Tag Archives: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

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.

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SRC Favors Corporate Community Over True Stakeholders

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:  lhaver1039@yahoo.com.

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