OPED: Politicians Grease the Wheels at Penn Alexander
By J. Matthew Wolfe
Picture a bitter cold night. Four o’clock in the morning. People are freezing outside at 42nd and Locust. Parents lined up at the Penn Alexander School, a well-regarded public school. They are lined up in the middle of the night in this bitter cold weather because not every child who lives in the school’s catchment area can attend due to the limited space. The School District registers children for kindergarten on a first-come, first-served basis, hence the line outside more than 24 hours before the first morning of registration. The parents try and make the best of it, but its no fun for anyone. And it is even more difficult for those parents who for whatever reason – health problems, lack of child care – cannot be there knowing that their kids are at a disadvantage.
Picture the same bitter cold night. Four o’clock in the morning. Sleeping in their warm beds are parents in Overbrook Farms. They have kids, too, and they live in a catchment area for public school they feel is substandard but they can sleep peacefully. They’ve cut their deal. Their kids are already into Penn Alexander.
The Daily News broke a story that those of us in University City already knew but could not prove. The reason for the lack of transparency in the registration of children at Penn Alexander was due to politicians rewarding their friends. Kevin Johnson, who is exploring a run for Mayor and lives outside the Penn Alexander catchment area in Overbrook Farms, has his three children there. He was close to disgraced former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Former Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson’s grandson is also there, and two siblings are graduates. They also live in Overbrook Farms.
The issue involving Penn Alexander’s enrollment is one of the biggest in our neighborhood. The first-come/first-served line was incredibly stupid and unfair, yet it went on for years. When Superintendent Hite learned of that procedure, he immediately ended it. The parents who were already in line stayed, however, hoping for some advantage for their kids.
The School District implemented a lottery system, but refused any transparency. They would not pick the "winners" publicly and would not publicly reveal specific information as to the results. was not alone in speculating on blogs and at meetings that this was so that the politicians could use their influence to help political friends and allies. Suspicions confirmed.
I cannot take issue with any parent who wants the best for their children. Fair is fair, however. More importantly, using our public schools and public tax dollars for political gain is not only immoral but can be criminal. There are a number of politicians sitting in prison right now for doing just that.
It appears that prior superintendents (Hite has not done this) had given themselves the right to bypass all the rules. A spokesman for the School District said that it looked like "superintendents in the past" had done this to benefit these politically connected parents.
For the first time, the School District admitted that there were 34 children out of Penn Alexander’s enrollment of 550 that were from outside of the catchment district. There are waiting lists for each grade in Penn Alexander. Well, I know a quick way to take 34 spots off that waiting list.
The School District says that going forward the district will allow only families living inside the catchment area to attend the school. That is good, but it is not good enough. The district needs to remove the children outside of the catchment area and give those spots to those parents who have been improperly excluded. They also need to be transparent about the process, both going forward and backwards. Any lottery must be done in an open meeting, announcing who gets in, who is out and the order of the waiting list. Looking backwards, it should reveal which children are from outside the catchment area, why they were admitted and who pulled the strings. Any documents involved should be made public. There is not a privacy issue here. These are public schools paid for with our tax dollars. None of the parents involved were forced to try and game the system.
J. Matthew Wolfe is the Chairman of the University City Republican Committee and writes for the Republican City Committee Policy Committee.