Is the School District of Philadelphia a colony of the state of Pennsylvania?

by Ken Derstine

February 20, 2014

This article was published on Schools Matter on February 22, 2014.

A short version, in the alloted three minutes,  of this article was given before the Philadelphia School Reform Commission on February 20, 2014.

Parents of Philadelphia students and prospective students should know their right to choose a school for their children is under attack. Several weeks ago the School Reform Commission held round table discussions about Universal Enrollment. Participants were asked their opinion about a system called PhillySchoolApp where parents submit school requests to a central location. For high schools for example, parents would submit ten choices including public, charter and parochial schools. An administrator would then run a computer algorithm which, using a student's personal data, would select one school. At the meeting and in the posted notes about this meeting, there was overwhelming opposition to having a Universal Enrollment system.

When the expansion of charters began over the last ten years they were touted as giving parents choice. Universal Enrollment does the opposite. It takes away choice and gives the choice to a bureaucrat in an office who does not even know the child but is looking at a spreadsheet. The overriding concern is not the interest of the child, but the demand of the market, whether this be a traditional, charter, or parochial school.

We are told that we are now in the “listening phase” of implementation of Universal Enrollment. First of all, at the beginning of September, 2013, it was already announced by Mr. Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership, the corporate group brought to Philadelphia by “philanthropies” to oversee privatization of our public schools, in testimony before City Council, that plans for Universal Enrollment have been made. So this meeting a few weeks ago was just an attempt to sell to parents on what has already been decided by the SRC. In Newark, New Jersey corporate education reformers are already farther along with the same Universal Enrollment plan and it is one of the issues that parents have been opposing which led to the arrest of a parent leader who tried to post flyers opposing the turning of community schools into charters. The administration of Superintendent Cami Anderson has said that the public will not even be told the computer algorithm which is being used to place the children.

We have been through the listening phase before. At the beginning of last year, Dr. Hite and SRC members held community meetings about the proposed closing of schools. For hours, students, parents and teachers lined up to plead for their schools. When the vote was finally taken on March 7th, it was clear that the decision had been made to close most of the schools before there were any community meetings and 24 schools were closed in June. These meetings were little more than a facade of democracy and now the same method is repeated with Universal Enrollment. It is clear that despite community opposition the community will be ignored.

Ever since the state takeover of the Philadelphia School District in 2001 there has been an ever increasing colonization of the School District by the state. The community has been systematically excluded from decisions about schools and treated as little more than customers and the students as products. Like a medieval village under siege, the School District has been invaded by outside corporate interests and gradually starved of resources even as charter schools are expanded. A few weeks ago the High School for Creative and Performing Arts announced that they may not be able to put on the Spring Show again this year, like they were not able to last year, because they were short of funds. In one day, the community raised $10,000 so they could have their Spring Show this year.

At the same time, the Performing Arts Charter School, a high school of the String Theory charter chain,  was running full page color ads in community newspapers encouraging high school students to enroll in their school in September. There is obviously no shortage of funds there. This school is part of a 2012 $2 million grant for the charter chain from the Philadelphia School Partnership. Traditional schools cannot run ads because they do not have the funds. Teachers must spend hundreds and even thousands of dollars to have the supplies they need to give their students a bare bones education.

Traditional schools have 14 librarians in the entire District. Nursing has been cut in half so most schools have a nurse one or two times a week. High schools with 3000 students have two full time counselors so students must wait weeks to get help with college applications. Yet at the same time we see ads for charters boasting that they have nurses and counselors every day and fully staffed and supplied libraries. 

In August, right before the opening of schools, when the School District was in crisis with the layoff of over 3800 employees, the federal government advanced $45 million to ease the crisis. Governor Corbett held this money up in an attempt to pressure the teachers into making concessions. He only relented after an outcry after the death of student Laporshia Massey which may have been caused by the lack of a nurse in the school who would have recognized the asthma symptoms and would have told the parents to get Laporshia to the hospital immediately or called 911 herself. This holding up of funds for the education of thousands of children for a political agenda is more serious than the trouble New Jersey Governor Christie is in for holding up traffic on the George Washington Bridge for a political vendetta.

It is ironic that this colonization of our School District is happening in the city where, a little more than 237 years ago, the American colonies declared their independence from England. This document has been an inspiration to democratic movements all over the world ever since.

We are very familiar with its opening sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But do we know the rest?

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

It is time that Philadelphia schools be returned to the people of Philadelphia. We do not consent to the privatization of our public schools! We need an elected school board with taxing powers so we can fix the schools for our children and the future of our city. 

A few weeks ago in the Washington Post, James Meredith, the Civil Rights pioneer who risked life and limb to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962 issued an ‘American Child’s Education Bill of Rights’. His reason for issuing this document? He said,

We are losing millions of our children to inferior schools and catastrophically misguided and ineffective so-called education reforms. Our schools are being destroyed by politics, profit, greed and lies. Instead of evidence-based practices, money has become the engine of education policy, and our schools are being hijacked by politicians, non-educators and for-profit operators. Parents, teachers, citizens and community elders must arm ourselves with the best evidence and take back control of our children’s public education before it is too late. We all must work together to improve our public schools, not on the basis of profit or politics, but on the basis of evidence, and on the basis of love for America’s children.


Also see: 

Tradeoff in the cigarette tax bill: Potential for more new charters, more appeals
Philadelphia Public School Notebook - July 3, 2014 

Power Players Behind the Corporate Takeover of Pennsylvania Schools
Center for Media and Democracy - October 2014 

Pa. House speaker blasts City Council on PGW, warns of repercussions to schools
Philadelphia Public School Notebook - January 26, 2015

State Speaker of the House Mike Tursi @ Philadelphia Inquirer
(Read the comments.

Big for-profit schools, big donations: the influence of charter schools on Pennsylvania politics
Harrisburg Patriot News - February 2, 2015 

How Reformers Win in PA
Curmudgucation - March 23, 2015