It wasn’t supposed to be, but the setup for the news conference was rather humorous. There stood a quartet of officials and a state lawmaker at a microphone to bemoan cuts in state aid for Philly’s public schools, and even Tony Danza had something to say.
You need some powerhouse at these press conferences, someone who has been in the trenches, to convey how education is being hurt. So who better than a former sitcom star who taught at Northeast High School a couple years ago as fodder for a reality TV show?
Tony Danza’s your man. And there he was on Feb. 23, shoulder to shoulder with state Sen. Mike Stack and three powerbrokers in local education, all of them positioned strategically in front of school district headquarters, and Tony Danza’s telling it like it is.
He’s disheartened by inadequate state funding.
It only hurts the kids.
“At Northeast High,” he said, summoning the setting for his reality series more than a year ago on cable’s A&E network, “we lost shop teachers, art teachers. That sends a message to the kids that they really don’t matter.”
Thank you, Mr. Danza, for those insights. Please have a seat.
I heard a radio snippet of the press conference and saw photos on local Internet news sites. The Times didn’t cover it. Not that we’re being sanctimonious, it’s just that the whole thing smelled more like a photo op than a legit news story, because in these grave times when the School District of Philadelphia is juggling the need to slash a $39 million deficit by June with the subtleties of saving academic programs, what makes Tony Danza the voice of pain and suffering in Philly’s classrooms?
Somehow a long-ago college degree in history education and seven or eight episodes of a reality show called Teach have become his certificate. But Danza wasn’t a worthy centerpiece of that press conference, not when there are hundreds of teachers who have been in those Philly classrooms day after day, year after year, standing up to the obstacles and hardships while imbuing kids with the joy of learning — teachers who could have conveyed those rigors quite eloquently at a microphone, and yet they’re home watching Tony Danza on the 6 o’clock news tell everyone how tough their jobs are.
The fact is that almost two years have passed since Danza’s reality experience in that Northeast High classroom. His reality series came and his reality series went. It was a reciprocal partnership — the school district got $3,500 an episode and a $25,000 contribution to Northeast High; A&E got a classroom and put Danza’s image on an interactive Teach web site, a glitzy bit of technology with a shopping link that peddled the official Teach coffee mug: Show you are a true Tony fan with this exclusive jumbo mug!
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must confess that our relationship with the A&E public-relations gal went south at some point around that time. She kept pushing schmaltzy stories about Danza’s wonderful concept for the show, about how he viewed teaching 25 sophomores in an English class at Northeast High as the biggest challenge of his life. We kept pushing a valid story of why a sitcom actor wanted to make a soundstage of a classroom for an entire school year, especially a classroom in a beleaguered urban district where every second of instruction is vital.
That’s not what the A&E public-relations gal had in mind. Forget PR. Stonewalling suddenly became her specialty. A&E was in full control. Even Northeast High principal Linda Carroll became elusive, willing to praise Danza’s teaching technique but not so willing to discuss whether show-biz and education were a good combo in the classroom. You’d have thought we were asking if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was enriching uranium.
Now this isn’t to diminish Danza’s sitcom chops. The dude was on fire in the ’80s, with the TV sitcoms Taxi and Who’s the Boss?, and he does seem a nice enough guy. Even if Teach eventually wheezed to its conclusion, deflated somewhat by an audience that gradually played hooky over the ensuing weeks, the reality series earned some decent press reviews.
I admittedly peeked at it a couple times. I tuned in for the very first time when Danza was on a crying jag, and I figured, my God, he must’ve been roughed up or maybe even locked in the janitorial closet and principal Carroll had to let him out, but I was relieved to learn that Tony was just having a rookie’s crisis of confidence.
That doesn’t mean Danza has paid his dues as a teacher. It simply means good melodrama for a TV show. It is nice that he keeps in touch with the school, as he did by hosting a fund-raising talent show at Northeast High on the day of that press conference, but Tony Danza has become like the mother-in-law who arrives for Christmas and is still around on Groundhog Day.
He has no street cred to be part of a press conference pulled together to rap Gov. Tom Corbett’s school-funding policies. He has no resume to weigh in on tough times for Philly’s public schools.
That’s the province of a teacher, not an actor. ••EndFragment