May 30th Budget Protest

Picture by Brian Cohen


The Summer of Our Discontent: On being on an impending train wreck in Philadelphia public schools

July 21, 2013

This speech was delivered to a local community organization.

Thank you for inviting me to speak about the situation in Philadelphia schools. I am a recently retired public school teacher with 37 years in the Philadelphia public school system.

Having been with the School District for 37 years, I have what I call an institutional memory about the last few decades of the School District. I have lived through many changes in those years. I wish I could come here with good news, but I have to say for the last few months I’ve been hearing Martin Luther King say in his last sermon, “ We’ve got some difficult days ahead.” I’m sure everyone is familiar or experiencing directly the closure of twenty-four schools and layoffs of thousands of school district employees. In addition, the SRC plans massive wage and benefit cuts to school employees who are already some of the lowest paid in the state. I would like to give some history of how we have come to this.

Philadelphia schools have always been inequitably funded due to school funding being based on property taxes.In my 37 year with the district, I have never seen the state meet its Constitutional mandate to fund public education equitably. In 2000, before the state takeover, the school district spent $6,969 per student compared to wealthier districts such as Lower Merion which spent $13,139 per student, almost twice as much.  According to the Education Law Center our state ranks 44th in the nation in the funding of public education costs. So the problems with Philadelphia’s public schools have been systematic for a long time.

Our problems go much deeper, however, than Governor Corbett and a legislature that has many members who not only do not care about our city, but are hostile to Philadelphia.  All urban public school districts in the country are under attack by what has come to be called corporate education reform. Just on Friday, Chicago Public Schools announced the layoff of 2100 school district employees bringing to 3500 the number of school employees laid off recently due to the closing of 49 schools. At the same time, just as in Philadelphia, dozens of charter schools are being opened. This is part of the goal of corporate education reform which is to open the $600 billion public education system up to the private market through privatizing public schools.

Before I go on, I want to make something clear. I am not judging or criticizing any parent who puts their child in a charter school or teacher who teaches in a charter school. Children grow up fast. If a parent has an unacceptable neighborhood school, they must seek something better for their child now. What I am asking however, is that we look at the big picture. Some may have found a good situation in an individual charter. However, I am asking you to look at this one school as a tree in a forest. If we look at all schools as the forest we see a school system in deep trouble. Just as a healthy individual tree will be caught up in a conflagration if there is a forest fire, no one will be immune from the consequences of the crisis we face.

The biggest change I witnessed in the School District during my career was the state takeover in December of 2001. Before that we were struggling, but we were making progress. In my opinion the best years were when Constance Clayton was Superintendent. She was a native Philadelphian, she came from the classroom, and moved up in the ranks to become Superintendent. It was her institutional knowledge and experience as an educator in Philadelphia that made all the difference in the progress we made in those years.

After the state takeover all of this changed. The District was put under the state management of the School Reform Commission. Over the next ten years, the SRC has brought in a succession of highly paid, outside the District, Superintendents. Each lasted only a few years and left the District worse off then when they came. Each of them was a supporter of corporate education reform. One of the first things attempted after the state takeover was to turn over a third of the public schools to Edison Schools under the supervision of Superintendent Paul Vallas. This failed, but lessons were learned by those who want to privatize public schools.

One of the main sponsors of corporate education reform in Philadelphia has been The Broad Foundation. The Superintendents since the state takeover all had ties with the Broad Foundation. They appoint members of the Broad Residency Program to take charge of various levels of the school district bureaucracy. Our current Superintendent is a graduate of the Class of 2005 of the Broad Superintendents Academy.

One of the methods promoted by the Broad Foundation is what they call “churn”. This they call creative disruption which overwhelms targeted school districts with tactics called “shock and awe”, meaning change is made rapidly and is so overwhelming that communities cannot mobilize to oppose it. 

Beyond the closing of schools and elimination of staff, what is being destroyed is the institutional memory of the district. Morale in the School District is vey low. One in four District schools will have a new principal in September because of retirement or a principal taking a job outside the school system, 50 out of 218 schools. The closure of schools also means a loss of institutional memory for families and communities. Germantown High School, for example, has closed after ninety-nine years. Generations of hundreds of families have memories of this school which now has no future. 

In addition, the school closings will lead to massive disruption of existing schools. With the closing of Bok Technical High School, for example, its 769 students will be transferred to South Philly High. South Philly’s student population will increase to 1,402 in September, an increase of 121 percent from June. This to a school which has had its support staff eliminated as have all schools.  Similar conditions face schools all over the city as the thousands of students will now have to travel great distances to their school since their neighborhood school has been closed. Can there be any doubt that this is a program designed to setup the public schools for failure?

Corporate education reform is all about making a profit off of tax payer dollars. This is taxpayer money that is taken from the education of the children for private profit. That is why corporate education reform exists. If a charter management company is not outright for profit, the profit is found in the contracts it makes for construction, technology, school books. Since they don’t have unions, teachers have individual contracts which must be renewed each year. If a teacher dares to complain about their wages or unfair labor practices their contract is not renewed for the next year.

Here too we must look at the forest. If we look at the school system of Philadelphia as a whole, what is being created is a return to separate and unequal schools this time based on family income. Today 30% of Philadelphia’s schools are charters. The SRC has stated it wants this to be 50% by 2017. Think of what this will mean. We will have half of the students in highly selective charter schools and the other half of the students in deteriorating, under resourced schools with an underpaid staff. These schools will be even worse than they are now being little more than warehouses to prepare their students for low paying jobs, unemployment, or the prisons that Corbett is building.

I am sorry I must give you such a bleak picture of what we face. If we are to find our way forward, however, we must look the truth square in the face no matter how difficult. What we do about the truth we find is up to us and the entire community.

 If you would like to read a more detailed description of my research about the School District for the last ten years, ESWA has printed my June 3rd article “The 2013-2014 “Doomsday Budget” of the School District of Philadelphia: How Did It Come to This?” in their new issue. In the newspaper there is also the internet address for this article so you can go to internet links within the article to verify what I am saying. Also, if you want to find out more about The Broad Foundation, on this website I have my article, “Who is Eli Broad and why is he trying to destroy public education?” You may also access these two articles if you go