by Lisa Haver
Hungry for Bill Gates’ money, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission passes a compact that agrees to turn up to 25 percent of its schools into charters by 2017.
On November 23rd, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission passed the “Great School Compact,” an initiative sponsored by Bill Gates to help ease resistance to building new charters in the city. The SRC did so, at least in part, to be eligible to receive money from Gates. The compact signed by the SRC calls for an overhaul of the poorest performing quartile in the system (approximately 50,000 seats) with “high quality alternatives” by 2016-17.
In the subsection of the Compact titled Facilities, it reads, “We will coordinate planning and policies to ensure that vacant or underutilized building facilities are made available to facilitate growth of high quality schools consistent with the principles of the Compact, while ensuring that facility transactions support the need of the District to right-size its facilities inventory.”
Allow me to translate this for you: After we underfund and understaff the already struggling schools in poor neighborhoods, we will make the buildings of the schools we will close available to charter operators. Of course, the students who are not admitted to these replacement schools will have to travel out of their neighborhoods to attend another public school.
Although announced verbally at the end of the previous week’s SRC meeting, the press release confirming the November 23rd meeting was dated November 22nd. It stated that one purpose of the meeting was “to consider the Great Schools Compact.” There was no indication that there would be a vote; in fact, the SRC votes only at Action Meetings, not Planning Meetings.
But a vote was taken and the Compact was approved, despite the fact that only three of the four appointed SRC members were present and the room was only half full. There was no opportunity for any serious community discussion. There was not even any substantive SRC discussion of the issue.
For these reasons, I asked the commissioners to table the vote until the next meeting, which would not be held the day before a major holiday (Thanksgiving) and would give the community time to read this compact, discuss it, and weigh the many issues presented in it before taking what amounted to a drive-by voting.
What was the rush to get the Compact passed? Philadelphia’s district schools have been struggling under the weight of funding cuts, overcrowded classrooms, failed experimental curricula, incompetent superintendents with their own personal and political agendas, and rising poverty in the communities they serve. Was passing this compact going to rectify all of this overnight?
The SRC maintains that this vote is only the first of many concerning the Compact and that this action had to be taken in order to apply for the Gates funding (ironically, as of 12/7/11, the district’s current version of the Compact was rejected by Gates because it lacked “detail and rigor”).
Those affiliated with charter schools, including representatives from Boys Latin and Nueva Espreanza, had no problem with the SRC’s liberal attitude regarding school choice, however. They took advantage of the SRC’s new policy of entertaining questions from the audience in order to put forth a number of requests. One asked that the cap on student attendance in his school be lifted. Another asked that charters not be restricted by “bureaucratic” procedures presently imposed by the district.
These requests were made despite that fact that charters are in many cases a poor alternative to failing schools, especially when they are failing themselves. The data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education website shows that only 54.7 percent of charters in the city reached AYP last year; several have failed to achieve AYP in the last five years, including Nueva Esperanza Academy; interestingly, GreatSchools.org assigned Nueva Esperanza a rating of only 3 out of 10. Is this school’s leadership asking to expand its enrollment so that the district can send more students to a failing school?
Obviously, the SRC needs to read the data from the PA Dept. of Ed. before it passes any proposal to increase the number of Philadelphia charter schools or expand enrollment. The commissioners must make more time available for students, parents, teachers and community members to read and comment on any compact which closes neighborhood schools. They must take seriously the testimony of the families whose children would be forced to go elsewhere.
In other words, they must demonstrate that their promises of more transparency and community involvement are not empty ones.
Lisa Haver is an education activist and retired teacher.