Concerns over school choice advocate taking charge of Chester's struggling schools

Posted: August 24, 2012

IT MIGHT HAVE once seemed unthinkable: Handing the keys to a large, troubled public-school district over to a high-profile advocate for increasing privatization, including vouchers and for-profit private schools.

But activists said that last Friday's surprise announcement that Gov. Corbett had named the Rev. Joe Watkins - an MSNBC pundit who headed the Students First PAC, the pro-voucher group that's dumped millions of campaign dollars on Corbett and other pols - as chief recovery officer to run the Chester Upland schools in Delaware County marks a tipping point.

They said the choice proves that the Corbett administration is accelerating its push to privatize education in Pennsylvania and benefit charter schools like the Chester Community Charter School - managed by the governor's largest single donor, Vahan Gureghian - at the expense of traditional public schools that are losing dollars, teachers and students.

Watkins acknowledged he'd also done some recent work as a consultant for Gureghian's school, which educates more than half of Chester Upland's elementary- and kindergarten-age kids and has a huge stake in key decisions Watkins will make.

Nationally known education pundit Diane Ravitch - a former assistant U.S. secretary of education who once supported school-choice measures such as vouchers but now opposes them - took to her blog this week to call the choice of Watkins "so astonishing, so breathtaking, and simultaneously so disturbing that I don't know how to characterize it."

In a phone interview, Ravitch said that she found the choice so dismaying because "they sent in someone with an agenda" - in favor of charter schools run by for-profit companies like Chester Community, managed by Gureghian's CMSI LLC.

Last year, Chester Upland paid about a third of its budget to the school, which in turn paid $16.7 million in management fees to the firm headed by Gureghian. He is building a 20,000-square-foot second-home mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., on land that he and his wife purchased for $28.9 million.

Watkins said in the interview that despite his recent advocacy work for vouchers, his father was a public schoolteacher and "I'm a big believer in public schools." He said that he's already started meeting with key players in Chester.

The move is the result of a state law enacted by Corbett and lawmakers this summer that allows the state education commissioner to name a chief recovery officer to run a distressed district, which Chester Upland was declared last week. The law gives Watkins broad power to renegotiate labor contracts and close schools or convert them into charters, and the district's elected school board has little or no choice but to go along.

The naming of Watkins was announced at roughly 4:30 p.m. on a Friday, at the height of the summer vacation season. Education Secretary Ron Tomalis described Watkins as "a qualified individual" to run Chester Upland, which made national headlines earlier this year when it ran out of money and teachers worked for a time without paychecks.

The somewhat-defensive tone of the state's oddly timed news release could be due to the fact that although Watkins has a long and impressive resume - he's pastor of Philadelphia's Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, worked in the George H.W. Bush White House and sought the 2010 GOP nomination for lieutenant governor - none of it is in schools management.

Watkins said he has considerable education experience, including working as assistant to the president of the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater.

As chairman of Students First, Watkins funneled millions of dollars raised largely from three megarich hedge-fund managers of Bala Cynwyd's Susquehanna International Group to Pennsylvania candidates who support school choice.

Ravitch said her biggest concern for Chester Upland is that Watkins will copy Michigan, where its GOP governor named emergency managers for two school districts that were converted fully to charters.


Contact Will Bunch at bunchw@phillynews.com or 215-854-2957. Follow him on Twitter @Will_Bunch. Read his blog at Attytood.com.

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