The Siege of Philadelphia Public Schools

By Ken Derstine

 August 29, 2015 

 

 “Whenever I see the school and the ruins, I wanna break into tears,” wrote Jacob Rodriguez, 17, who attended Fairhill from kindergarten through eighth grade.

 Kiara Villegas, 15, wrote on the wall: “They closed our school, for what reason though?”

 Pencil statements of students from the closed Fairhill School in North Philadelphia in an art exhibit about the closing of 31 public schools in 2012. 

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 “Fernando Gallard, a spokesman for the school district, said, “We completely understand the feelings of the students and their community that something that was part of their community was closed.” He said Fairhill was chosen for closure because it was low-performing and was in poor physical condition.”

 Art Show Captures the Wrenching Effects of Closing a School
The New York Times – August 28, 2015

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Unlike New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where a natural disaster was turned into a man-made disaster to advance a neoliberal privatization agenda, Philadelphia public schools have been undergoing a completely manmade disaster since the state takeover of the School District in 2001.

Contrary to the claim of school district officials, the 24 schools closed in 2013 were not closed due to “declining enrollment”. The schools were losing students due to a starvation of the public schools, feed the charters policy that began with the state takeover in 2001 and has accelerated since 2008. This was a deliberate policy promoted by a series of administrators from The Broad Foundation, and by ALEC-affiliated legislators in the Pennsylvania capitol of Harrisburg.

School District spokesman Gallard’s statement that schools were closed because they were “in poor physical condition” is an indictment of every School Reform Commission since the state takeover in 2001. Maintenance and repair of these schools was neglected and many new school facilities built during this period were quickly turned over to charters such as Audinreid Charter High School taken over by Universal Companies. After their closure, the SRC invested millions in these closed school buildings for repair in hopes of sale to real estate interests or demolition even as the classrooms in Philadelphia public schools continued to be starved for resources.

In addition closing schools, the SRC has been balkanizing the district, closing or contracting out support services to private interests. Most school libraries have been closed. Counselors elementary and middle schools have part-time counslors and high schools have one counselor for thousands of students. The entire teaching staff  has been privatized based on a bogus claim of a substitute shortage. The SRC is preparing to privatize school health services.

The summer of 2015 has seen the ramping up of policies for the expansion of privatization. In what one parent at the August 20, 2015 meeting of the SRC describes as “a slow moving train wreck”, the conditions are being created for a major expansion of charter schools in Philadelphia. School Superintendent William Hite (Broad Superintendents Academy Class of 2005) and the SRC have been developing the infrastructure for the “turnaround” (the tactical replacement of school closures) of Philadelphia public schools to private charter management companies.  

On July 8th, Hite announced a massive reorganization of the entire School District and new hires to carry out his Action Plan 3.0 which will focus on Renaissance turnaround schools as the means to charter growth. On August 25, 2015, Hite announced the expansion of his administration by adding eight new positions at a cost of $1.2 million. Most of the appointments are careerists who hold positions for corporate education interests for a year or two before moving on to their next district to “reform”.

In a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke expressed frustration that $25 million City Council allocated in the spring specifically for classroom use is now being used to expand Hite’s administration.

On August 26, 2015 the SRC employed its latest tactic by using a new term of a “turnaround of a turnaround”. Management of the former Fredrick Douglass charter school was taken from one charter company and given to another ­­– from Young Scholars to Mastery – in violation of established rules.

Mastery runs fourteen charter schools in Philadelphia. In addition, it is expanding its role in the state-run Camden, NJ schools with the opening of five “hybrid” (blended learning) Renaissance Schools that are the first step to privatizing these schools. 

At the end of June, Mastery complimented Hite’s 3.0 Action Plan with its own Mastery 3.0 plan. Mastery acknowledges there are signs their students that go to college are having trouble staying with the course work just as happened with low-income students in public schools. Whatever magic Mastery claims to possess, the privatization of public schools does not address the underlying social conditions that children in low-income communities must struggle with. The signs are that the entire corporate reform agenda is a house of cards built on quicksand!

Regardless, at its August 20th meeting, the SRC voted to accept $300,000 from Mastery (from the taxpayers or philanthropists?) in partnership with the William Penn Foundation to spread its magic “to pilot a coaching program that targets an underserved population of District teachers and builds informal leadership capacity within schools to increase the opportunity for professional growth for all teachers.” (SRC Resolution A-4)

 In the words of Lisa Haver of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools,

 “Resolution A-4 proposes to take professional development from the teachers and educational leadership at three unnamed schools and give it to an outside provider, in this case Mastery charter district. What it doesn’t say is why. Who decided that unknown employees from a charter company know more than SD teachers? Given that all SD teachers are certified but only some of Mastery’s, and that test scores from district schools are consistently higher than those of charters, how does this make sense?”

Haver continues,

"The SRC is going to allow an outside company to compile and analyze data of teachers and students to whom they are not accountable in a school they don’t work for? No explanation of who collects it and how it would be used or how much control the actual teachers would have over it.   Of course, without a contract, those pesky issues would disappear.”

On May 15, 2015, The Broad Superintendents Academy announced that Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, had joined its latest cohort of trainees. The press release stated the latest cohort is made up of ten trainees who are “passionate, proven leaders to transform America’s urban school systems so every student receives a world-class education.” Also joining the trainees is Paul Kihn, former Deputy Superintendent of the School District of Philadelpia, who resigned in July from the SDP in Hite’s latest administrative shuffle. Kihn returned to the Washington D.C based McKinsey and Company, “a global management consulting firm”. In 2011, Kihn coauthored Deliverology 101: A Field Guide for Educational Leaders, with Sir Michael Barber, chief education advisor for the British testing company Pearson. 

The expansion of charter schools in Pennsylvania received a major boost on August 27, 2015 with the ruling by Commonwealth Court that school districts do not have the right to place limits on charter school enrollment.

Underwriting this expansion of privatization is the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP). At Fredrick Douglass, for example, it has given $1.5 million for its “turnaround of a turnaround”. PSP came on the scene in 2010 with corporate and philanthropy funding from such local philanthropies as the aforementioned William Penn Foundation. PSP has become part of Education Cities ,“a non-profit network of 31 city-based organizations in 24 cities” who work as “harbormasters” for the privatization of public schools in their city. Partners include corporate education reform organizations such as Bellwether, Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), Public Impact, Fordham Institute, and Kingsland Consulting. Funders include The Broad Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, and Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

When the Philadelphia School Partnership was created in 2010, the focus was on closing “low-performing” schools based on low standardized test scores. Recently, however, it has begun “turnaround” of schools not having low standardized tests scores based on unknown criteria. As Coleman Poses, a researcher for the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, recently noted in his article “An Analysis of How Philadelphia School Partnership Has Implemented Its Mission”,

"Charter schools became a part of the Philadelphia educational landscape in 1998 as a way to block what some observers believed to be a monopoly of the Philadelphia School District over public schools. Since the advent of the Great Schools Compact, however, Philadelphia School Partnership has worked to create and maintain a cartel of charter and parochial schools, while diminishing the role of district schools in the City. PSP has accomplished this objective by providing economic supports to specific schools and programs based upon non-existent criteria. It has also financially supported the removal of teachers without cause from schools deemed to be successful. Finally, educators, parents, politicians, and the general public have received misleading information from PSP that has stymied efforts to determine the best way to educate children in Philadelphia."

Ever since the state takeover in 2001, the School District of Philadelphia has been like a medieval town increasingly under siege from an invading army. Like a foreign enemy being set up for takeover, basic resources have been embargoed to weaken the schools. Outside interests have been laying the conditions to take the education of the children of Philadelphia from the community and make them available for exploitation for the profit of corporate education interests. Organizations like Philadelphia School Partnership have been burrowing under the foundations of the School District preparing for their ultimate collapse. What they envision is a two-tiered School District as outlined by SRC member Bill Green when he served as a Philadelphia City Councilman. Green proposed a statewide system of charter schools with a selected population of students and teachers segregated from a public school system to be made up of children, mainly from low income families, left behind in under resourced schools with low paid teachers. 

The problem for the side supporting public schools as basic to a functioning democracy is that we are leaderless in the attack on public education. Whether it is Democratic Party politicians or union leaders, all have bought into the neoliberal corporate education agenda first promoted during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, has for years promoted collaboration with The Broad Foundation and The Gates Foundation. The local union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, has confined the defense of its members to court battles over the teachers’ contract which the SRC has been trying to abolish since the last contract expired June 30th, 2013. PFT members have been working with a contract freeze since then. There have been no pay raises of any kind, including step increases, or compensation for additional degrees or certifications.

Nor have the AFT or PFT supported the Opt-Out movement against standardized testing which, combined with the Common Core, is the main tool of corporate education reformers for privatizing public schools. 

Chicago principal Troy LaRaviere, who is under attack by his District, and where Chicago faces a similar attack on its public schools as Philadelphia, says what must be done:

 “We don’t need heroes, and we don’t need saints. We need a movement. A movement of hundreds of thousands of people across this city who stand together to retake it from the grips of the corrupt and inept elected and appointed officials who hold the reigns of power. The hero we need is the public itself, awakened and ready to change our collective reality; ready to serve as examples to our children—examples of citizens who come together to work and change our city for the better.”

Also see:

An Analysis of How Philadelphia School Partnership Has Implemented Its Mission
Coleman Poses @ Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools – August 25, 2015

Talking Back to Mark Gleason
Defend Public Education! - April 19, 2014
Mark Gleason is the Executive Director of the Philadlephia School Partnership