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?
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.