The Siege of Philadelphia Public Schools is Now a Full-Scale Assault

By Ken Derstine

December 13, 2015

For background, see this previous post:
The Siege of Philadelphia Public Schools: Update | Defend Public Education! – October 11, 2015


The Pennsylvania Legislature


The bipartisan celebrations in Washington D.C. over the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act were barely over when the Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill which goes to the heart of the states’ rights dangers opened up by the new law.  In a bipartisan 42-9 vote on December 10th, the Senators approved a school code bill that would require the state to turnover to private interests five “persistently low performing “ schools each year. The only school district in the state affected would be Philadelphia.

 As detailed by Kevin McCorry in Newsworks, the Pennsylvania Department of Education would have five intervention options:

  • Turn over operations of the school to an outside education management organization
  • Convert the school into a neighborhood-based charter
  • Close the school and facilitate transferring students to higher performing schools
  • Authorize a new charter and guarantee admission preference to students who reside in the area around the low performing school
  • Replace the principal and at least half of the school's staff

The action is in line with the charter mandate in the Every Child Succeeds Act. As detailed by Jim Horn of Schools Matter in his article Massive Charter Giveaways in ESEA Re-Write, Part 1,

With a continuing federal mandate to fix the bottom five percent of schools, the ESEA rewrite will provide at least a billion dollars each year to fund charter school expansion, thus further weakening public education.  The new grant programs will be fashioned to provide minimal oversight and maximum autonomy to charter companies and their corporate support organizations, and for the first time, private non-profit corporations will be classified as “state entities,” thus eligible to apply directly for federal grant programs.


The Historical Background of the Bill

The PA Senate school code bill did not suddenly appear at this opportune time, however, but has been years in the making. This can been seen in Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) member, and former Chairman, Bill Green’s two Education Policy Papers issued on May 10th, 2010 and December, 2011. (See Bill Green’s Education Agenda: Hidden in Plain Sight | Defend Public Education!). In the policy papers, Green called for a two-tier system of education in Pennsylvania modeled after Tennessee’s Achievement District and the charterization in New Orleans, Detroit, and Hawaii.

There is little doubt that Green’s policy papers were developed by the Boston Consulting Group that was heavily involved in laying the groundwork for the privatization of Philadelphia Public Schools at the time. On May 2, 2012 investigative reporter Daniel Denvir said in his article, Who’s killing Philly public schools? | Philadelphia City Paper,

What's even more startling than the drastic overhaul proposal is who engineered it. The plan was prepared with the assistance of Boston Consulting Group, a major global-business consultancy and school "right-sizing" mastermind. Boston's previous accomplishments include recommending that New Orleans, which has decimated its teachers' union and put most schools under charter control, create the exact same species of achievement networks in 2006. Last year, Boston also recommended that Australian education leaders close schools and cut spending. Indeed, Boston recommendations seem like a forgone conclusion: Their website touts "reform" hallmarks like evaluating student achievement through standardized tests and undermining traditional teacher certification.

Instrumental in developing the siege of Philadelphia public schools has been the Philadelphia School Partnership. Begun in 2010, PSP was set up by hedge fund managers and wealthy philanthropists from outside Philadelphia to begin the privatization of its public schools. During the Corbett administration PSP supported his withholding of funds from the school district to pressure Philadelphia teachers to accept a concessions contract in what has become a three year stalemate. This has frozen School District salaries, including step increases for employees who are in their first eleven years of service.

The central method of PSP is to promote the notion of “underperforming schools” as justification of “turning around” or closing of a public school. These are ratings based on a school’s School Performance Profile that are heavily based on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). Mark Gleason, Executive Director of PSP, made national headlines when he said PSP’s portfolio method of school reform is based on a “dump the losers” method based on the SPP. (See Mark Gleason Turns ‘Dump the Losers’ Into a Pseudoscience | Defend Public Education!)

This “dump the losers” method is based on the corporate education reform nostrum that the problem in public schools is lazy and ineffective teachers. Whenever lack of resources and social conditions are posed as cause of the problems in public schools, promoters of this ideology are like a dog with a bone, insisting this be taken out of the discussion because this is saying children from low-income families do not have the “grit” to overcome adverse conditions.

It is this ideology of basing school ratings on standardized test scores that are the criteria for the “opportunity schools” in the PA Senate school code bill. Mike Wang, Executive Director of the Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, the lobbying arm of PSP, whined that the bill does not advance privatization quickly enough because, based on their criteria, 83 schools should be “turned around”.


Disagreements between the State privatizers and the
Philadelphia School Reform Commission

School District of Philadelphia officials, including Superintendent William Hite, roundly criticized the plan. Hite called the plan “a recipe for disaster”.  Hite told the Philadelphia Inquirer,

I do question why there is specific legislation just for Philadelphia when probably no one else in the commonwealth has turned around the number or percentage of schools we have," the superintendent said. "There's no proof that there's no will to do this here. What we haven't had is the revenue."

Hite, who said the district had trouble attracting a deep pool of charter organizations to take over three more district schools in the fall, questioned the wisdom of "just willy-nilly designating a number of schools to give to somebody or to do something with.

It is revealing that Hite acknowledges that the ALEC agenda in Harrisburg is so devastating to Philadelphia schools that the district is having trouble getting charter management companies to bid for schools in Philadelphia. The three public schools mentioned by Hite are currently being prepared for takeover despite the vehement objections of parents.  The parents have been undergoing a full-scale blitz by Mastery Charter Schools to allow the company to take over their school. The parents at Wister have put out this notice asking for support:

On Tuesday December 15th, the School District has invited Mastery Charter School to make a presentation to parents. Mastery has been distributing materials in the community, they have held their own meetings for parents, and have even called parents. A pre-K teacher from Wister told us that one of her parents said he got a phone call from someone at Mastery telling him they would be running the school next year and wanted the parent to enroll his child in their Kindergarten program. How did Mastery get that parent's private contact information? Also, the SRC hasn't voted yet, how can they say they will be running the school?

It's time for us to target Mastery, because they've targeted Wister for takeover. 

Another parent from Wister told us today that Mastery people have been out in the neighborhood around Wister everyday talking about the benefits of Mastery and having them sign a petition. They have been wearing blue shirts that say something about "parents having a choice" and going door-to-door knocking with clipboards. Really? Wister parents have had no choice in this matter. 

We need to show up and make our message clear on Tuesday. We want Wister to stay a traditional neighborhood public school. We do not want Mastery to take over the school.  We need to let them know that their blatant attempt to take over another school in the Northwest is not welcomed by the community. They tried to take over Steel School in 2014 and were rebuffed by parents voting to remain a district-run school. This time parents were not allowed to vote but have been told by Dr. Hite that they are being turned into a Renaissance Charter School. Parents have been meeting and organizing to fight this attempt to silence their voices. They want to remain a public school. Please share this widely. 

As can be seen from the Hite quote above, and the actions of the SRC at these three schools, Hite has no problem with the privatization objective of the state bill. Since 2010, twenty schools have been turned over to charters. What his objection amounts to is a turf war over who gets to designate what charter management companies will get the new charters and the resulting access to public dollars for private profit. Philadelphia has been through this before when a similar turf war raged between Superintendent Arlene Ackerman vs. State Senator Dwight Evans and Mayor Michael Nutter in 2011 over which charter-company would take over management of Martin Luther King High School. Once the common good objective of public schools is lost, the interests of the profits of private interests take over. Ultimately, the feud led to MLK remaining public and Superintendent Ackerman being given a $905 million buyout of her contract.


Why is Superintendent Hite’s contract being extended now?

With this history, and the developments in Harrisburg in mind, was this why it was announced on December 11th that at its next meeting the School Reform Commission will be voting on a five year extension of the contract of Superintendent Hite­–extending it from 2017 to 2022? He will continue at his base pay of $300,000 annually (higher than the Mayor of Philadelphia who is paid $217,820 annually). In a truly cynical move, the SRC has proposed that Hite would receive any raise at the same rate as members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers when their contract is finally settled.

The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS) has sent an open letter to SRC Chairwoman Marjorie Neff questioning why the extension of Hite’s contract is happening now when his current contract has two years to run.

If the measure of Hite’s performance is based on the needs of students, parents, and teachers, and not corporate profit interests, Hite’s tenure has been a disaster. As a Broad Superintendent, Hite oversaw the closing of 24 schools as called for in the Broad agenda. Many of these schools are now abandoned and a blight in already economically depressed neighborhoods. Others have been turned over to charters and real estate  companies at bargain basement prices.

The physical conditions of all Philadelphia schools have deteriorated drastically since the state takeover in 2001. Hite and the current SRC have done little except put band-aides on increasingly dangerous schools. This is part of the starve the public schools, build up the charters method as can be seen at Wister (see the parent protest of charter takeover quoted above) where the SRC has suddenly found (see Resolution A-15 for the next SRC meeting) $3,927,021 for repairs to Wister. Recently, Aljazeera America ran a two part series (Part 1 and Part 2) about the physical condition of Philadelphia’s public schools. A 2014 federal study of the school conditions was blocked by the SRC.

School security has been cut to bare bones and principals’ often must call the police in an emergency. Student brawls in schools and on school grounds have become common. Attacks on teachers by students are frequent.

APPS co-founder Karel Kilimnik lists these additional grievances:

• Hite has made his doomsday budget the new norm for funding schools. Nurses and counselors are on a wish list and librarians are extinct. It’s clear from testimonies presented at the SRC that he is clueless about the role of a school library.

• Hite has said he wants to out-source Head Start (proclaimed this in 2013). How does this help children? They lose their certified teachers.

• Hite has shut out parent voice in his determination to turn more schools over to charter operators.

• Hite has systematically created chaos in this district to a degree never seen before - constant turn over of teachers as schools are “transformed” or redesigned; brought in new, inexperienced principals who allow chaos to develop in their schools (Washington), closing schools and forcing students to travel away from their neighborhoods. Transportation has been increasingly privatized and can’t handle transporting children in a safe and orderly manner.

• Hite brought in Source4Teachers that is incompetent and added to the chaos by failing to hire and place subs. Hite refuses to break their contract. How much does he really care about our children?


The positions of the leadership of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and Philadelphia Democratic Party politicians to the advance of privatization in Philadelphia

Just returned from joining AFT President Randi Weingarten (read the comments in the link) and President Obama at the signing of ESSA, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan issued a statement condemning the PA Senate school privatization bill. He said, “…very concerning is the manner in which they did so­–a rushed, one day process through committee to final passage within a matter of hours.”

Jordan criticized the outsourcing of health services and the move to online education companies in the bill. He said, “Our schools desperately need additional revenue that is included in the current state budget framework. But the political gimmicks and regressive education reform ideas included in this school code bill offset many of the benefits of additional education funding because they set our schools up for failure and put the health of our children at risk.”

The reference to the bill’s “offsetting many of the benefits of education funding” is a reference to a deal worked out in the Senate with all seven of Philadelphia’s Democratic state Senate delegation, all endorsed by the PFT, which brought about their support for the bill. The $100 million in additional funding nearly equals the annual funding Philadelphia lost when the state eliminated the "charter reimbursement" line-item. That part of the Pennsylvania budget helped the district cover the added, systemic costs incurred when students enroll in charters. That was cut in the first budget passed during former Gov. Tom Corbett's tenure. Senator Dwight Evans, who was instrumental in setting up the SRC, is the co-chair of incoming mayor Jim Kenney’s transition team.

Spokesman Jeff Sheridan speaking for Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, also endorsed by the PFT, said the "opportunity schools" were part of the budget compromise that the governor and the legislature had agreed on in return for $100 million for Philadelphia schools. In a phone interview with Newsworks Kevin McCorry, Wolf’s Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said he is happy about the Senate school code bill. He emphasized that the his department “could help Philadelphia implement statewide and national best practices for school turnaround. I don't see us as the enemy. I don't see us as beating anyone into compliance," said Rivera. "I do see us as a resource. I see us as leaders. And I see us as the lead educators in the commonwealth and we can provide that support to Philadelphia." He added that he is worried about the fact that additional resources aren't tied to the reform efforts.


Abolish the SRC!

Philadelphia has been down this road before too. It was such a deal worked out with the Administration of Governor Tom Ridge, and State Senators Dwight Evans and Anthony Williams, that led to the state take over of the Philadelphia School District.  First proposed in 1998, it was finalized in 2001 with additional state funding and an SRC with three-members appointed by the Governor and two by the Mayor.

In the current SRC, three-members were appointed by former Governor Corbett and two by out-going Mayor Nutter. In other words, not only is the SRC not elected and therefore not representative of the community, its current makeup is members who were appointed by previous administrations. The state takeover law says the SRC can only be abolished by itself or by the PA General Assembly. Who do they serve?

In Philadelphia’s May, 2015 primary Philadelphia voters voted overwhelmingly, 120,289 to 4,127, for a non-binding resolution calling for a change in the Home Rule Charter that would abolish the School Reform Commission.


The more than five-month budget stalemate in Harrisburg leaves this bill,
like everything else in Harrisburg, undetermined.

All of this may be moot however! The state of Pennsylvania has been without a budget for over five months. The impasse is causing hardship for school districts all across the state. The deadlock between Democratic Governor Wolf and ALEC members in the state legislature appeared to be resolved when Wolf agreed not to tax Marcellus shale or raise corporate income taxes and accepted a regressive pension reform for teachers and state employees. Then the deal began collapsing because of differences between ALEC Republicans in the Senate and House. ALEC Republicans in the House adopted their own budget which would eliminate a regressive increase in the sales tax to fund Pennsylvania’s schools and violate their no new taxes pledge. The $100 million that was the Democratic tradeoff for adopting a school code that accelerates privatization of Philadelphia public schools, is therefore up in the air…and so is the fate of Philadelphia public schools because the lack of funding will deepen the disaster for Philadelphia schools!


Link Updates

Link updates from December 13th through January 14, 2015
The PLS Reporter - December 29, 2015

Proposed changes to Pa. law would squander higher school funding
The Notebook - January 20, 2016
Michael Churchill is an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center.
Deborah Gordon Klehr is executive director of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania.
Susan Spicka is an advocacy coordinator for Education Voters PA.

State Takeovers of Low-Performing Schools: A Record of Academic Failure, Financial Mismanagement & Student Harm
The Center for Popular Democracy - February 5, 2016 

Proposed Pennsylvania School Code is Massive Giveaway to Charter Schools
Gadflyonthewall blog -  April 3, 2016