by Lisa Haver
Philadelphians still have little say in the workings of the School District. Too often the agenda of the corporate community outweighs the interests of true stakeholders.
Although the new-look Philadelphia School Reform Commission is making headway into the issues facing city schools, a number of their recent decisions have some Philadelphians wondering whether they are really living up to their self-described “transparency”.
One troublesome development was the SRC’s signing of the Great Schools Compact at its November 23, 2011 meeting—held the day before Thanksgiving—after offering limited opportunity for public discussion on it. The millions of dollars in possible grant money attached to the Compact, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, come with a number of mandatory provisions which seriously compromise the SRC’s ability to make its own decisions. These include expansion of the number and size of charter schools, the evaluation and pay of teachers, the closing of neighborhood schools, and the transferring of 50,000 students over the next five years to “high-performing” schools.
Recently, an eight-member committee was appointed by the SRC to coordinate implementation of the Great Schools Compact. This committee includes representatives from the Mayor’s office, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Philadelphia School District, and administrators from three charter schools. No community members, teachers, parents or students are represented.
There has yet to be a chance for any of the true stakeholders of city public schools to weigh in on the Great Schools Compact, an agreement that will change the landscape of the Philadelphia School District for many years to come. However, the Philadelphia School Partnership—a newly created organization whose board is top-heavy with investment bankers—has become a major player in advancing the cause of privatization as “reform,” and has managed to place Mark Gleason, PSP’s Executive Director, on the Great Schools Compact committee as a “non-voting” member; Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, is also a non-voting member.
This Great Schools Compact Committee was not elected by the people and is not directly accountable to them. One wonders how investment bankers and charter school operators have become such heavy hitters in deciding the future of city public schools. How has the corporate community come to overshadow the district’s true stakeholders?
Another issue with transparency was the recent restructuring of the School District’s administration. At the January 16th SRC meeting, not once did any of the SRC members feel compelled to mention to those in attendance that the administration of the school district was about to be completely reconfigured. That was announced three days later, along with the shocker that they had named Thomas Knudsen, former director of the Philadelphia Gas Works, the District’s new Chief Recovery Officer and interim superintendent with no set limits on his range of powers.
Now taxpayers must cough up $25,000 a month to pay yet another businessman to oversee the district. Now we find out that Mr. Knudsen plans to hire even more costly consultants to straighten-out the financial and administrative mess left by Arlene Ackerman. Apparently, that’s his prerogative; we were never told what his prerogatives would be.
Unfortunately, it is hard to figure out how and when the public will ever have a chance to weigh in on any of these issues. Previously, the SRC convened on Wednesdays; official proposals were distributed and discussed at one meeting and voted on the next. The new SRC now has one formal meeting each month, and they have yet to explain how anyone can view its agenda prior to that day. How can the public comment on or question proposals they don’t get a chance to see?
It seemed, initially, that one exercise in transparency might be the SRC’s decision to schedule a series of meetings at neighborhood schools where parents and community members could discuss their criteria for finding a permanent superintendent. A 10-member committee has been designated by the SRC to conduct the search and vote for its choice; no parents, teachers or students have been selected to be part of that body, either.
The first of these forums, held at Simon Gratz High School last week, was not run by School District personnel but by facilitators from the Penn Project on Civic Engagement. The gathering of about one hundred people was immediately divided into smaller groups, and a printed list of talking points was given to each to discuss. No time was allotted for the whole group to ask questions of the four committee members who were present. Can a meeting with a pre-determined agenda, run by paid facilitators, truly be described as an opportunity for Philadelphians who have a stake in this system to be heard?
When will Philadelphians have a chance to be heard on the critical issues—academics, finances, school safety and climate—which now face our schools? And why are they being pushed aside to make room for those who largely represent corporate interests? It seems that the true stakeholders in the Philadelphia School District have neither the money nor the power to get a seat at the table.
Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and education activist. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.