Riding the ‘Turnaround’ Merry-Go-Round in the Continuing Assault on Philadelphia Public Schools: Part I

 By Ken Derstine

March 27, 2016


The Philadelphia School Reform Commission
Photo by Harvey Finkle in The Philadelphia Public School Notebook 

The assault on public schools in Philadelphia has entered a new phase. The roots of the current crisis go back to the 2001 state takeover of the School District, the dissolution of the local school board and the creation of the appointed five-member School Reform Commission.  Over the next decade various attempts were made to privatize Philadelphia's public schools. When these plans did not achieve their goal, long-range five-year plans by Superintendents working with the Broad Foundation Superintendents Academy and the Boston Consulting Group were implemented. These plans included starving the public schools of resources while building up charters schools and using funding from various public and private sources for public relations campaigns designed to make charters appealing to parents. This led to the closing of twenty-four public schools in 2013 due to 'under enrollment'.

The current phase of corporate education reform, for a time, shifted the focus from school closings to ‘turnarounds’ of schools in low-income communities. (Note: Though the term 'turnaround' will be used throughout this series since that is how the SRC terms the changes, these changes are really the turnover of public schools to private interests.) This method of privatization was begun in Philadelphia under Paul Vallas (2002-2006), accelerated under Broad Superintendent Arlene Ackerman (2008-2011), and it has continued under current Broad Superintendent William Hite (2012 - Present).

For a detailed history of what has brought us to the present situation see:

 The Seige of Philadelphia Public Schools

The Siege of Philadelpia Public Schools | Update

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

At the beginning of the current school year, three schools were targeted for turnaround. Parents and teachers have been given no choice in which charter company will take over their schools. Two years ago, when parents were given a choice, they voted overwhelmingly to remain public at two elementary schools. Steel Elementary rejected a takeover by Mastery Charter Schools;  Munoz-Marin rejected takeover by ASPIRA. Both charter companies had engaged in heavy lobbying with the parents and with district officials. Having learned its lesson that starving the public schools and building up charters was not working with parents, the SRC is giving no choice to parents this year. Three schools are to be assigned to a charter company with the final vote in April:

 • Huey Elementary to Global Leadership Academy, which has a record of low performance, a high percentage of uncertified and inexperienced teachers, and several corruption scandals. 

• Cooke to Great Oaks Foundation. Great Oaks is experimenting with replacing teachers with groups of uncertified, recent college graduates as low-paid tutors supervised by a teacher. The privatization is being fought by parents of the school.

• Wister Elementary to Mastery Charter, which has nine elementary schools, eight middle and high schools in Philadelphia and six schools in Camden, New Jersey. It is aggressively campaigning to expand its district in both cities.

The Battle for Wister

The dispute over Wister has become known as The Battle for Wister. At the December 17, 2015 SRC meeting, a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS) gave testimony that the SRC was using incorrect information to designate Wister as a “failing school”. The correct information showed that Wister, based on the SRC’s criteria, had been improving. On January 11, 2016, Superintendent Hite announced that, based on new data from the state, he was reversing his position on Wister Elementary and recommending that it remain a public school in the “watch” category rather than in the “intervene” category. Hite’s decision brought the expected outcry from Mastery and corporate education reform groups such as PennCAN.

At the beginning of the January 21, 2016 SRC meeting, Hite reiterated that he had decided Wister should remain public. Also speaking at the beginning of the meeting was Mark Gleason, Executive Director of the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), a private non-profit that has been channeling corporate and hedge fund money into charter and parochial schools while lobbying in the city and state government for those interests. Gleason made a bizarre attempt to make a parallel between the lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan (saying that Flint’s city manager had “tried to do a good thing” by “saving money”) and the condition of Philadelphia public schools.

After the SRC voted to approve the charter takeovers of Cooke and Huey, SRC member Sylvia Simms spoke up in opposition to Hite’s position on Wister. Simms, who has said very little in her three years on the SRC, read a statement in which she said that parents from Wister had “tearfully” met with her, asking their school to be turned over to Mastery. She then made a motion to pass a resolution, which she said she had just prepared and distributed to the other SRC members, to further the pairing of Wister to Mastery. The resolution was never read aloud in its entirety, and members of the public who asked to comment on it were denied.  Simms’ strategy of introducing a resolution from the floor, with no previous posting or public notice, is one which long-time attendees of SRC meetings cannot recall ever seeing used. Most of the parents fighting to keep Wister public did not attend the January 21st meeting because they thought the danger to their school had passed. The SRC then reversed Hite’s decision and adopted a motion that Wister should be turned over to Mastery.

One week later, the SRC posted a formal resolution stating the SRC had voted to turn Wister over to Mastery. This was a break with any pretense that “failed schools” be privatized based on test scores, but instead ‘turnaround’ is turnover of public schools to corporate interests based on the needs of the corporate education reform market.

On March 17, 2015 the Philadelphia Public School Notebook published an article about Right to Know requests on the Wister vote that had been submitted by the American Federation of Teachers and the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.  One released email showed that SRC member Bill Green and PSP’s Mark Gleason had been working behind the scenes to introduce a resolution from the floor—what became Simms’ resolution—at the January 21st SRC meeting. It has also come to light that Green and Gleason have been soliciting donations for the Independence Mission Schools, a special-admit division of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and promoting them as an alternative to public schools.

Concerns have also been raised about possible conflicts of interest between Sylvia Simms and other organizations, including the Chicago-based Citizens Consulting Group, which has close ties to PSP.  Simms’ sister, Quibila Divine, has worked for Citizens Consulting. Neither Simms nor Divine would answer questions from the press on this issue.

Since the January 21st SRC meeting, there has been an intense campaign by Mastery in the Wister community over the final vote in April. Parents who want their school to remain public have been holding meetings and speaking out. At the same time Mastery charter has been campaigning in the community offering carrots and sticks to advance its agenda. In the words of an education activist in the community:

Scott Gordon [Mastery CEO] has unleashed ugliness in the neighborhood. He has caused divisions among neighbors who have to live near each other. He does not live there so he does not have to experience the backlash. Some of these parents have children in the same class who are friends. What’s this doing to their parents? Divisions and fissures have been created on purpose to divide people and to achieve Gordon’s goal of adding another school to his empire regardless of the methods used. He seldom appears. He is the puppet master pulling the strings from afar. He sends his Mastery staff to direct the operations. They lurk in the background, always present, reluctant to be identified.

A rally was held by supporters of Wister as a public school before the March 17th SRC meeting.  About 150 Wister supporters attended the rally. A large contingent of Mastery supporters on the other side of the steps attempted to drown out the speakers, chanting “School choice, school choice”.   The rancor continued into the SRC meeting, with blue-shirted Mastery supporters taking up three-quarters of the auditorium and half of the speakers list. As teacher Robin Lowry said testifying at the SRC meeting,

Teachers feel disrespected and at the same time, set up to fail. You've taken the resources out of Wister that Mastery now brags that they will bring in. You're making public school students suffer, struggle and lag behind to create this myth that when a charter company comes in – and the resources are brought back – it has something to do with the superior charter management.

A leader of the Mastery parents lobby made a point in his SRC testimony that Mastery parents had been meeting with “civil rights leader” Howard Fuller. Howard Fuller is the founder and former leader of the Black Alliance for Education Options which Fuller himself acknowledges is heavily dependent on funding from the Walton Family Foundation (Walmart). He has promoted the Walton Family Foundation agenda of vouchers and "school choice" in the African-American community since 2000.

At a Thursday, March 24th SRC meeting, APPS member Lisa Haver presented evidence that Wister outperformed all Mastery charter schools based on the District's School Progress Reports. In other words, Wister is to be taken over by a charter company who the SRC’s data show is performing below Wister. In her statement, Haver said,

Today the SRC votes on its next budget and plans for future investment. One program the district should not waste any more taxpayer dollars on is the Turnaround Network. Schools should not be rated by letter or number. Schools are organic, and like children, do not all grow and achieve at the same rate. But when comparing schools, we have no choice at this time but to use the district’s own metric, its SPR [School Progress Report]. If the goal is to hand public schools over to charter companies so that they can improve, the numbers prove otherwise.

The SRC's Projected Five-year Budget Plan

At the March 24th meeting, the SRC voted on its projected 5-year budget plan. Included in this budget are great expansion of Philadelphia charter schools and the closing of more public schools. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted,

He [Hite] also said that starting in 2017-18, he expects the district will have to close three schools annually to offset the increase of 10,000 charter students projected over the next five years. The increase stems from new schools and charter expansions the SRC has approved.

Part II of this article will take a closer look at the unequal funding of Philadelphia public vs. charter schools.

Also see:

How to Destroy a Public-School System
Daniel Denvir in The Nation -October 13, 2014

Broad-trained Superintendent Stirs Controversy in Oakland
Living in Dialogue - March 24, 2016 

SRC pits 'my babies' against the needs of all Philadelphia students
Newsworks - March 28, 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

Former SRC member hired to direct charter-advocacy group
Philadelphia Inquirer - Septermber 12, 2017 


Also see:

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 Philosopy; 'No Excuses' in Philadelphia Charters; Origins of 'No Excuses' Schooling

Riding the 'Turnaround' Merry-Go-Round in the Continuing Assault on Philadelphia Public Schools - Part IV
Crossing the Rubicon; The Latest Spin of the Turnaround Merry-Go-Round in Philadelphia Schools; SRC Commissioner Green Makes His Move; The Broad Foundation and Boston Consulting Group's Privatization Plan is on Schedule; The Privatization Rollout in the Last Two Years