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The path forward: Q&A with Helen Gym of Parents United

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Helen Gym ranks among Philadelphia’s best-known education advocates, and she’s one of the most vocal critics of education reform as practiced in the city.

A co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, she has said she feels that the city is now going through “some kind of sick social experiment,” pointing to the failure of reform efforts to address systemwide inequities even as they are exacerbated by budget cuts.

Recognized this year by the White House as a Cesar Chavez Champion of Change, she is convinced that the conversation about education needs to be fundamentally shifted away from the goal of expanding “choice” and back toward the goal of ensuring “equity.”

“This is a state obligation, plain and clear,” she says. “Our essential responsibility as parents is to reframe and refocus the discussion on the constitutional mandate and the moral obligation.”

In the wake of this year’s budget process, we asked Gym to reflect on the message from Harrisburg, the role of charters and the teachers’ union, and Parents United’s strategy for shaping the debate in the months to come.

What did this year’s education budget debate look like from where you sit?

It was extraordinarily reductive – it’s not addressing the fundamental issues that districts across the state are dealing with. Elected officials were doing the least possible, and the public was demanding so much more.

Take the cigarette tax – it was the least that could be done, and it couldn’t even make it through in a timely manner.

What did it tell you when you saw totally unrelated amendments being attached to the cigarette tax bill, like the one to allow some cities to raise hotel taxes?

What was sad is that basic human needs were being exploited. The more desperate the situation, the more politicians jumped on it to exploit it for other political purposes. It’s an eye-opening thing. If we’re not active, this is where this stuff ends up.

And this does not have to be a partisan issue. Plenty of people feel both sides of the aisle in the state of Pennsylvania have fallen down – and the city of Philadelphia has failed its responsibilities too.

Tell me about Parents’ United’s plans for the coming months – do you think you can build on that bipartisan interest?

I don’t think the trick is to build some bipartisan mishmash. We have to be really clear that a foundational principle is: You fund education and you support it. Read the Pennsylvania constitution – this is a state obligation, plain and clear.

So for us, at least, our essential responsibility as parents is to reframe and refocus the discussion in terms of how we talk about schools. Of course there’s the constitutional mandate and the moral obligation. This is what it looks like: You guarantee libraries. You guarantee nurses. You guarantee quality teaching staff and manageable class sizes. You have an experienced educational leader at the helm.

But there’s also a real need to humanize the dialogue around how we talk about poverty, cities and schools. The language we’re using these days is punishing and cruel. Parents are uniquely poised to ensure the mentality around our children and our schools must come through a framework of human dignity, equity, justice and love for our children and those who care for them.

The big hope for many is a statewide funding formula. Do you think that’s a good goal to focus on?

Yes, definitely – there’s no question Pennsylvania needs one. The question is, what kind?

If the model is going to be, "what is the least we can spend across the state," then we’re going to lose.

To me, it must be needs-based, and it must be about reducing wealth inequity among the districts. Formulas like the recent New Jersey and Ohio formulas (which were undone) did a lot to address both need and inequity. Those are real models that will address Pennsylvania’s problems – not just put anything in place for the sake of it.

We hear a lot about the common interests of charter and traditional public schools. Do you think these two sides need to work together more effectively to influence this whole conversation?

My hope would be that people can work together. But let’s be clear what the struggle is over. There is very little struggle over charter schools. We’ve got the second-largest district in the state when it comes to charters. The charter sector has gotten almost everything that they could possibly want.

The thing that’s in danger here is the ability to have a sustainable public school environment. The fundamental structure is really at risk right now. That is the real challenge.

You just got back from Detroit’s “Netroots Nation” convention of progressive political activists. What’s their take on ed reform?

For a growing number of progressives, ed reform is not neutral territory. We’re seeing public land being turned over to private enterprises; labor rights being undermined; state takeovers and emergency managers upending democratic governance of schools; schools closed down and communities devastated in their wake.

So we have to take a hard look at the damage done by ed reform. And the biggest damage is the notion that choice can be a substitute for equity. We used to have an equity agenda in this country, where our public schools’ vision, despite their flaws, became a model for the world. Monied interests have poured millions into convincing the public to walk away from that social contract.

But choice is just a sorry substitute when government gives up on equity.

And what people have to be cognizant of is that ed reform is just a launching pad for some of the grossest abuses in the dismantling of public services nationwide. In Detroit, an emergency manager who superseded an elected school board and shuttered dozens of city schools was simply a precursor for a city emergency manager who overran local governance and was shutting off water to hundreds of thousands of Detroit residents, while letting wealthy delinquents like golf courses and sports teams off the hook.

You’re naive if you don’t make the connection between what’s happening to our schools and communities and what we’re doing more broadly as a nation in terms of attacks on poverty, attacks on immigrants — most of whom are in our public schools too — and attacks on women and women in labor, in particular.

At Netroots, I think the future was really laid out for us by the Rev. Dr. William Barber, leader of North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement, who called for fusion politics and mass coalition-building to re-establish a real and moral civil rights agenda of our time – of which education is but one part. This is where I see the future going and what inspires me today.

"Torch" Lytle wrote an interesting piece recently about the need to re-examine some of our basic assumptions about what we deliver in traditional public schools, like nurses and libraries. Is it time for that kind of rethink?

We’re already doing that, but in the worst way, for the worst of reasons. If we’re doing it just to save money, that’s not helpful to anyone.

It’s all well and good to say, we should get away from traditional school needs. But why is it that they only say that to the poorest and neediest of communities? We have whole neighborhoods that don’t have libraries, and so we think it’s creative to take librarians out of schools and close school libraries? Communities with total access to health care may not need a school nurse, but we have the opposite situation. Your school nurse is going to be the first person to notice when you need glasses, when your tooth hurts, when you have asthma. And then you strip the nurses out of the schools?

I find it troubling when the conversation keeps coming back to our children needing to adapt. We need a system of thinking that pays attention to what’s needed.

Are there work-rule changes the union should agree to that would significantly help students and families?

I think there are – but it’s always frustrating to listen to other people talk about labor and unions. I was just talking to someone on the state board of education, and they said, ‘As soon as I hear someone from the teachers’ union, I just want to scream.”

That’s not a very helpful conversation. I feel like people obsess about work rules and don’t see them within the context of what we’re trying to accomplish.

To me, what are the fundamental issues we’re seeing around schools right now? We see massive layoffs of staff, to the point where it destabilizes schools across the city. We see enormous turnover – teachers don’t stick around long enough to get really good at their craft.

We lost 4,000 staff this year. We’ve lost one-third of our staff since Gov. Corbett took office. So, if your first question is How can I fire a teacher faster? this isn’t really about work rules or creating a professionalized teaching force.

It’s more about driving toward what feels like a low-wage, high-turnover, temp force that can be moved around and dismissed at will. And there isn’t a city in this country that has shown that that leads to a sustainable or high-quality educational environment.

How about principal empowerment? Would Philadelphia be better off if every public school principal could hire and fire?

In abstract, sure, if you had faith in that principal.

But 30 percent of our principals were brand new to their schools last year. A whole bunch had never even been principals before. Lea Elementary will have three principals in three years. Bartram has had four principals in one year.

So I’d be cautious about saying that principals should have this power. The fact that we can’t retain quality leaders at the principal level is a very serious issue.

And people can site-select all they want, but if their school has two aides, one counselor per 2,000 to 3,000 students, no nurses or support staff, no resources, no textbooks – good luck getting the “best” teachers.

The District has just invited school communities to start developing “innovation plans.” What’s your take on that? Can it have a useful impact?

It’s important to have these aspirations. But the real issue is that there’s no resources attached to it. The District will spend an inordinate amount of time combing through these applications instead of dealing with the fundamental issue: We don’t have basic services in schools across the city.

The District isn’t accounting for that. We’re not measuring the impact of that. You charm people with cheap ideas that serve minuscule populations, as opposed to tackling your fundamental mission to address equity citywide. It’s OK in doses, but honestly, the District’s inordinate focus on it and its neglect of a whole host of other areas rings hollow and is deeply troubling.

Do you think that at this point, public concern over education is significant enough to change the political equation?

The gap between the public and elected leaders is stark, and growing. With the gubernatorial elections in November, the mayoral and council elections the following year – we have an important opportunity to set a new, community-minded agenda that will at least put us on the right path.

It’s the communities who’ve been most deeply impacted who have the real vision: parents, students, staff, concerned people who see what happens when we let this equity agenda fall to the wayside. We have to figure out how to build that upward.

So, yes, we have an enormous opportunity. It’s also an enormous challenge – because we go up against money and power that’s deeply invested in an unstable school district. I believe we can do this though. We’ve seen it happen in New York City and Newark in their mayoral races. We’ve already established education as the top political and moral agenda of not just our city, but our state. We’ve effectively exposed a number of operatives to be the of-the-moment charlatans we’ve seen come and go through this whole state takeover experiment. So, yes, I think we’re uniquely poised as a city and a nation to see a new generation reclaim a real vision for our schools and our city. That’s the movement I want to be a part of.


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