Report has public-school advocates enraged. But why?

Posted: August 07, 2012

A report authored by the Boston Consulting Group for the School Reform Commission and paid for by the William Penn Foundation provides interesting reading on the state of the school district and school reform in general.

Among the most interesting: It doesn't appear to have been written by either Satan or any of his minions. This despite the fact that some parents, school advocates, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and others have characterized the report as a conspiratorial blueprint for dismantling the public system.

They've ascribed nefarious motives to the funder of the study, as well as to a number of other private and monied interests that are providing funding for school reform, such as the Gates Foundation, suggesting that a shadow government is being formed to take over the public schools. (Full disclosure: The WPF funds the It's Our Money project, a partnership between the Daily News and WHYY.)

Those who believe that "public" is an important part of public education are right to be alert to how the privatization of all schools could threaten equity and social justice for children in the poorest big city in the nation.

But that's not what the BCG report is espousing. And the distortion of its findings and its funding is a shame, since it distracts from some of the more troubling trends the report identifies that could truly undermine the school district.

For example, the rise of charters in the city has created an expensive exodus from district-operated schools that costs dearly: because of the fact that a third of charter students come from outside the district, each charter student costs the district an average of $7,000 in additional expense. And fewer students in the district schools means that the underutilized buildings are more expensive — in fact, each student costs the district 1.3 times the cost of operating with 100 percent occupancy. That fact led to one of the recommendations to close up to 57 schools.

Another controversial recommendation, to contract out with vendors for maintenance services, was overruled when the SRC negotiatied a new contract last month with members of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union.

The report's critics call the Portfolio school model a code word for full privatization. The report, on the other hand, calls it "an established theory of action in the education reform literature, codified most prominently by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington."

Some critics say that the money for the study should have been spent on books, new teachers and programs. But while more money would help, surely funding the status quo — of one of the worst-performing systems in the country — will not change it.

People looking for demons should look elsewhere: For example, to Harrisburg, where elected officials have been starving schools for years — not just in dollars, but in policies, such as stopping reimbursement to districts for charter enrollment. A bill in Harrisburg proposes moving authority of charters to the state. That could flood the city with more charters and disembowel the district even further.

Building a secondary system divorced from the current system that is still expected to pay for it — that's the kind of conspiracy that should worry everyone. Those who believe in keeping "the public" in public education should battle with those who they've elected to represent them, who have done, and could continue to do, far more damage than any privately funded study could ever do.

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