In a statement issued June 19, Governor Tom Corbett signaled that he is serious about working with the state legislature, city government and Philadelphia School District to solve the continuing financial problem of the district for the long term. We commend the governor on his position because such cooperation is critical, as no budget issue is more pressing.
When Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite announced that nearly 3,800 school district employees would lose their jobs because of the district's financial crisis, the word "doomsday" became more than just a metaphor for a catastrophic budget.
It heralded an unacceptable scenario for tens of thousands of students left without teachers, programs and services essential to an effective learning environment.
While both district and teacher representatives have been outspoken about where the blame lies, the reality is that we are faced with education issues that affect everyone.
Businesses across the city have a vested interest in helping to ensure that the district's fiscal crisis is resolved in a way that protects our children from even further calamity. This includes our legal community, which joins other major sectors in the city whose workforces are a major driver of the local economy.
Judge Marjorie O. Rendell of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said it well when she addressed attorneys at the Philadelphia Bar Association's June quarterly meeting.
"Educating our children is not someone else's job," Rendell said. "It is our job to ensure that the society our children and grandchildren enjoy is one that reflects America's promise. Make this your job."
Many lawyers, judges and other leaders of our legal community are products of Philadelphia's public school system. They'll tell you that they're proud of the role their public education played in helping them on the path to success.
We need our schools to continue to nurture today's students because they are the promise for our future — the next generation of city professionals and civic leaders. There must be an ongoing pipeline of educated young people to accept the jobs that will continue to move our city and its economy forward.
As Rendell said, ensuring that our schools provide an education that will give opportunity to all our children is "a societal imperative, not a political issue."
This year, I created an Education Law Task Force chaired by Joshua Richards of Saul Ewing to focus on education law, including pre-K to 12th grade, as well as colleges and universities. I am pleased to announce that the task force has been formalized into a standing committee of the association, the Education Law Committee.
The new committee, co-chaired by Richards and Mary Gay Scanlon of Ballard Spahr, will provide a forum to examine important initiatives affecting education, recent developments in the law and the bar's role in this area. The Philadelphia Bar Association has not had an Education Law Committee in many years, and there is no more important time than now to examine the critical issues of access to education, development of our youth, and the intersection of the law at all levels.
The committee will also study the expansion of youth courts in Philadelphia and the bar's role in assisting that effort. City Council has accepted a series of recommendations for setting up youth courts in schools that work in tandem with the juvenile justice system.
The courts are devoted exclusively to nonviolent and misdemeanor offenders, who are tried and sentenced by other students in an effort to curb their behavior before they reach the level of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.
At hearings last summer, school district officials said they supported the concept in principle.
The committee will also facilitate the bar association's award-winning Advancing Civics Education Program, or ACE, which over the past five years has placed more than 150 volunteer lawyers and judges into 14 public high schools and three elementary schools to provide supplemental civics education, including the fundamental principles of citizenship, democracy and dispute resolution.
This summer, the program is being expanded into local library branches as part of the Free Library of Philadelphia's summer literacy program.
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor advocates in favor of civics education and founded a program, iCivics (www.iCivics.org), that schools may adopt without charge. O'Connor, who was also a featured speaker at the bar association's recent quarterly meeting, strongly urged our members to use their legal knowledge and education to teach young people about civics.
"The best defense against threats to judicial independence is a culture in which citizens appreciate and respect the rule of law," O'Connor said, "and the key to creating that culture is education."
Programs such as ACE and iCivics help "bridge the gap" where the needs are most urgent — and serve as a model for other successful community partnerships.
There is no greater state or local government priority than ensuring a sustainable future for quality public education in Philadelphia.
In the meantime, we must continue to do what we can by addressing these important issues publicly and helping our schools in innovative ways. •
Kathleen D. Wilkinson is chancellor of the 13,000-member Philadelphia Bar Association.