Riding the 'Turnaround' Merry-Go-Round in the Continuing Assault on Philadelphia Public Schools: Part IV

by Ken Derstine

May 8, 2016


The Philadelphia School Reform Commission - April 28, 2016

Crossing the Rubicon

The Rubicon has been crossed in the privatization assault on Philadelphia public schools. On Thursday, April 28th, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted to turn three more public schools over to charter companies.

The Battle for Wister has been decided in favor of Mastery Charters over the objections of many parents at the school. (See The Battle for Wister in Part I of this series.)  What makes this turnover different than all preceding turnovers is that Wister, even by Broad Academy graduate Superintendent Hite’s own admission, had been making progress as a public school. The School Reform Commission (SRC) reversed his decision one week after Hite had withdrawn Wister from the turnaround list. No more can the SRC claim that the turnover of a public school to a charter company is based on the pretense that their “data” shows a school is a “failing school”. It is now clear for all to see that the drive for privatization is based on the market interests of corporate education reform, not education.

Also to be turned over to charter companies that have a dubious history are Jay Cooke Elementary to Great Oaks Charter and Samuel B. Huey Elementary to Global Leadership Academy.

These turnovers went forward despite the SRC’s Charter School Office presenting strong evidence that many charters up for their five-year renewals are performing no better, or worse, than the public schools they replaced. In addition, Newsworks reporter Kevin McCorry observed, based on Newsworks analysis, “the most consistent thing about school ‘progress’ as captured by the SPR [the District’s School Progress Report] is inconsistency.” He wrote,

There are many reasons to be wary about relying too heavily on the School District of Philadelphia’s main tool for measuring school quality [SPR] – especially when it comes to making high-stakes decisions about closures, staffing shake-ups and charter conversions.

Despite this evidence, along with protests from parents, students, teachers and community members, the SRC is forging ahead with turnovers to charters and disrupting the lives of thousands of students and staff. Like all corporate education reformers, it presents its decisions as being based on “failed schools” due to “bad teachers and administrators”. That these turnarounds are happening only in low-income neighborhoods gives the lie to this claim. The educational opportunities of children from low-income families will not change by moving school professionals from one school to another, year after year. What must change are the economic circumstances of these families.

 The Latest Spin of the Turnaround Merry-Go-Round in Philadelphia Schools

At the April 28th meeting, the SRC renewed several charters and put others on hold. Two were with conditions because of low SPR ratings. The renewal of three Mastery charter schools was tabled because of undisclosed “legal and procedural issues”.

Four charters were recommended for non-renewal – two from Universal charters and two from ASPIRA. However, SRC Commissioner Bill Green intervened to withdraw the non-renewals until the SRC had more information even though their Charter Office had just publically detailed the failure of those schools to meet several of the SRC’s requirements for renewal. For those who follow the machinations of the SRC, this was a déjà vu moment. At its January 21st meeting, SRC Commissioner Sylvia Simms successfully got passed a motion which began the process of reversing Superintendent Hite’s removal of Wister school from turnover to Mastery Charter. As a result of a Right to Know request filed by the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, it was subsequently revealed that Green had been working behind the scenes to reverse Hite’s decision on Wister. In addition, questions arose about Commissioner Simms’ sister’s close connections with a Chicago-based  consulting firm, Citizen Group, which has close ties to Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP). (See Part II of this series for PSP’s role in promoting privatization of Philadelphia public schools.)

Philadelphians are now confronted with the prospect of privatization of a public school that was actually making progress and, at the same time, we see the withdrawal of resolutions for non-renewal of four charters that the Charter Office said are not making adequate progress, with no scheduled date for reconsideration.

Commissioner Green had been an aggressive proponent of charter expansion even before his appointment to the SRC three years ago. As a Democratic City Councilman, he issued two education reports in 2010 calling for the establishment of  two-tier education system, one charter and one public, modeled after experiments like the Tennessee Achievement School District and the New Orleans Recovery School District. This is also a goal of Pennsylvania legislators aligned with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). They continue this privatization drive even though the Tennessee Achievement School District has turned out to be an abysmal failure and the Louisiana legislature is voting to end New Orleans Recovery School District. Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, as Kevin McCorry reported in NewsWorks, quote:

“Our charter school law is simply the worst charter school law in the United States," said DePasquale at a news conference at Philadelphia's district headquarters.

Specifically, DePasquale said, the law fails to give districts the power to ensure that only high-performing charters that serve equitable populations of children are opening. And he lamented that districts waste too much time and too many resources fighting to close underperformers.

He blamed recent failed efforts in Harrisburg to reform the charter law on special interest lobbying.

SRC Commissioner Green Makes His Move

On April 20th, Green filled suit in Commonwealth Court to regain his seat as SRC Chair. Green maintains that Governor Tom Wolf had illegally removed him from that position in March 2015 just months after Wolf was elected. Green cites the law that resulted in the state takeover of the School District in 2001 as his basis for challenging the Governor’s action. (Green was appointed SRC Chair by former Republican Governor Tom Corbett on February 21, 2014.) Governor Wolf had just lost a nine-month battle with the Legislature. In a last-ditch effort to restore $35 million to Philadelphia schools – after almost $1 billion in cuts by the prior Corbett administration, Wolf tried to unilaterally use the state Fiscal Code to get the funding. This failed when members of the Governor's own party voted against that action because their districts would lose money under the plan.

The Broad Foundation and Boston Consulting Group's Privatization Plan is on Schedule

Since the state takeover in 2001, there have been numerous attempts to privatize Philadelphia’s public schools. This agenda was ramped up with the appointment of Broad Superintendent Arlene Ackerman in 2007. Ackerman came from the Broad Superintendents Academy where she was appointed the first head of this Academy in that same year. She remained on the board of the Broad Foundation while she was Superintendent of Philadelphia public schools from 2008-2011. In June, 2009 Superintendent Ackerman announced her Imagine 2014 plan. It included her Renaissance Schools plan for turning over “low-performing” public schools to charter companies. Currently there are twenty Renaissance charters in Philadelphia, including the four recommended for non-renewal by the Charter Office. Another charter company, Young Scholars, that took over Kenderton Elementary in 2013, has just announced May 4th that it will close in June – two years before the expiration of its charter. Despite claims that the action is due to fiscal difficulties, Young Scholars plans to open a new school in Memphis next year as part of Tennessee’s failing Achievement School District. Parents were stunned. The Philadelphia School Partnership, which had invested $1.8 million into Kendertons' turnaround, had no comment.

On May 12, 2009, Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter testified before the House Committee on Education and Labor in Washington D.C. In his testimony, Gordon said,

In Philadelphia, under the leadership of our new Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, we are going to close up to 35 schools over the next four years.  Turnaround managers such as Mastery, as well as internal District turnaround teams, will be contracted to turnaround these schools. Those who succeed will have the opportunity to manage additional schools.  Those who don’t produce results will lose their contract. Simple.  Support bold initiatives like this.   By creating an accountability system, we can leverage what works to put pressure for systems change.

In a laudatory article in the December 30, 2010 Roll Call, Morton Kondracke praised Gordon's testimony

Gordon didn’t explicitly point the finger at teachers unions: the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

But they are the ones that systematically fight charter schools, oppose testing and accountability, and insist that salaries, promotions and layoffs be based on seniority, not merit.

There is encouraging evidence that state, local and national leaders, on a bipartisan basis, realize that the schools have to stop being run for the benefit of the adults who work in them and need to prepare children for global competition.

But they are the ones that systematically fight charter schools, oppose testing and accountability, and insist that salaries, promotions and layoffs be based on seniority, not merit.

There is encouraging evidence that state, local and national leaders, on a bipartisan basis, realize that the schools have to stop being run for the benefit of the adults who work in them and need to prepare children for global competition.

In the fall of 2011, Ackerman was forced to resign, however, by Mayor Michael Nutter, who had been a supporter for most of her term, after they clashed on a number of issues, including which charter management company would get ownership of Martin Luther King High School. (For details about this episode see More on Broad in Philadelphia.) She left with a $905,000 buyout and $86,000 of unused vacation pay.

During the almost a year interim before the next Superintendent was appointed, Ackerman's Imagine 2014 plan went forward. Outside corporate management companies were brought in to implement the plan and  Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) was formed to provide corporate funding to charters, along with token funding to public schools.(See Part II of this series.) PSP is made up of supporters of corporate education reform from businesses and hedge funds, most of whom were from outside the District and had no education background.

Ackerman’s was replaced by Hite, Broad Superintendent Academy Class of 2005, on June 29th, 2012. Following Hite’s recommendation, and following the Broad School closings plan, the SRC voted on March 3, 2013 to close twenty-three public schools.

Playing a leading role behind the scenes is the secretive Boston Consulting Group (BCG) who were paid by th William Penn Foundation and local philanthropists to draw up, in secret, the strategic plan for privatization. [For details see Who is killing Philly schools? and Who’s Still Killing Philly Schools? by Daniel Denvir. Also see In the City of Corporate Love and Beyond: The Boston Consulting Group, Gates, and the Filthy Rich in The Common Errant by Doug Martin. These articles detail that the Boston Consulting Group has brought corporate education reform based on its experience in raiding and decimating companies in the corporate world for many years.) The blog Curmudgucation recently reported the Broad Foundation and the Washington D.C based management consulting firm McKinsey and Company are engaged in a similar assault on Boston public schools.

Under the guidance of PSP and the Boston Consulting Group, the charter portion of the School District budget has gone from $430 million in FY11 to a projected $875 million in FY17. [See the SDP Budget in Brief FY2016-2017, page 8.] This is money that has been taken away from public schools to expand charters from the total projected budget of $2.8 billion. Currently there are 87 charters and 214 public schools with a total of almost 200,000 students.

The Privatization Rollout in the Last Two Years

In October, 2014, the School District and the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education announced they were each given a two-year federal grant for $200,000 to research Philadelphia’s turnarounds.

On February 9, 2015, when the SRC announced it would decide on 39 new charter applications, PSP offered the School District $35 million to offset the financial impact of enrolling 15,000 public school students in charters. District spokesperson Fernando Gallard said moving 15,000 students would cost the District $500 million.

On May 15, 2015, The Broad Academy announced that Mastery CEO Scott Gordon would be a member of its new cohort of trainees for leaders of corporate education reform. He joined Paul Kihn, former Deputy Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, who resigned his $210,000 annually position in July, 2015. Kihn had been brought in by Hite in 2012, at the beginning of Hite’s term as superintendent,from McKinsey and Company. In 2010, Kihn had coauthored Deliverology 101: A Field Guide for Educational Leaders, with Sir Michael Barber, chief education advisor for the British testing company Pearson. 

Paul Kihn’s departure was part of a massive reorganization announced by Superintendent Hite on July 8,, 2015. New highly paid administrators, most coming from charter sector backgrounds, were hired to implement Hite’s Action Plan 3.0 which will focus on Renaissance turnaround schools as the means to even more charter growth. On August 25, 2015, Hite announced yet another expansion of his administration by adding eight new positions at a cost of $1.2 million to implement his privatization agenda.

In October, 2015 the U.S. Department of Education awarded Mastery Charter Schools a $9.6 million federal grant for the purpose of opening up twelve new schools over the next five years. Mastery is implementing a master plan of catchments to build a separate, corporate school district within the School District of Philadelphia. One reason Mastery  fought so hard to privatize Wister is that the school will be a key feeder school for its Mastery Picket middle and high school. The Mastery grant proposal states that in addition to its current schools in Philadelphia and New Jersey, it hopes to expand into Delaware and Washington D.C.

On December 18, 2015, the SRC announced that it was extending Superintendent Hite’s contract for five years. Since his current contract had two years to run, this means Hite will be paid $300,000 per year (almost twice as much as the governor and a third more than the mayor are paid) for each of the next seven years.

On March 102016, Superintendent Hite announced that the public schools will have one full time nurse and counselor next year. This would not return schools to conditions before the cuts, however, since some large high schools were operating with three or four counselors. This announcement was made at the height of the battle for Wister when the SRC was coming under increasing scrutiny for its methods. It was also made before the state had resolved its nine-month budget impasse and there was no way of knowing what funding Philadelphia would be receiving. Philadelphia schools have been operating with part-time nurses and counselors for the last three years. There was no announcement, however, of reopening any of the school libraries which have not been in operation for years and certified librarians were laid off. There are fewer than ten certified librarians left in the entire system. Civic organizations have been donating books for classroom libraries.

On March 16th, Hite told reporters that the district will launch a recruitment drive for 800 new teachers by June. This number includes filling the 125 to 160 vacancies from the present school year. A few weeks later the district's Chief Financial Officer disclosed at an SRC budget hearing that the district would be ending the year with a $134.5 million surplus due in part to what the SRC’s Budget Director calls “savings” from not filling teacher vacancies. The cost of this has been borne by the students and staff who have had to endure oversized classes (some gym classes have had as many as seventy-seven students), classes split by grade, and teachers covering classes instead of having their preparation time. The school district is offering three-weeks of summer school to students who have not had a regular teacher for more than two-thirds of the year. And, of course, despite the chaos, there has been no interruption of giving this year’s Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests.

On May 6th, Hite announced that the district had come to a mutual agreement with Source4Teachers, the private company hired to provide substitute teachers, and that its contract would not be renewed. Source4Teachers had promised a fill rate of 75% on the first day of school in September 2015, to increase to 90% by January 2016.  The Philadelphia Inquirer reported a fill rate of 11% on the first day of school; it hovered close to 20% for the next few months. Some schools reported that they had not been sent any substitutes for the first three months of school. Source4Teachers never passed a 50% fill rate district-wide.  Thus, many schools were struggling to cope both with teacher vacancies and the lack of substitutes. But Hite, rather than admit that privatizing substitutes had been a failure, has proposed hiring another private contractor, Kelly Services, for Fall 2016.  The SRC is expected to approve this latest business venture in a couple of weeks, even though Kelly’s contract was a no-bid one with no public disclosure.

When Source4Teachers was hired, previously unionized substitutes charged that the substitute shortage had been created by the SRC in order to cut their pay. Source4Teachers cut their pay from $160 for certified teachers to between $90 and $110. So schools that were struggling to cope with teacher vacancies in 2015-16, were also coping with lack of substitute teachers. Kelly Services will pay certified substitute teachers $160 per day. 

In March of this year, the SRC adopted a five-year budget plan that envisions closing three public schools per year, beginning in 2017-18, due to “declining enrollment” as students are transferred to charters. This is happening even as the state charter funding formula continues to drive the Philadelphia School District toward bankruptcy. Commissioner Green and corporate education reformers in Pennsylvania apparently want a much more rapid expansion of charter schools in Philadelphia.


Also see:
Joseph Batory: Time to Abolish State Control of Philadelphia’s Schools
Diane Ravitch’s blog – May 4, 2016

ED: No Records on Closed Charters Mentioned in Its “Commitment to Transparency,” CMD Appeals
PR Watch – May 5, 2016

A Reality Check for “Charter School Week”
PR Watch – May 5, 2016

Ears on the SRC – April 28, 2016
Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools - May 6, 2016 

The Free Market Does Not Work For Education
Curmudgucation – May 6, 2016
Comment on the sudden closing of a Young Scholars charter school in Philadelphia.

New Orleans Plan: Charter Return to Local Control
New York Times - May 9, 2016 
New Orleans returning to local control, but it is promoted by corporate education reformers.  

State Auditor General faults Philly schools, SRC for lax management
Inquirer - May 11, 2016 
The lax management includes failure to audit Superintendent Hite's performance.

Auditor calls the District's funding model unsustainable
Philadelphia Notebook - May 11, 2016 

Unwilling to Help Schools, PA legislature Attacks Teachers
 gadflyonthewall blog - May 14, 2016

Do charter schools with extreme disciplinary measures cluster in Black communities?
CityLab - September 15, 2016

State rules: no ethics violation for SRC's Simms
Philadelphia Inquirer - November 10, 2016

Has Mastery lost its mojo? (The quest to fix Philly's biggest charter network)
Newsworks -November 14, 2016

Mastery Charter Schools agrees to pay $2000 to settle city ethics complaint
Philadelphia Inquirer - November 18, 2016

A conference at the University of Pennsylvania to promote 'no excuses' schools in low-income communities.
Unerstanding KIPP Model Charter Schools, Part 15: Neural Remapping of Children 
Schools Matter -  December 16, 2016

Also see:

Riding the ‘turnaround’ merry-go-round in the continuing assault on Philadelphia public schools ­– Part I
The Battle for Wister; The SRC’s Projected Five-year Plan

Riding the ‘turnaround’ merry-go-round in the continuing assault on Philadelphia public schools ­– Part II
Mastery Charter Schools; The Unequal Funding of Public vs. Charter Schools

Riding the ‘turnaround’ merry-go-round in the continuing assault on Philadelphia public schools ­– Part III
The No Excuses Education Philosophy; 
’No Excuses’ in Philadelphia Charters; Origins of the No Excuses Schooling Philosophy