The end of public education in Philadelphia

Posted: May 15, 2012

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 plan mandates:

The closing of 64 neighborhood schools in the next five years.

The movement of thousands of students from traditional neighborhood schools to charter schools with 40 percent of all Philadelphia students attending charters by 2017.

“Modernizing” custodial, transportation and maintenance services by threatening district workers with layoffs if they don’t agree to accept LESS than what private companies, already in negotiations with district, are asking.

Decentralizing the district into “Achievement Networks” with 25 schools, not necessarily in the same geographic area, in each. Decisions about curricula, discipline, staffing and supplies would be made within each network. District officials have admitted that this new system would do nothing to lessen the deficit.

There is no assurance that these Achievement Networks will be funded equitably. A bidding process — yet to be explained by the SRC or Mr. Knudsen — would determine who controls each network. Anyone may be chosen: former district personnel; charter-school operators; corporations such as Mosaica, KIPP and Kenny Gamble’s Universal; or politicians, including State Rep. Dwight Evans, who last year bullied the CEO of one charter school behind closed doors in order to override the choice of parents at Martin Luther King High School.

How have we arrived at a point where the public-school system can be auctioned off to the lowest bidder?

Many who have attended recent SRC meetings are not completely surprised by the sudden appearance of this draconian plan. While billing themselves as more transparent, the SRC has voted on a number of crucial resolutions, including the adoption of the Great Schools Compact, with little or no public discussion. Community meetings, which should have been scheduled prior to the presentation of this latest plan, are being held this month, giving the public just a few weeks to read its hundreds of pages (online) and have their say.

Despite their frequent protestations that charter schools are public schools, charters are, in reality, private schools taking public dollars. They are run by private citizens and corporations who have little accountability to the citizens of Philadelphia who pay for them. Taxpayers are not permitted to know the salaries of their CEOs or staff, whether they have the required level of certified teachers, or whether those teachers are assigned to teach the subject in which they are certified.

News about the academic achievement of charter schools is hardly encouraging. According to data compiled at Stanford University, “charter school performance in Pennsylvania lagged in growth compared to traditional public schools.” A recent study by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education has found that charter schools spend an average of $774 more on administration (including public relations and real estate), and $1,140 less on instruction, than traditional public schools. Several stories have been published in the local press about the criminal activities of charter CEOs and the abandonment of its entire student body by one cyber-charter.

Why does the SRC want to revoke the right of every family to attend their neighborhood school and replace that right with a chance to win a lottery for a seat in a charter school? Will families, particularly those with special-needs children, have to go shopping for the network that has the best programs and curricula for their children? Will networks have the option to teach, say, intelligent design rather than evolution, or the superiority of one culture over another? The most important question we now face is: Will our schools be able to remain a unifying force in our society or will they widen the gulf between haves and have-nots?

Since the onset of the privatization movement, entire school districts, including Philadelphia’s, have been placed in the hands of those with no degree or experience in education. The School Reform Commission has appointed the former head of the Philadelphia Gas Works to decide the future of Philadelphia’s schools. Mr. Knudsen may know how to send out a utility bill or shut off someone’s gas, but only a city that is abdicating its responsibility to its children would allow him to decide what is best for the education of our children. n

Lisa Haver is a retired teacher, education activist and writer. Email her at lhaver1039@yahoo.com.

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