Common Sense in Philadelphia
May 21, 2015
By Ken Derstine
This sacrifice of common sense is the certain badge which distinguishes slavery from freedom; for when men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.
Photo by Jeff Fusco/Philadelphia City Paper
On Tuesday, May 19th voters in Philadelphia sent a message to billionaire venture philanthropists who were trying to buy the office of mayor of Philadelphia to promote their privatization of public schools agenda. By the day of the primary election for mayor and other offices they had invested $7 million in advertising for the candidate they thought would carry out their agenda, State Senator Anthony Williams.
Former Councilman Jim Kenney defeated Williams by a 2-to-1 margin winning a plurality in all wards in the city. Kenney ran on a progressive platform, including the ending ‘stop and frisk’ by police, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and establishing universal pre-Kindergarten. Even before he decided to run for mayor, Kenney was praised for championing the erecting of a statue in City Hall for forgotten civil rights pioneer Octavius Catto. Kenney has also been a supporter of immigrant rights.
At the beginning of the campaign, Anthony Williams was considered the frontrunner. As the campaign progressed, despite flooding the airwaves with campaign commercials beyond what any other candidate could do, Williams began to drop in the polls. Williams attempted to give the appearance of distancing himself from what had been his signature role in the Pennsylvania state legislature for ten years, the promotion of charters and vouchers. As it was clear his campaign was in trouble, Philadelphia Inquirer editorial page editor (the Inquirer endorsed Williams) Harold Jackson appealed to Williams to “run on his beliefs”. Williams duplicity only made voters question what he was hiding about his plans for public education.
In the days before the end of the campaign Williams appealed to ethnic solidarity to get votes in the African-American community. This too backfired as Kenney won a plurality of the votes in the 30 predominantly black wards. In the days before the primary, the fractured Democratic Party coalesced around Kenney with endorsements from Mayor Nutter, City Council President Darrell Clark, and some Black clergy switching from supporting Williams to Kenney.
There was speculation in the press that School Reform Commission member Bill Green will run as an independent in the November election to promote his privatization of education agenda. Green had been outspoken in his support of Williams despite being a member of the School Reform Commission since his appointment by Governor Corbett. He contributed the legal limit of $2900 to his campaign. Green said the election of Kenney “was no coronation” as evidenced by the low voter turnout.
The voter turnout was the lowest in modern Philadelphia history with more registered voters abstaining than those voting. Only 30% of registered voters voted.
Also elected as a Democratic nominee to a City Council-at-Large seat was Helen Gym. Gym is a founder of Parents United for Public Education and has been one of the leaders of those campaigning for defense of Philadelphia’s public schools. On the day of the election, the head of Boys’ Latin charter sent out an email urging people not to vote for Helen Gym because “she hates us.”
A non-binding resolution was passed by voters calling for the abolition of the School Reform Commission, the administrators of the Philadelphia School District since the state takeover in 2001, and a return to local control of Philadelphia schools.
While the election is a victory for democracy over the attempt of wealthy hedge fund managers to buy an election, we can have no illusions that public education in Philadelphia is now safe. Far from it!
The Philadelphia public schools have been under relentless attack by corporate education reformers for many years. The starved schools have been taken off of life support. In the last few years, teachers have been forced to buy basic supplies just to teach their students even as their salaries, including step increases, are frozen.
Most libraries in public schools have been closed. Counselors have been cut so most schools have part time or no counselor. School nursing is now provided part time in most schools. This can now be seen as the beginning of the attempted dismantling of the Philadelphia public schools.
On April 10th the SRC announced substitute teacher services would be bid out to private contractors.
On May 13th, the SRC announced that they want to outsource public school nurses to private companies. Listen to this interview with school nurse Eileen Duffey talking about what this will mean for medical services in Philadelphia public schools.
On May 17th, the School District announced a contract had been reached with the union of the lowest paid employees in the District, noontime aides and cafeteria workers. While these low paid workers received a modest wage increase, it came at the cost of the District stopping payments into the union’s health and welfare fund and the lose of seniority protections for layoffs and rehires. Superintendent William Hite, a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, took the opportunity to lecture the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to follow this example of “shared sacrifice” to make up for the underfunding of the public schools.
The SRC has announced their first “turnaround of a turnaround”, (a term invented so they didn't have to have community meetings) the turning over of a “failed” independent charter school to charter management company Mastery.
Can Kenney be counted on to fight this onslaught on public education? Jim Kenney is a centrist when it comes to privatization of public schools. In other words he has said different things at different times regarding the expansion of charters depending on the audience and his ratings in the polls.
Early in the campaign he was for expansion of charters as long as the state reimburses their cost. Late in the campaign he ended his commercials with “I support all public schools in Philadelphia”. The qualifier “all” indicates he thinks, despite their classification by the U. S. Census Bureau, that charter schools are public schools. This raises concerns of how much resistance he will make to ALEC legislators in Harrisburg who want to expand charters. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has recently questioned why the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools is advising its members not to follow Pennsylvania Right-to-Know law which traditional public schools must follow by law.
In the past Kenney has supported vouchers. One of Kenney’s early backers, Senator Dwight Evans, not only is a strong proponent of charters, but for more than ten years he has been a proponent of vouchers, which are presently in the form of Educational Improvement Tax Credits, a back-door voucher program. The EITC diverts business tax money for public schools to student scholarships for private and religious schools of the business’s choosing. The EITC and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program pose a grave, and largely unrecognized, danger to public education. In addition, this legislation is a clear violation of separation of church and state.
Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York is promoting similar legislation. Jeb Bush, as Governor of Florida, pioneered this method of getting around the massive opposition to vouchers that existed a decade ago.
On Friday, May 15th, four days before the election, a rally for Helen Gym was held at the School District headquarters. It is apparent that there was not much interest in getting parents and teachers out to the rally since it was held at 10:30 a.m. Joining this photo op of politicians and labor leaders who had endorsed Helen Gym was American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. Reporters were told she had flown in from Los Angeles, after international travel, just to be at the rally.
Weingarten gave her usual stump speech with much fist pumping and effusive praise for Helen Gym as the Superwoman we have been waiting for. As usual, it was much “sound and fury signifying nothing.” There is no way that one Councilwoman, no matter how gifted, can stop the privatization onslaught. While a seat in City Council will give Helen Gym a powerful platform to fight for public schools, it will be within a Democratic Party which places priority on the interests of real estate developers, corporate interests such as Comcast, the Chamber of Commerce, and the banking community, not the common good.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan has not proposed any trade union fight against the attacks. His response to both the privatization of substitute teaching and nursing is that the PFT would be "pursuing every option available to stop the privatization of our public schools." This is his weak-kneed response to the balkanization of the Philadelphia School District despite his acknowledgement that privatization has been prepared by the Boston Consulting Group for several years. For details see “Who is killing Philly schools?” 5/2/12 and “Who’s Still Killing Philly Schools?” 5/22/2013 by Daniel Denvir in the Philadelphia City Paper.
For all her bluster, Weingarten does not want a mobilization of the Philadelphia labor movement as those seen in 1973 and again in 1981 when teacher strikes were ended after the threat of a general strike by the city labor movement. Philadelphia labor leaders were rebuffed by Weingarten and the PFT leadership when they suggested the possiblity of a general strike as was threatened in the 1973 PFT strike.
Glaringly missing from her bombast was any mention of the Opt Out movement against standardized testing being led by parents across the country. Weingarten is a supporter of the Gates Foundation promotion of annual standardized testing and the Common Core.
Immediately after the rally, Ms. Weingarten rushed off to New York City where she joined Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, officials from the Gates Foundation and other educational technology enthusiasts at the Oppi Learning Festival 2015. The program says “Oppi Festival is a unique learning event which allows all education key stakeholder groups from around the world to come together, share ideas and experiences, tackle challenges and form new partnerships.
Ms. Weingarten was part of the welcoming ceremony where she had a conversation about Global Kids. Missing from the speakers were American K-12 teachers or educators from the academic world of higher education who have decades of experience with American education. NYC teachers were invited to be in the audience to learn how they too could collaborate with corporate education.
Weingarten returned to Philadelphia Tuesday to campaign for Kenney and Gym and to join the victory celebration at Helen Gym’s campaign headquarters.
On May 9th, Ms. Weingarten appeared on HuffPost Live. Using the standardized testing crisis as a smoke screen, she attempted to rescue the Common Core, heavily funded by the Gates Foundation, from parent and teacher opposition to it.
To bolster her credentials for promoting the Common Core, she made much of her teaching experience as the basis for supporting Common Core. This has been her practice of late: to deflect questions about why she continues to promote Common Core and take attention from her alliance with the Gates Foundation. At an appearance at a forum of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute on June 28, 2014, Ms. Weingarten went on for several minutes about her teaching experience.
Norm Scott of Ed Notes Online, who was in the NYC United Federation of Teachers when Weingarten became its President, said of her credentials recently:
Randi has distorted the reality of her teaching experience, often by parsing the language to give an impression that she taught for 6 years when in fact she taught full time for only 6 months at Clara Barton HS in Brooklyn. The rest of the time she taught a few classes a day before going off to her other job at the union - a unique arrangement not exactly available to the average teacher. (My guess is that once Shanker came down with life-threatening cancer around 1989 or 90, he and Sandra Feldman, then UFT president, had to decide on succession and Randi, a fairly recent arrival at the UFT, was chosen over people who had worked for the UFT since its inception, leading to some resentment.) Since Randi was a lawyer - she was the UFT counsel - with no teaching credentials, they had to scramble to get her certified and find her a "teaching" part-time gig before she could claim the mantle of UFT president. They found her a "safe" school near her home. Clara Barton, across the street from Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, was a vocational school focused on nurse and health care worker training, a school that attracted a number of girls. Unity Caucus member Leo Casey was the chapter leader and would cover Randi's back when needed. Everyone in the school knew they were getting a "celebrity" staff member who would one day be the president of the union. By never having taught in real conditions like her constituents, Randi never had a sense of what it was really like.
As is the case many times in history, young people who have their whole lives in front of them and want a say in what kind of world they will live in, are unencumbered by past practices and political connections. On May 12th, hundreds of Philadelphia High School students Opted Out by not attending school at the beginning of the Pennsylvania Keystone standardized tests. (Video of a student walkout.)Some administrators threatened the students with being denied the right to participate in the Prom or walk in their graduation.
A Philadelphia teacher was suspended for four days without pay for informing parents about Opting Out when asked.
On May 19th, Election Day, the Caucus of Working Educators in the PFT held workshops at Central High School about various issues in education today. This video has excerpts from the Opt Out session which shows the testing crisis that is deepening in Pennsylvania.
Kenney, Gym change the education conversation
Philadelphia Public School Notebook - November 3, 2015
Mayoral candidates face tough questions – from elementary students
Philadelphia Daily News - October 20, 2015
Mayoral candidate Kenney calls for a moratorium on charter schools, but says he is "begging" Broad Superintendent Hite to stay in Philadelphia.
Mayor-elect Kenney has made Rep. Dwight Evans Transition Team Co-Chair
Phiadelphia Inquirer - November 3, 2015
For Dwight Evans history see Corporate Education Reform and Civil Rights on this website.
Dwight Evans is not currently on the board of BAEO.
In Ohio, Kenney team finds an 'awesome' school plan
Philadelphia Inquirer - November 22, 2015
What could be wrong with "community schools" model?
Alison McDowell for the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools - November 23, 2015
Thousands of Newark students march against state control of schools
Bob Braun's Ledger - May 23, 2015
Mayor Ras Baraka, citing "chaos, graft, miseducation," demands people take back Newark schools
Bob Braun's Ledger - May 28, 2015
Who got the first meeting with Kenney after the win? S. Jersey political boss Norcross
Philadelphia Inquirer - May 22, 2015
Even before the victory was celebrated, deals were being made.
PA: Another Charter Boosting Plan
Curmudgucation - May 21, 2015
How Big Money Lost in Philly's Mayoral Race
The American Prospect - May 20, 2015
More on questions about Randi Weingarten’s teaching experience:
Kathy Hochul: Best Way To Support Public Schools Is By Taking Money From Them, Giving it to Private Schools and Charter Schools | Perdido Street School - May 22, 2015
Randi Weingarten made robocalls for Hochul in the Democratic primary.
Top Philly donor moves from Anthony Williams...to Rand Paul
Philadelphia Daily News - December 30, 2015
Sole bidder [Dwight Evans] for Philly's pre-K contract has political ties to Kenney
City and State PA - September 2, 2016
Commentary: Philly's underfunded schools, undervalued teacher
Philadelphia Daily News - February 27, 2017
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