The case against our antiquated education model unfolded this week in Philadelphia.

Monday: All Pennsylvania schools close, by order of Gov. Tom Wolf.

Tuesday: Bureaucrats at the Philadelphia School District tell teachers to halt remote instruction due to equity concerns.

Wednesday: Said bureaucrats backtrack after much-deserved public shaming, saying that remote learning is fine, but it can’t be mandatory. So now, kids can learn, but they won’t get credited or graded for any work.

These pronouncements are troubling. To deny any child access to education for any reason is a human rights violation. Holding one child back to advance another is nonfeasance. And that should be a nonstarter for the 21st century.

The Philadelphia public school system has many dedicated teachers who are not only committed to their students’ education but to their overall well-being. Amid this unprecedented crisis, they were working to find solutions for their particular classrooms. Rather than empowering teachers, the bureaucracy did what all bureaucracies do – impeded innovation and fast solutions.

The pandemic of 2020 shows us that the public school system is ill-equipped to take us into the 21st century. It’s not just about solving this crisis today – but about solving the crises that appear every day. The Philadelphia School District loses too many children to a failed system. Let’s stop this and get progressive about education.

Rather than empowering teachers, the bureaucracy did what all bureaucracies do – impeded innovation and fast solutions.

We need to stop viewing “public” education as just brick-and-mortar public schools.

Instead, public funds should be put toward parental control. Parents then, not school boards or bureaucrats, could decide if district, charter, cyber, or private schools were best addressing their child’s needs and be able to direct money accordingly. This would make district schools be more flexible in empowering teachers to do what is best for the communities their schools serve. Administrators would be forced to be responsive to their market.

District schools can take a more progressive approach during this crisis by looking to the free markets. This is America, the most generous nation on earth since humanity started taking measure. Have Philly’s school leaders asked Amazon, Google, Apple, or even our home-grown Comcast to help Philly schools find ways to provide access to technology to educate all students regardless of income? Services such as Google Classroom, and Udemy are made for these occasions, and indeed they’ve offered their software for free for schools to use. Internet access can be donated, or old-fashioned paper books and worksheets can be delivered.

Now is the time for the Philadelphia School District to embrace innovation, creativity, and critical thinking.

Administrators would be forced to be responsive to their market.

Getting through this crisis won’t change this fact: Our current, antiquated education model was unprepared and unable to provide simple digital alternatives in the age of the digital revolution to the thousands of digital natives in low-income communities. If you are unprepared and unable to serve those children for the 21st century, you don’t deserve to have a monopoly on education at all.

Jennifer Stefano is a vice president and chief innovation officer at The Commonwealth Foundation and vice chair of Broad + Liberty. @JenniferStefano

This article originally ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer and is reprinted due to our partnership with the publication. Read the original piece here.

One thought on “Jennifer Stefano: With classes canceled for weeks, schools must embrace innovation — and choice”

  1. Excellent piece. The public education bureaucracy is totally failing our children. No more talk of reform. It’s time to put parents in charge.

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