the District with a road map to accelerate academic progress over the next five years.”     


But exactly what were the District’s past successes?  If you turn to standardized testing data for the answer, the overall progress was slim.  From 2008 to 2010, after the District increased its budget by nearly a half a billion dollars, PSSA math scores went up a total of 7.3 percent (from 49 percent proficient and advanced in 2008 to 56.3 percent in 2010), and PSSA reading scores went up 5.2 percent (from 44.8 percent proficient and advanced in 2008 to 50 percent in 2010). 


It seems there is too little to show for the District’s overzealous spending.  When Paul Vallas left Philadelphia for New Orleans in 2007, he left in his wake tangible improvements.  He started the process of breaking large, factory model schools into smaller, more manageable ones.  He upgraded building conditions and replaced books.  He also brought Philadelphia School District sports to a new level, making city schools an official member of the PIAA and building new football and track stadiums (he called them “super-sites”) at Simon Gratz, Northeast, and Roxborough, among other schools; Vallas also partnered with Microsoft in 2006 to bring the city its first “paperless” high school—the High School of the Future—in West Philadelphia. 


Other than the expansion of charter schools (which suck money from traditional neighborhood schools), and the creation of a dozen or so special district programs and help centers, there isn’t an overwhelming amount to show for Imagine 2014, at least nothing concrete that will still be standing once the Ackerman administration moves on; to their credit, the current administration did greatly improve the District website and the use of technology, and work out a fair contract with the Philadelphia teacher’s union.     


Nevertheless, it’s still time to pay the piper.  According to the latest District projections, an unlucky number of teachers, nurses, school police, and counselors will be losing their jobs in the 2011-12 school year.  Athletics might be cut, as well as summer programs, music and art classes.  (Were opening Regional Talent Centers and Parent Universities really worth cutting sports programs and laying-off teachers, nurses, and school police?)


Of course, the new PA governor is also to blame for the shortfall.  Tom Corbett has proposed cutting $293 million in education funds for the Philadelphia School District in 2011-12.  This decline in state education funding is unprecedented in Pennsylvania history.      


Still, $293 million isn’t even half of the projected $629 million budget deficit.  Over $300 million is the fault of the District, a gap in revenue that was waiting there like a hole in the road for all to see; everyone and their mother knew the stimulus money would run out in 2011. 


So how in the world did we get into this mess?  How could the District’s financial officers be so reckless with the budget?  It seems to me that the District was its own worst enemy.    


Maybe in the future, such mistakes can be avoided.  Maybe in the future, the SRC will heed its own advice and follow the financial plans they’ve carefully laid out for themselves.