Shock and awe for Philadelphia schools

Neha Sobti reports on the corporate-driven effort to close dozens of Philadelphia schools and gut the power of the teachers union.

Thomas KnudsenThomas Knudsen

THE UNELECTED boss of the Philadelphia schools has declared war on the city's public education system and the teachers' union--but community members and organizers are mobilizing in resistance.

Thomas Knudsen, the system's so-called Chief Recovery Officer and retired CEO of Philadelphia Gas Works, announced April 24 the details of the unelected School Reform Commission's (SRC) "transformation blueprint."

The blueprint outlines a plan to completely restructure the district by closing 40 public schools next year and 64 by 2017. Students currently attending closing schools will be moved into an expanding charter network, known as Renaissance Schools. The central office will shrink to 200 staffers, and non-profit groups--with a focus on Philadelphia universities and growing Charter Management Organizations--will be contracted to run clusters of around 25 schools known as "Achievement Networks."

Also, the transformation blueprint explicitly states that labor contracts--the largest of which is with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT)--are incompatible with the plan for restructuring, and the wage and benefits system outlined in these contracts will need to be revised.

In fact, the restructuring itself doesn't save the district any money. It's just a diversion while the administration balances the budget on the backs of the PFT and other unions. As former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Patrick Kerkstra put it:

[M]uch of the creative destruction the district unleashed this week actually has nothing to do with the fiscal crisis. The rush to charters, the achievement network--they're not actually part of the fiscal recovery at all. Rather, they are massively ambitious reforms that have been tacked on to a budget plan that, so far at least, is extremely light on details.

Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon prepared a reorganization/transition proposal for the 2012-13 school year that was sent out to principals. The proposal defines in detail what "autonomy" looks like--including giving them greater power to go after the unions. However, it is unclear how this plan will fit into Knudsen's blueprint for district managerial and financial restructuring.

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THE BLUEPRINT is an attempt by the SRC--an unelected governing body created by the state of Pennsylvania to "reform" the struggling Philadelphia public schools--to remedy a $218 million financial shortfall the district will face in 2013. Their plan is to dismantle the public school district, placing their debt burden on mostly working class families of color.

To validate their plan, Knudsen, the SRC and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter have used a manufactured economic crisis in the district in order to get their agendas passed without much public outcry.

Both the mayor and Knudsen threaten that if the plan is not implemented, schools may not open this fall. The Inquirer reported from a press conference where Mayor Nutter voiced his support for the plan: "If we don't take significant action, the system will collapse...If you care about kids and if you care about education, if you care about the future of this city, that's what we need to all grow up and deal with."

In a statement to the SCR, Knudson gave a plug for the Mayor's Actual Value Initiative (AVI) tax plan, saying: "Were we not to get the $94 million from the AVI initiative, it isn't clear that we could, in fact, open schools this fall."

The AVI plan that would raise property taxes to "actual market value"--meaning property taxes will increase in gentrifying areas such as Northern Liberties and Graduate Hospital. It has not yet passed through City Council, but Nutter has said the generated revenue will go directly to the school district.

Nutter claims his intent with AVI is to "accurately capture the increase in property value across the city." However, Nutter chooses to burden middle and working class homeowners instead of reforming the city's tax abatement program that allows businesses such as Comcast to avoid paying the full market value tax rate on property they develop for 10 years.

Furthermore, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett is spending nearly $685 million on prison expansions, including the building of three more facilities--showing that the state privileges the needs of the school-to-prison pipeline over the needs of students for high-quality facilities and greater resources.

It's clear from these deliberate choices for austerity over equality that supporters of the "transformational blueprint" don't have the community in mind. Their goal is to replace the public education system in Philadelphia with a privatized one, falling in line behind New Orleans, Detroit and Cleveland--all cities where privatization through charter expansion has taken place on a massive scale, but failed to transform struggling school districts.

To push this through, Knudson and Nutter are cutting all the corners. Waiting until the last minute to announce the massive overhaul, the SRC has no plan for truly engaging the community in a democratic decision-making process about the district's restructuring.

In fact, it was never the intent of the SRC to develop a plan with community members, families or parents. The SRC signed a contract with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to develop the "blueprint" in six weeks--with a price tag of $1.4 million paid for by the William Penn Foundation.

Currently, BCG is also collaborating with charter operator KIPP to expand its charter school network in the Chicago Public Schools. BCG's approach is to view districts like business portfolios, breaking them apart and downsizing in order to reach more financial efficiency.

However, due to the complexity of teaching and learning, districts and schools--for good reason--do not run like tightly structured private organizations. The strategies for improvement must, therefore, be able to accommodate organic growth of communities and schools, and leave room for democratic engagement. This is not the approach BCG or SRC has taken. As Helen Gym, a long-time Philadelphia activist and founder of Parents United for Public Education, writes:

We're tired of the ridiculous labeling of schools as high performing and low-performing. The label mentality assumes schools are in permanent stasis, rather than in varying stages of evolution and devolution, highly dependent on resources and institutional priority. By simply expanding high-performing seat capacity and closing down low-performing schools, you fail to understand or even seek to understand the very elements that make a level of performance possible. You don't understand schools, you don't understand success and failure, and you don't understand how change happens.

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THE CURRENT struggle over the future of the Philadelphia school district is a reflection of a national agenda to use the recession as an excuse for massive cuts to social spending and escalating austerity measures.

Lack of resources, large class sizes and low-quality education within public schools serving mostly working-class families of color in Philadelphia are not repercussions of the economic recession. The condition of public education today is due to the state's deliberate protection of the interests of the wealthy over the rights of teachers and students in order to maintain class disparities within society.

Union contracts and teachers' wages are not the source of budget shortfalls, and teacher-bashing and union-busting is not the solution. Revising teachers union contracts or destroying them through charter expansion are meant to be distractions from the economic and social exploitation that is at the root of the bankruptcy of the public school district. Already, some 46,000 Philadelphia students attend charter schools out of about 146,000 in total.

Furthermore, privatization is not a solution to failing public schools, as business reformers claim. What's truly needed is a redistribution of resources and funding, such as moving towards a more equitable tax system to force wealthy businesses to contribute their fair share to social services.

We want a system that favors the majority of citizens who send their children to public schools, not the rich. We want public schools that can develop as spaces of community empowerment, not schools dependent on the financial interests of private contractors. We want learning environments that thrive on protecting and meeting the needs of both teachers and students, not ones that survive off of taking away the rights of workers and community members.

As Mia, a public school teacher in Philadelphia said at a meeting held by the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, "The only thing that would wrench [public schools] out of private hands is a swelling from below."

This fightback has not come from union leaders. PFT President Jerry Jordan has called for a lobbying push instead of action among teachers.

However, we are witnessing the beginning of a battle over schools in Philadelphia that will most likely only get bigger in the coming months as the SRC makes a stronger push towards privatizing Philadelphia public schools.