by Lisa Haver
To secure a Bill Gates Foundation grant, the SRC would have to agree to overhaul 25 percent of District schools by 2017 and continue privatizing education.
Last Wednesday, Philadelphia became the 10th major city to be courted by Bill Gates when his “District-Charter Collaboration Compact,” an initiative to help ease resistance to building new charters, was presented for consideration to the School Reform Commission. Gates has taken on a reputation as a school reformer and philanthropist, donating money to struggling school districts in big cities, including Baltimore, Denver, Los Angeles, and New York. But the money he offers isn’t free; it comes with strings attached.
To be eligible to receive a grant from Gates, schools districts must agree to his vision of school reform and pledge cooperation by signing a “compact”. This compact includes, among other things, promoting the expansion of charters and agreeing to shut down schools that are deemed failing. The compact being reviewed by the SRC in Philadelphia calls for an overhaul of the poorest performing quartile in the system (approximately 50,000 seats) with “high quality alternatives” by 2016-17.
The problem with Gates and his education grants is that he doesn’t just sign the check and let the city decide what’s best for its students. In order for districts to qualify for money, they must agree to his agenda. Just as Grover Norquist, who is accountable to no one, has tied the hands of the Super Committee with his no new taxes pledge, Gates undermines the authority of local school boards with his pro-charter, pro-privatization “compact”. Bill Gates has joined the ranks of school “reformers” such as Michelle Rhee who, despite having no degree in education and virtually no experience teaching, have appointed themselves experts in the field.
Diane Ravitch, in her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, describes some of the destruction the Gates Foundation has wrought. Manuel High, one of Denver’s oldest and most prestigious schools, was forced to divide itself into three separate schools because of the “small school” agenda Gates was pushing at the time; his ensuing disruption caused the school board to close it temporarily. Mountlake Terrace High, just outside Seattle, suffered the loss of many teachers and administrators in 2004 after being forced to split into five separate schools in order to receive the Gates funding.
The Philadelphia School District, which is still recovering from a $630 million budget deficit, is in no position to refuse Gates’ offer. How can the SRC say no to free money when the district is so deep in the hole?
The reality, of course, is that the money is not free. The price is the autonomy of the SRC. The price is the democratic procedure in the city and the state under which the community and its elected leaders make informed decisions about its schools; what the city and District believes is best for its children will become secondary to the dictates of the “compact”.
Ravitch writes: “The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.”
This “compact” demanded by Gates, which is now under review by the SRC, demands that each and every school in the bottom 25 percent of the District (approximately 50,000 seats) be overhauled or turned into a charter by 2017.
What’s most concerning is that charters, as a whole, perform no better than traditional neighborhood schools. Of the 73 Philadelphia charters that took the PSSA in 2011, only 60 percent, (44 schools), made AYP; these schools are a far cry from what Gates bills as “high performing”. Worse still are the conclusions drawn by Stanford University’s CREDO study, the most comprehensive report on Pennsylvania charter schools performed to date. CREDO stated:
This report covers academic achievement growth at charter schools in Pennsylvania over a four-year period [2007-2010]. Overall, charter school performance in Pennsylvania lagged in growth compared to traditional public schools. Looking at the distribution of school performance, 60% of the charter schools performed with similar or better success than the traditional public schools in reading and 53% of charter schools performed with similar or better success in math compared to traditional public schools. Performance at cyber charter schools was substantially lower than the performance at brick and mortar charters with 100% of cyber charters performing significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts in both reading and math.
Charter performance aside, where is the commitment to improving all public schools? Instead of a helping hand, there is only a raised yardstick. The Gates compact lays out the future of our schools in no uncertain terms: “Failure to significantly improve would bring meaningful consequences, including closure.”
The members and policies of the new SRC has given many Philadelphians hope. There is an honest commitment to transparency and community involvement. For the first time ever, during Wednesday’s meeting, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. But how much power does this body truly have when its policies can be dictated by billionaires with deep pockets and rigid contracts?
Lisa Haver is an education activist and retired teacher.