Is the End of Public Education in Philadelphia Near?

by Lisa Haver

The five year plan proposed by School District officials may mark the end of democratically run neighborhood schools.     

The end of public education in Philadelphia seems to be upon us.  A five-year school reform plan proposed by Philadelphia School District officials calls for massive overhauls in virtually every aspect of the school system—from finances, to academics, to central management.  These drastic changes suggest to many that the District is intent on expediting the privatization of its schools, despite its promise to stay the traditional route and invest in neighborhoods and communities.

Here are some changes the District proposed at a news conference Tuesday:

  • The closing of 40 “low-performing” and underused schools next year, and six more each additional year until 2017.
  • The movement of thousands of students from traditional neighborhood schools to charters.  The district estimates that 40 percent of public school students will attend charters at the completion of the five-year plan.  This comes as a result of the School Reform Commission’s signing of the “Great Schools Compact” as outlined by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • “Modernizing” custodial, transportation, and maintenance services by threatening district workers with layoffs if they don’t agree to accept LESS than what the outsourcers are asking.
  • District officials have also proposed a major transformation in the management of the school system.  The current structure would be completely scrapped and replaced by “achievement networks,” each overseeing groups of about 25 schools. These networks could be made up of school district personnel, a charter management organization, or an education management organization (such as Edison or Universal). A bidding process would determine who controls these networks. Most school services—presumably curricula, discipline, staffing and supplies—would be controlled by each network.  The District has not explained how this new system would save money.  This would spell a return to the patronage system which plagued Philadelphia schools just a few generations ago.

How, pray tell, have we arrived at a point where the public school system can be auctioned off to the highest bidder? 

Those who have followed the actions of the current SRC shouldn’t be surprised by the announcement of this draconian plan.  The SRC members, while billing themselves as more transparent and open to the public, have conducted business in a way that observers have come to realize is, on many occasions, just the opposite.

I was in attendance when the SRC voted on November 23, 2011—the day before Thanksgiving—to take part in the Great Schools Compact. I asked the Commissioners why they were voting on a matter that would have major implications for the future of the District without any opportunity for the public to adequately read, comprehend, and discuss the agreement.  I was assured that this was only a preliminary vote and that there would be many occasions for Philadelphians to have their say.

Since then the SRC, along with other city officials, have made clear their intentions to make any change necessary (in management, teacher evaluations, and in the number of additional charters), in order to comply with the Compact.  However, the issue has not been on the agenda of any of the five subsequent formal meetings.  There has been virtually no opportunity for parents, teachers, or anyone in the community to make any contribution on this issue, let alone hear the SRC discuss their reasons for signing on.  (One informal SRC meeting, which was billed as a forum to find out about the details of the Compact, was actually a discussion on the merits of charter schools).

The truth is, the District’s adoption of the Compact was a decision based on finances, not academics.  Bill and Melinda Gates do not bestow grants; they issue a contract.  If you don’t comply, you don’t get their money.

This SRC has also changed its schedule for formal meetings (those with an agenda which includes resolutions to be voted on) from once a week to once a month.  Those in attendance have seen meetings last until 11:30 p.m., with a speakers list exceeding 80 people.  At February’s meeting, I objected when the commissioners proceeded to vote on their list of resolutions after most people had left.  There was no way for those in attendance to know what was being voted on, since the five pages of resolutions had not previously been distributed or discussed.

What is the point of speaking on a resolution which has already been passed? I was assured by Chairman Pedro Ramos that the Commission would take steps to rectify the problem.  They have not.  The self-described transparency of this SRC is a sham.  It is an insult to all of the parents, teachers, students and members of the community who are involved in trying to make this school system better.

So what is the answer?

Organized opposition.

Last year, school district nurses organized themselves when threatened with layoffs.  They have held rallies every Wednesday (some in the rain and snow) on the steps of 440 since December in an effort to truly involve all of the people—parents, teachers, students, community members—in trying to save our schools.  I have been at most of these rallies.  I go because I know that the School District sees a group of educators and community members who will not give up.

This five-year plan, which could spell the demise of public education in this city, must be challenged by the people.  We must do everything we can to speak out against it.

Lisa Haver is an education activist and retired teacher.

5 thoughts on “Is the End of Public Education in Philadelphia Near?

  1. Unfortunately, the corporatization of Philadelphia’s public education system continues. How long until the cronyist, corporate stench permeates schools everywhere?

  2. Where is city council and the mayor in all of this? They were so angry at all of the recent fiscal mess and now we never hear from them

    • Carol,

      The mayor has fully endorsed this plan, telling his constituents to “grow up” and just accept it. Fortunately, that is not happening. Many civic groups have already begun to coalesce in an effort to fight for saving public education. Start now to call City Council members and demand that they not turn their backs on our children.


  3. As a retired high school teacher from the Philly School District, I completely agree with Lisa Haver’s assessment, viz., that the proposed changes by the School District could very well be the end of public education in Philadelphia. There was another article in this past Sunday’s Inquirer in Kristen Graham’s column about a recent speech by education historian Diane Ravitch in which she (Ravitch) also criticizes the District’s reorganization initiative. She describes the reorganization as merely “shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.” As is pointed out in your article, we have seen these changes before, and no to avail.

    I would like to add a related issue: What then can be done to improve student achievement in Philadelphia, or any school district with a long history of extremely low achievement scores? I have always come up with the same answer: Never promote students not achieving on grade level.

    I mean, NEVER. How is it that such large numbers of 9th graders test on the 4th & 5th grade levels? Ninth graders! The only answer is that they had been continuously passed along from those lower grade levels. I believe we should stop doing it.

    I know — easier said then done: “Social promotion” perhaps, or, “Middle schools would become too crowed — it would cost too much to hold back so many students”, etc. We have heard them over and over again. But the truth is, it should not be done.

    Why not put most, if not all, of the additional resources going to the improvement of high schools into the improvement of middle schools? Rather than having one Bill Gates Technical High School, have several Bill Gates middle schools, some being devoted only to remediation of students falling behind grade level.

    I see it as attacking the problem at its two weakest points. 1. the pre-school years, and, 2. the middle school years. I remember an article in the Inquirer in the late 70’s about low achievement levels in the inner city schools. Back then, Philadelphia schools reflected achievement levels slightly above the nation level from 1st through 4th grades. (I do not believe this is the case today, and is why I see pre-schooling as one of the two weakest points.) As was displayed with great clarity in a line graph in the article, a sudden drop occurred beginning at the 5th grade level. It continued dropping until about 8th & 9th grades. It then sort of leveled off. (The article went on to note that, at the time, between 5th and 8th grades almost 1/3 of the students in inner city schools actually regressed!)

    I believe at one time the District started what was referred to as ‘early intervention’ – which, I believe, was to provide remediation for 7th and 8th graders. I am not sure if it still exists, given the current budget cuts. But it seems to have been a step in the right direction. However, I believe much, much more is needed. We know how statistics have shown that students who enter high school achieving on grade level have a much higher probability of graduating on grade level – a fact with which all high school teachers can agree. But, will there ever be real reform in the Philadelphia?

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