This week, Dr. Keith Eric Benson wrote an important op-ed touching on the current state of the Camden School District. And he highlighted something this is worth expanding on here. When communities fight against “outsider” in control of their systems, it’s often because this type of leadership systematically undervalues long-term goals.
“The saddest part possibly, is while Rouhanifard and his six-figure salaried hired-help have moved on to green pastures elsewhere, our current students, staff, and community are left to pick up the pieces and figure out a path forward.”
It’s a critique that has often been made about Teach for America. In New Orleans, one friend called them “Teacher From Across the way”.
If this critique seems harsh, the Camden case makes the relevance of it visible. Benson highlights challenges (specifically budgetary), and frames them in terms of leadership not being around to face the consequences of their actions.
But I want to frame this as a systemic challenge of appointing leadership from outside a community. The incentives are extremely strong to make decisions like this. Yes, Camden had fiscal challenges when new leadership arrived. But it was clear from very early on — particularly with Philadelphia just across the bridge — that opening a series of new schools (read: renaissance schools) would lead to a budget crisis for the district. That’s playing out now.
Worse, it’s always been clear that the other half of that poor fiscal management was that schools would need to be closed. And that was unpopular. But the district leadership at the time refused to have an honest conversation about school closures — so that conversation has to happen now after most of the key figures have left. Hiring people who were not from a community, were likely to leave a community, and would not face the consequences of their own actions *enables* this type of short-term decision-making.
It’s important to understand that this is at the heart of critiques of “outsiders” governing a school district. These leaders are more likely to make these types of short-term decisions. For a reform movement focused on a language of accountability, this is a remarkable oversight.