Women in Jazz Month

9 Mar

March is Women in Jazz Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of women to jazz.

As a lifelong activist, I want to celebrate the role that women in jazz played in paving the way for the Civil Rights movement. While Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is well-documented, Ethel Waters’ “Supper Time” is not well-known. Written by Irving Berlin especially for Waters, the song is about a wife’s grief over the lynching of her husband.

I also want to celebrate the pioneering women of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first racially-integrated all-female big band.

International Sweethearts of Rhythm

The 17-piece band was led by vocalist Anna Mae Winburn. The Sweethearts were popular in the 1940s. Indeed, they were one of the top swing bands, appearing on radio broadcasts, and touring the U.S. and Europe. The group disbanded in 1949.

Amplifying Choice in Philadelphia

23 Feb

Last week was D-Day for the School Reform Commission. On Feb. 18, the SRC held a public hearing at which it would decide the fate of 39 applicants for new charter schools. I arrived 45 minutes before the hearing was scheduled to begin. After a 15-minute wait in the bitter cold, I was let inside 440 N. Broad and directed to go to Room 1075, the “overflow room.”

I’m an art lover. The school district headquarters is full of art but it’s a joyless and soulless space. Room 1075 is a room with a view of the blues. So after a few minutes, I left and viewed the proceedings via livestream. I’m glad I did. Between the scheduled speakers and the unscheduled outbursts, the meeting lasted five hours.

When it was over, the SRC voted to approve five of the 39 applications. The SRC approved three-year charters (rather than the usual five-year agreement) with conditions for Independence Charter West, KIPP Dubois, Mastery Gillespie, MaST-Roosevelt and TECH Freire. The five schools represent 2,684 new charter seats. But coupled with the abrupt closure of Walter Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter and Wakisha Charter School, and the expected closure of underperforming schools, there’s no net gain in the number of charter seats.

Still, the SRC is catching flak from both sides. Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement:

The Wolf Administration continues to believe that the district’s financial situation cannot responsibility handle the approval of new charter schools. Governor Wolf remains committed to restoring cuts and delivering more funding to public schools across the commonwealth to ensure our children have the resources necessary to succeed.

More funding for Philly schools may be a casualty of the SRC vote. Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Rep. Mike Turzai said he’s “disappointed” the SRC didn’t approve more applications:

If they’re not going to provide the charter schools for the parents and grandparents that want them, I think that negates the discussion [charter reimbursement budget line item].

The rejected applicants have 60 days to appeal the decision to the state Charter Appeal Board. Meanwhile, charter expansion critics are appealing to parents to stick with traditional public schools “for the greater good.” Please. What parent chooses a school based on the needs of other people’s children?

Charter critics invoke the old chestnut that if you can’t save every child, then no parent should have the option to choose their child’s school. Instead, their child must stay trapped in schools without librarians, nurses and guidance counselors.

It’s crazy to argue that parents should keep their child in a failing school because “all children” do not have options. Parents want what’s best for their child. They do not stand in loco parentis for all children. Try disciplining someone’s child and see what happens.

Let activists, teachers unions, elected officials and others fight over delivery systems. In the birthplace of our democracy, parents on charter school waiting lists want the freedom to choose the best educational option for their child.

#TBT Lee Morgan ‘Walking the Bar’

12 Feb

Back in the day, entertainers used to “walk the bar.” Philly native Lee Morgan was “honking and stepping.”

#TBT - Lee Morgan - Walking the Bar

In a Smithsonian jazz oral history interview, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master and Philly native Benny Golson said: “I caught my boy John Coltrane on the bar.” In a 2009 piece, jazz critic Marc Myers also shared the story:

In 1954, Coltrane’s expanding heroin and alcohol addiction cost him playing jobs, most notably a significant one with alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. After moving back to Philadelphia, Coltrane was forced to play with local R&B bands to make ends meet. In some of these bands, he had to honk away on the tenor while walking along the bar. One night, he saw childhood friend and tenor saxophonist Benny Golson enter the club. Mortified, Coltrane climbed off the bar and walked out for good.

The Smithsonian interviewer asked Golson where that tradition was started:

I don’t know where it started. It didn’t start with the jazz artists, per se. It started with one of the entertainers. An entertainer’s plot is to do or to second-guess what the audience wants to hear. Yeah, I got involved in that. I did some crazy stuff when I was doing all that stuff. You do what you think is going to entertain them. It’s going to bring acclaim to what you’re doing. Yeah, what’s more ridiculous than getting up on the bar where the drinks are and start playing your low B-flats no matter what key you’re in, just honking. We call that honking and stepping. They’re applauding. Ain’t nothing happening. Stepping over those drinks.

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More Money, More Problems for Philly Schools

9 Feb

In the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, there’s little love for the Philadelphia School District and the School Reform Commission.

When the school district and SRC are not rattling the cup, they’re rattling people’s nerves. The SRC got on my last nerve when it approved the sale of William Penn High School for pennies on the dollar. A school district that’s too broke to pay attention left $17 million on the table.

William Penn HS Collage - 2.7.15

Within days of signing off on the sweetheart deal, school officials were in Harrisburg lobbying for a $2-per-pack cigarette tax. They said without more money, the schools would not open on time.

As they say, be careful what you ask for. The cigarette tax was passed. Tucked inside the bill was an amendment that required the school district to accept applications for new charter schools. No new charters have been authorized since 2007.

The school district received 40 39 applications for new charters. The SRC has scheduled a special meeting for Feb. 18 to vote on all 39 applications.

Meanwhile, a group of teachers, educators, parents and community activists is circulating an open letter to “stop the 40 charters” on the grounds that “opening more charters is not a sensible option for our already cash-starved district.” They added:

While there seems to be no panacea for the amalgamation of social issues that affect children’s school experiences, increasing the number of charter schools, and thus, competition, in education does not help to solve any of our city’s problems.

Out of the blue, Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, made an offer he hopes the “cash-starved” district could not refuse: $25 million to approve up to 15,000 new charter seats. PSP offered an additional $10 million to cover stranded costs. Gleason said in a statement:

We have been listening to the concerns of education stakeholders, parents and public officials about the potential financial impact of charter expansion on District schools and students. We agree that financial impact is an important consideration, and it has become clear that cost concerns are hindering the SRC from making decisions about the charter applications in the best interest of kids and families who are eager for a new opportunity to attend a great school.

The best way to ensure that the SRC can make decisions based solely on the merits of these applications – and give more students access to a high-quality education – is to help the District manage the stranded costs associated with charter expansion.

Critics accuse PSP of fuzzy math. They say the real cost is $500 million. District spokesman Fernando Gallard said “half a billion dollars is not off the mark.”

The stranded costs issue was on the agenda at the Amplify School Choice conference,  Prof. Benjamin Scafidi, a senior fellow with the Freidman Foundation for Educational Choice, said don’t believe the hype:

All costs are either fixed or variable. … When they [school districts] say they can’t lose any more students, they’re saying all their costs are fixed.

The mayoral race is the backdrop to the charter expansion drama. Putative frontrunner Anthony Williams said in a statement:

The school district needs more funding, and Philadelphia public school students will benefit from those additional dollars, especially as they do not draw from additional school resources. We must ensure that the funding stream is revenue-neutral or net-positive, and three years may not be enough time. We must also couple these funds with reinstating the charter reimbursement and a fair funding formula to get the resources we need for every student and put the district in better fiscal shape going forward.

Mayoral candidate Jim Kenney says PSP’s money is tainted and taint enough:

Our school district should not accept PSP’s $25 million. Not only does that offer cover a fraction of the nearly $500 million required to enroll just 15,000 more students in charters, but the donations come from unnamed millionaires who already have far too great an influence in our upcoming mayoral election.

For the school district and SRC, “it’s like the more money [they] come across, the more problems [they] see.”

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