SRC Rushes to Pass ‘Great Schools Compact,’ Despite Questionable Track Record of City Charters

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, 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.

Bills Gates ‘Compact’ Comes with Strings Attached; SRC Ponders Trading ‘Seats’ for Money

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.