Tag Archives: Philadelphia School Reform Commission

Advice to Future Teachers: Stay Away from Philly

by Christopher Paslay

The Philadelphia School District’s recent contract proposal offers a dismal future for new teachers. 

In light of the recent contract proposal the Philadelphia School District made to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, I have some advice for college graduates considering teaching in the city next fall: don’t bother.

Documents recently circulated by the PFT about the proposal paint a dismal picture for future Philadelphia teachers.

First, pay.  Under the current contract, first year teachers make $45,360.  Under the proposed new rules, however, first year teachers will be required to take a 10 percent cut in pay, and contribute 10 percent to their health benefits, bringing their salary down to about $39,000.  Because there is a pay freeze in place under the new contract, this will be their salary for the next four years until 2017.

“Benefits” under the new proposal, for the record, no longer include dental, eye, or prescription, as the PFT’s Health & Welfare Fund would be eliminated.

After 2017, teachers will be eligible for a raise based on a performance evaluation from their principal.  But because of the budget, they’ll most likely be responsible for buying things like paper, paying for their own copies, and using outdated textbooks and technology.

They’ll also be responsible for safety, as school security has been cut.  According to the Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize winning series “Assault on Learning,” from 2005-06 through 2009-10, the district reported 30,333 serious incidents.  There were 19,752 assaults, 4,327 weapons infractions, 2,037 drug and alcohol related violations, and 1,186 robberies.  Students were beaten by their peers in libraries and had their hair pulled out by gangs in the hall.  Teachers were assaulted over 4,000 times.

The ways in which this could impact a teacher’s performance evaluation are many.

Statistics show over half the teachers who start in 2013 won’t even be in Philadelphia by 2017.  But those skilled and strong enough to remain in service, the new contract will ensure that they will have no protection to keep the programs they’ve worked years to build in place at their schools; the elimination of seniority will leave them vulnerable to be separated from their students and transferred anywhere in the entire city.

Conversely, those teachers struggling at a particular school and who are not a good fit with their students will be stuck there; the new contract no longer allows teachers to voluntarily put in for a transfer.

The proposal lifts the limit on the number of classes taught outside a teacher’s area of certification and on the number of subjects taught.  In other words, an English teacher could be required to prepare and teach algebra, social science, Spanish, chemistry, and British literature, all in the same day.

The new proposal lifts class size limits and opens the door to mass lectures, like in college. Imagine 50 plus teenagers in one big room listening to a teacher lecture about the Pythagorean Theorem, or the periodic table of elements, or iambic pentameter in a Shakespearean sonnet.  A winning formula for sure.

Teachers, under the new proposal, will work unlimited evening meetings without pay, and cannot leave the building without principal approval.

Because the district wants flexibility, the new proposal includes no specific grantees for teachers’ lounges, water fountains, parking lots, accommodation rooms for disruptive students, clothing lockers, or desks, among other things. Just because these things aren’t specifically mentioned in the contract, as Superintendent Hite recently noted, doesn’t mean the School District won’t provide them.

Of course, there’s no guarantee the School District will provide them, either.  That’s the catch.  When an organization is strapped for cash, like the School District currently is, there’s no telling what they’ll do.

“We believe teachers are professionals, just like architects, lawyers, doctors,” Superintendent Hite said. “We want a contract that reflects that.”

The only problem is, architects, lawyers, and doctors don’t make $39,000 a year with no chance for a raise until 2017, and aren’t subject to assaults, sub-par working conditions, and outdated materials and technology.

Hence my advice to future teachers: stay away from Philadelphia and seek a district that respects its educators.

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Filed under Dr. William Hite, PFT

The injustice schools ignore

According to The Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Assault on Learning,” Philadelphia’s public schools have a bit of a violence problem.

From 2005-06 through 2009-10, the district reported 30,333 serious incidents, including 19,752 assaults, 4,327 weapons infractions, 2,037 drug- and alcohol-related violations, and 1,186 robberies. Students were beaten by their peers in libraries and had their hair pulled out by gangs. Teachers were assaulted more than 4,000 times.

So how has the School Reform Commission responded? By easing its student code of conduct and other disciplinary policies. In particular, the commission wants to cut down on out-of-school suspensions. . . .

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “The injustice schools ignore.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

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Filed under Inquirer Articles, School Violence

The Day Discipline Died in Philadelphia Public Schools

by Christopher Paslay

The Philadelphia School District’s revised code of conduct is evidence that officials have thrown in the towel when it comes to student discipline. 

Mark the date: 8/16/12.  That was the day discipline officially died in Philadelphia public schools.  Not that discipline was alive and well to begin with.  In many schools throughout the city it was hanging on by a thread, a brain dead body with a faint pulse connected to a life-support machine with a bunch of tubes running out of its arms.

Consider these facts: From 2005-06 through 2009-10, the district reported 30,333 serious incidents.  There were 19,752 assaults, 4,327 weapons infractions, 2,037 drug and alcohol related violations, and 1,186 robberies.  Students were beaten by their peers in libraries and had their hair pulled out by gangs in the hall.  Teachers were assaulted over 4,000 times.

In the 2007-08 school year alone, there were nearly 15,000 criminal incidents reported in Philadelphia public schools.  According to data published in the Inquirer, 1,728 students assaulted teachers, 479 weapons were discovered inside elementary and middle school hallways and classrooms, and 357 weapons were found in high schools.

Tragically, almost half of the most serious cases were not reported to police.  Inquirer reporter Kristen Graham wrote that “the most serious offenders—including those who assaulted teachers—were neither expelled nor transferred to alternative education.”  She also added: “Just 24 percent of the 1,728 students who assaulted teachers were removed from regular education classrooms, and only 30 percent of them were charged by police . . .”

In fact, from 2006 to 2008, not a single student was expelled from the Philadelphia School District.

Over the last five years, discipline has been hanging on by a thread.  Not anymore.  Yesterday the School Reform Commission voted to officially pull the plug on the dying animal.  School leaders are being instructed to cut down on out-of-school suspensions, and loosen punishments as a response to discipline violations as a whole.  In particular, principals can no longer suspend a student for profanity, cellphone or uniform infractions.  So when an algebra teacher is in the middle of a lesson on the order of operations and a student is interrupting the class by talking loudly on his cellphone, and the teacher says, excuse me, put that away, and the student says, fuck you, I’m in the middle of a call here, and the teacher says, give me that cellphone now, and the student says, bitch, go fuck yourself, a suspension is not in order.  Not even when a student continues this behavior on a regular basis, and ruins everyone’s education in the process.

According to a story in today’s Inquirer:

The focus now is on in-school intervention.

“Though there can be no excuse for behavior that harms or disrupts, there may be reasons that caring adults in school need to understand. We educate the whole child,” the code declares. It lists a range of in-school intervention that should be employed, from “get a student’s attention by calling his/her name in a calm voice” and “address the student in private” to drawing up behavioral contracts.

How might this work in real life?  Here’s a scenario:

Teacher (trying to teach the class):  Put away that cellphone. 

Student: Man, I’m in the middle of a call, yo.  It’s my mom.  It’s an emergency.

Teacher (whispering calmly to the student): Darryl, you can’t use the phone in class.  Remember our behavior contract?  Can you see me in the hallway, please?

Student:  Bitch, get the fuck outta my face!

Greg Shannon, who is in charge of the school district’s disciplinary hearings and expulsions, said schools need to find ways to work with children and patiently figure out why they continue to break the rules: “We have to say, ‘Why are you coming to school out of uniform, and what can we do to support you? What can we do to get you in uniform, or get you a uniform?’”

How might this work in real life?  Here’s a scenario:

Teacher (being patient): Stacy, your skirt is too high and your shirt is too low cut.  We talked about this, remember?  Where is the uniform I gave you?  You haven’t worn it in three weeks?

Student: That golf shirt is corny.  I ain’t tryin’ to wear that uniform.

Teacher: But you are dressed inappropriately.  Is there a problem at home?  Do you need to talk about something?

Student:  Bitch, mind your business.  You ain’t my mom.

Lorene Cary, the head of the SRC’s safety committee, said, “The idea is that the best way to be safer is to change our culture to a safe culture.  We really have looked at prevention.”

Prevention?  Really?  What a novel idea (as if principals and teachers haven’t been trying prevention for decades).  What school district leaders have yet to answer is what should be done with students who continue to rob their hardworking classmates of an education even after preventative interventions such as restorative justice, positive behavioral supports, and peer mediation are used?  What do teachers and principals do then?

The answer: nothing.  Nothing is done.  Because of pressure from civil rights groups, because of pressure from toxic progressive organizations such as the Education Law Center, Youth United for Change, the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools, and the Philadelphia Student Union, the rights of violent and unruly children supersede the rights of the majority of Philadelphia’s hardworking students trying to get an education.  Instead of suspending such children and placing them in alternative learning environments where they can get the remediation they need (and their classmates can finally have a chance to learn), these incorrigible youth are forced to coexist in classrooms with their peers where they ruin everyone’s education.

Now the SRC, as well as Superintendent William Hite, are on board with this mission: robbing our city’s hardworking children of their educations.  They are now bowing to the notion that the school district’s code of discipline is racist, is disenfranchising innocent children, and is not working; they are buying into Youth United for Change’s canard that the school district’s discipline policies are creating a “pipeline to prison.”

It is pathetic.  The code of conduct doesn’t work because the district doesn’t have the guts to enforce it.  Overall, policies have no teeth and teachers and principals get inadequate backing and support.  Parents and community leaders are absolved of all responsibility and the students themselves are no longer held accountable for their own behavior.  Why?  Because it’s too difficult a battle for the district to fight.  Like a parent who gives into his child because he doesn’t have the energy to enforce his own rules, the school district is taking the easy way out.

Yesterday’s decision to fundamentally revise the student code of conduct was the death blow to school discipline as we know it.  It appears that the SRC, as well as Superintendent Hite, have officially washed their hands of the whole mess.

God help the School District of Philadelphia, and the tens of thousands of hardworking children who will have their right to an education violated now more than ever.

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Filed under School Violence

Dr. Hite forgoes $120,000 severance; will show up one month late for work

by Christopher Paslay

Dr. William Hite, Philadelphia’s new superintendent of schools, is reportedly giving up his severance package with Prince George’s County Schools in Maryland to start work in Philadelphia by October 1st, one month after the school year begins.     

It appears that Dr. William Hite will take the high road—unlike his predecessor Dr. Arlene Ackerman.  According to a story in Wednesday’s Inquirer:

His contract with Prince George’s stipulated that to receive severance pay — six months salary, or $125,000 — Hite would have to give 120 days notice, which would have him working into November, Hite explained.

Instead, Hite made a deal to forgo his severance and give 60 days notice, he said.

His official last day with Prince George’s will be Sept. 30, the district announced Monday.

Dr. Hite’s gesture puts him ahead of Dr. Ackerman, the queen of the urban superintendent severance package.  Last year, Ackerman negotiated a $1 million severance package from the SRC, and then filed for unemployment after receiving it.  In 2006, she was awarded $375,000 in severance pay from the San Francisco public schools, then tried to sue the district claiming she was owed an additional $172,000 in unused benefits; amazingly, all this was allowed to take place after Ackerman’s tumultuous stint as Washington D.C.’s schools’ chief.

Kudos to Dr. Hite for being a bit more scrupulous and forgoing his $120,000 severance package from the Prince George County district in Maryland (at this point it is not clear whether he will lose all or some of this money).

This gesture, however, does not excuse the fact that he will be starting as Philadelphia’s schools’ chief one month after the school year begins.  The fact that he was hired by the SRC on June 29th—after a nearly six month long superintendent search process—does raise some questions.  Was his October 1st start date made known during the search process?  If so, why would the SRC agree to this?  Or did the fact that he will be showing up to work one month late come to light after he was hired, forcing the SRC into a corner? 

The math doesn’t seem to add up here, either.  Dr. Hite was hired by the SRC on June 29th.  If he put in his notice to Prince George County on July 1st, wouldn’t 60 days take us to September 1st, the start of the school year?  How does giving 60 days notice bring us to October 1st?  This would be 90 days notice (92 days, actually).   

Either way, the SRC’s planning and scheduling leaves much to be desired.  With all due respect to Dr. Hite, he should have had his previous business in order before applying for the job in Philadelphia. 

One of the reasons large urban schools districts fail—and continue to lag behind the suburbs—is because too many of their working parts (parents, students, central management, etc.) fail to meet deadlines, causing a major ripple effect that negatively impacts everyone.  If the SRC and the superintendent of schools can’t get things rolling on time, what example does this set for our students?  If Dr. Hite can show up late for school, why can’t they? 

As I wrote in my June 27th post, being “on time” is not a matter of perspective.  Unfortunately, this kind of time management and value system appears to have slipped the minds of Philadelphia School District leaders.

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Filed under Dr. William Hite

Pedro Ramos is not Scott Walker, and Pennsylvania is not Wisconsin

by Christopher Paslay

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos may be emboldened by Scott Walker’s recent victory over Big Labor, but the Keystone State is a far cry from the Badger State.       

It appears that Philadelphia School Reform Commission chairman Pedro Ramos is suffering from Scott Walker Syndrome.  His recent attempt to push legislation that would extend the SRC’s power to nullify union contracts and unilaterally dictate salary and benefits to School District employees is curiously timed.  You’d almost think Ramos has become emboldened by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s Assembly Bill 11, also known as his “Budget Repair Bill,” which limits collective bargaining by public-sector unions, caps salary increases, and forces workers to pay more for their pensions and health benefits.

Members of the Philadelphia Democratic House delegation, however, do not seem to be as enamored by Scott Walker’s recent victory over Big Labor.  Walker may have survived Tuesday’s recall election, but this hasn’t inspired Pennsylvania state legislators to get on board with the SRC’s surprise legislative amendment that would further cripple School District unions and their bargaining power.

Although Pennsylvania’s Act 46 already strips the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers of their right to strike—giving the SRC the power to unilaterally impose contact terms and limit collective bargaining—Ramos feels he needs even more power.

According to Kristen Graham’s 6/8/12 Inquirer story:

State Rep. Michael H. O’Brien (D., Phila.), who was at the meeting, said Ramos admitted the SRC was attempting to sell a legislative amendment Ramos needed because current law “didn’t give the SRC enough juice,” in O’Brien’s words.

The SRC’s new ploy for more power was apparently an unpleasant surprise for many, including Mayor Nutter and members of the Philadelphia Democratic House delegation.

Someone, perhaps Nutter himself, needs to tell Pedro Ramos that he’s not Scott Walker.  And while he’s at it, he needs to explain to the SRC that Pennsylvania (and for the purposes of this argument, Philadelphia) is not Wisconsin.  For starters, Pennsylvania has a balanced budget (although the Philadelphia School District is still facing a deficit, but this deficit was created by the SRC itself).  Second, Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System was just overhauled in 2010, cutting pension benefits and increasing member contributions.  Third, collective bargaining by the largest teachers’ union in the state—the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers—has already been severely limited for over a decade by the passing of Act 46.

Here’s a comparison between Pennsylvania and Wisconsin on three hot button issues: collective bargaining rights; retirement; and health insurance.

Collective Bargaining

Massive protests broke out in Wisconsin last year when Governor Scott Walker passed his Budget Repair Bill, which limited the collective bargaining power of public-sector unions.  According to the Greenbay Press Gazette:

The bill would make various changes to limit collective bargaining for most public employees to wages. Total wage increases could not exceed a cap based on the consumer price index (CPI) unless approved by referendum.

Contracts would be limited to one year and wages would be frozen until the new contract is settled. Collective bargaining units are required to take annual votes to maintain certification as a union.

Employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues. These changes take effect upon the expiration of existing contracts.

But when you compare this to the restrictions imposed on the largest teachers union in Pennsylvania by the passing of Act 46 over a decade ago, it is relatively small potatoes.  According to an article in the University of Penn’s Journal of Labor and Employment Law:

The state takeover of Philadelphia city schools will obviously have an effect on Philadelphia teachers’ ability to bargain collectively for contract rights. . . . While the system is under the control of the SRC, teachers are prohibited from striking in order to secure contract rights. . . . For example, teachers could be faced with a significantly lengthened school year, less preparation time, and larger classes, all without the opportunity to bargain for any compensation for these impositions. . . . Also, the district would not be required to discuss “decisions related to reduction in force.” This allowance for the district, coupled with the fact that, under Act 86, the SRC may make decisions to suspend professional employees without regard to tenure protection has potentially dire consequences for the professional security of educators. In a situation involving layoffs, for instance, teachers who have years of experience could be suspended before new hires.

In effect, under Act 46, the SRC already has the power to unilaterally impose contract terms, overhaul traditional schools and turn them into charters, lengthen the school day and year without compensating workers, layoff teachers regardless of seniority or tenure, and takes away the union’s right to strike, among other things.

As for union dues: Philadelphia public school teachers can opt out of joining the union, but they are still required by the state to pay something called “Fair Share,” which basically means that they have to pay union dues anyway, which is about 1 percent of their salary.

Pensions and Retirement

Until Scott Walker passed his Budget Repair Bill, state, school district, and municipal employees in Wisconsin paid little to nothing for their pensions.  Now members of the Wisconsin Retirement System must contribute 50 percent of the annual pension payment, which means public school teachers have to start contributing about 5.8 percent of every check toward their pensions.

Since 2001, Philadelphia school teachers, who are members of Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System, were required to pay 7.5 percent of every check to their pensions.  Legislation passed in 2010 now requires new teachers to pay 10.3 percent of every check toward their pensions if they want to receive the same pension as those hired before December of 2010; those new teachers who agree to accept a modified pension multiplier (smaller pension) can continue to pay at the 7.5 percent rate.

Health Insurance

Before the Walker bill, Wisconsin state employees paid about 6 percent of their health insurance costs.  Now they will be forced to kick in double that—about 12 percent of the average cost of annual premiums.

Philadelphia public school teachers have excellent benefits, and at little cost.  According to the current contract between the PFT and PSD, teachers have to contribute at most 3 – 5 percent of annual premiums, and many teachers pay nothing.  Co-pays do continue to go up, but teachers are in a good position here; it’s inevitable that in the future, sacrifices will have to be made, and employees may have to kick in more money.  This, of course, can be agreed upon at the bargaining table, and there is absolutely no need for new legislation to be proposed by the SRC to get this done.

The SRC’s recent attempt to push legislation to further cripple School District unions is uncalled for.  The SRC has already sent layoff notices to 2,700 service workers who are SEIU 32BJ union members, and is planning to privatize neighborhood schools and cut unions by turning 40 percent of District schools into charters by 2017.

Some can argue what Walker did in Wisconsin was justified; unions in the Badger State needed to be reeled-in to keep Wisconsin from falling off an economic cliff, which is why 30 percent of union workers voted in Tuesday’s recall election to keep Walker in office.  But the situation is a bit different in the Keystone State.

Pedro Ramos is no Scott Walker.  Shame on him for trying to use Walker’s momentum to push his misguided and unnecessary legislation to further cripple organized labor in Philadelphia.

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Filed under PFT, School Budget, SRC

The end of public education in Philadelphia

If the School Reform Commission and Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen have their way, we may witness the end of public education in Philadelphia. A five-year plan proposed by Philadelphia School District officials calls for the overhaul of virtually every element of the 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 promises to stay the traditional route and invest in neighborhoods and communities. . . .

This is an excerpt from Lisa Haver’s commentary in today’s Philadelphia Daily News, “The end of public education in Philadelphia.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  It is an adaption of the piece she wrote for Chalk and Talk on April 25th headlined, “Is the End of Public Education in Philadelphia Near?”  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for Reading.

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To Mayor Nutter: Close Delinquent Properties, Not Schools

by Christopher Paslay

Instead of cutting badly needed school personnel and resources, Mayor Nutter should crack down on the city’s deadbeats who owe $472 million in delinquent property taxes. 

Despite laying-off teachers, nurses, school police officers and teacher aids, freezing salaries, cutting athletics, and shutting down after-school activities, the Philadelphia School District continues to struggle financially. 

Thomas Knudsen, the School District’s Chief Recovery Officer (who makes $25,000 a month), recently announced that the District faces a $218 million deficit for the 2012-13 school year, and that if Mayor Nutter’s new property-tax proposal does not pass City Council, the District may not open in the fall.

“It is not clear that we could, in fact, open schools this fall,” Knudsen said.

Nutter’s new property tax proposal, nicknamed “Actual Value Initiative,” would serve to reassess properties across Philadelphia and adjust taxes to an “actual” or current rate.  In theory, this is supposed to bring in an additional $94 million to the School District. 

But Nutter’s property tax reassessment plan is only a drop in the bucket, and continues to put the burden on hard working middle class citizens.  His plan does little to go after deadbeats who refuse to pay their fair share of property taxes, and does not adequately address the problem of vacant buildings. 

In August of last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer did a series on Philadelphia’s delinquent-property-tax collection system titled, “The Delinquency Crisis.”  In a report headlined “Taxes wither on the vine,” the Inquirer wrote:

Philadelphia runs the least-effective delinquent-property-tax collection system of the nation’s biggest cities, a system that has created a “culture of nonpayment” and cost the city and cash-strapped School District $472 million in unpaid real estate taxes, penalties, and interest.

It is a delinquency epidemic that reaches from Chestnut Hill to Point Breeze, infecting every neighborhood. In all, there are nearly 111,000 delinquent properties, or about 19 percent of all parcels in Philadelphia, according to an Inquirer and PlanPhilly.com analysis of city data.

The past-due properties include such pricey parcels as the proposed Foxwoods casino site, an Old City art gallery, a South Philadelphia hotel, and choice real estate a block off Rittenhouse Square.

But it is in low-income neighborhoods where the delinquency crisis has peaked and where the city’s response has been the least effective. . . .

According to the Inquirer report, Philadelphia has more tax deadbeats per property than any other big city in the country.  Here are some facts highlighted in the report

  • The delinquent tax problem has grown under the Nutter administration.  In May 2009, there were just over 100,000 tax-delinquent properties in Philadelphia. On April 30, 2011, the count had risen to nearly 111,000.
  • Tens of thousands of parcels are never subjected to any enforcement action beyond sternly worded letters from the city Revenue Department.
  • The city’s typical tax delinquent is 6.5 years behind and owes $4,249 in taxes, penalties, and interest.
  • 26,000 properties are at least a decade behind, and the owners of nearly 8,500 properties haven’t paid a dime for 20 years or more.
  • According to city records, the largest delinquent, owing $6.1 million in principal, penalties, and interest on five unpaid years including 2011, is Roman Philadelphia Property L.L.C. at 1499 S. Columbus Blvd., site of the potential Foxwoods casino.
  • Cumulatively, the city’s delinquent properties are 720,000 years behind in taxes.

Of the delinquent properties, Frank S. Alexander, a law professor at Emory University and a leading national authority on improving property-tax collection systems, told the Inquirer:  “That’s an astronomical level of delinquency. It is phenomenally high.  Those numbers tell you there is a very high rate of nonenforcement. It means that the city has made a decision not to go after these properties.”

Mayor Nutter may not be going after these tax deadbeats, but he is going after schools.  Nutter and Knudsen have targeted teachers, nurses, custodians, school police officers, noontime aids, cafeteria staff, athletic coaches, after-school activity sponsors, art programs, music programs, and unions, among others, in an effort to balance the School District’s budget, all of which will have a negative impact on learning. 

Not surprisingly, Nutter and Knudsen are now implementing scare tactics—à la Arleen Ackerman and the Great Full-Day Kindergarten Crisis—suggesting that schools may not be able to open in the fall.  Not unless, ahem, the School District’s five unions cough-up $156 million in givebacks, and Philadelphia’s hard working citizens (who actually pay their taxes) submit to another property tax increase.

It’s time for Mayor Nutter to get his priorities straight and make an honest effort to recover the $472 million owed to the city.  He must take the high road and finally confront the city’s tax cheats instead of balancing the School District budget on the backs of hard working citizens and their children.

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Filed under After School Programs, School Budget

City schools need reform, not revolution

Like Veterans Stadium and the Spectrum, the Philadelphia School District is about to be blown up. The School Reform Commission announced plans last week to close 40 schools next year and two dozen more by 2017. It also plans to allow outside organizations to make proposals to run groups of schools.

The idea of breaking the district into smaller, more manageable chunks is not new. Former schools chief David Hornbeck broke the system into “clusters” in the 1990s. Unfortunately, that created all kinds of unintended bureaucracy, which is why the next schools CEO phased them out.

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “City schools need reform, not revolution.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  It serves as a brief counterpoint to School Reform Commission chairman Pedro A. Ramos’ commentary in yesterday’s Inquirer headlined “Phila. children deserve better.”  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

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Filed under Charter Schools, Inquirer Articles

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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