This is What Privatization Looks Like

The Philadelphia School District has just been shot and is about to be drawn and quartered, then sold piecemeal to the highest bidder. Excuse the grisly metaphor, but this is no exaggeration and we better start paying attention here on the other side of the state. It is a long and sordid tale, but we’ll try to hit the highlights.

[Unless otherwise noted, this data comes from a detailed article in the Philadelphia City Paper, 5-3-12. It’s quite lengthy, but I encourage you to read it if you are interested in the full back story: it’s got mobsters and everything and may just make you glad to live in Southwest PA.]

In 2001, the state took over the Philadelphia School District after years of problems, installing a School Reform Commission (SRC) with most of its seats appointed by the state. There was plenty of blame to go around: the administration, school district, city officials, you name it. But it really came down to years of massive under-funding that had left the district bleeding red ink. And it was the perfect opportunity for corporations and privatization-minded legislators to push for the complete abandonment of public education in one of the country’s largest school districts.

Under then Gov. Tom Ridge, the Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted a plan to place the for-profit Edison Schools Inc. in command of both the central administration and 60 of the district’s schools. Never mind that Gov. Ridge had contracted with Edison to “study” the privatization scheme, that the company had recommended the plan, and that it was going to be the major beneficiary with lots of new business. There were some efforts to stop it, and in the end the plan was scaled back so that Edison was put in charge of 20 schools, with 22 others going to different private companies.

At the time, members of the state-imposed SRC had been practicing their techniques in Chester Upland (the current post-child for the dissolution of public education). There they had already handed over control of eight of Chester’s nine schools to Edison. But within a few years, Edison realized it wasn’t making enough money and left that district. And then it left Philadelphia, too.

A decade later, it’s déjà vu with a new privatization plan to close 40 schools next year, adding six more each year for the next five years, and rearranging the remaining schools into “achievement networks” consisting of 20-30 schools each. The public would compete with private corporations to manage these networks. Former Philadelphia superintendent David Hornbeck warned, “What is being proposed, in effect, is ‘charterizing’ the whole district, when there is a lot of evidence that at best [charters] have no positive effect on student achievement, and there is a lot of evidence they cost more.” What’s more, “charters in many instances, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, have served private interests — sometimes of public officials.”

Philadelphia already has far more charter schools than Pittsburgh: the school district operates 249 schools, while charters manage an additional 80 schools. In the past four years, 18 of those charter schools have been the subject of federal investigations, and the City Controller found that the Charter School Office was not providing oversight, except in the time right before the schools’ charters were to be renewed, leaving the whole system “extremely vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse.” Last month the former head of one of Philadelphia’s charter schools pled guilty to stealing $522,000 in taxpayer’s money. Another is under a federal probe for forced employee kickbacks. There are shady management deals with rent being paid to organizations controlled by charter school founders.

And Philly’s charter schools on the whole are not living up to their academic promises. While there are some quite good charter schools in the system, a Stanford University study found that statewide, students in Pennsylvania’s charter schools perform “significantly worse” than their peers in traditional public schools. That same study found that cyber charter schools were a complete failure, with 100 percent of them performing significantly worse than their counterpart brick-and-mortar schools. [For more on the problems with cyber charter schools in particular, see “Soaking the Public.”]

The entire Philadelphia plan was proposed by the Boston Consulting Group, a big-time global-business consultancy with a track record of recommending school privatization. The William Penn Foundation paid $1.5 million to the Boston Consulting Group to develop its plan, which looks remarkably similar to its efforts to dismantle school systems in New Orleans and Australia. What’s worse, “Former Boston executives and consultants now hold senior posts at charter-school networks like KIPP — which could well apply to manage a Philly achievement network — and Broad Center, an urban schools executive recruiter and trainer and a leading proponent of corporate-inspired reform.” Honestly, the more you know, the less you want to know.

Still, Philly is worse-off than Pittsburgh. In response to the crippling budget cuts last year, the district eliminated 3,800 teaching and staff positions and this year laid off 100 nurses, 90 school police officers, and 43 bilingual counseling assistants. Those nurses have been staging a weekly protest outside the district offices since December. Others are fighting back, too, including an active parent group called Parents United for Public Education. I went to Washington, D.C. with Rebecca Poyourow from that group, who explained to me how difficult it is for them to fight such staggering losses at the local level while saving some energy for the state level budget battle.

She and her group did get hundreds of people to rally in Harrisburg last spring protesting the budget cuts, and Philadelphia teens have joined with others around the state, including Pittsburgh, to rally at the capitol this year. Those high-schoolers also made a fantastic video together. But we need to understand the crushing weight that Philly’s grassroots movement is under. (If you want to be inspired by their activism, I can highly recommend reading Helen Gym’s blog response to the SRC plan: in a word, incredible.)

Former Philadelphia superintendent Hornbeck places the blame for this long-coming train wreck squarely on years of inadequate state funding. “The real culprit,” he says, “has less to do with any kind of mismanagement at the school district and much more to do with the continued shortchanging of the district in financial terms by the state. The biggest indictment that can be brought against folks in the city is the lack of advocacy, aggressiveness, on behalf of the kids.” So it’s disappointing that Philly Mayor Michael Nutter has thrown his support behind the current SRC privatization plan, calling it “stark but realistic,” and telling critics to “grow up and deal with” it.

Diane Ravitch, a well-known education historian who has looked at the Philadelphia situation, has charged Nutter with giving up on public schools: “I think he should be advocating for public education.” It was disappointing, then, to see Mayor Nutter here in Pittsburgh yesterday at a press conference with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald talking about the state budget crisis – and not one of them mentioned education. [Post-Gazette, 5-4-12] Transit, health, and human services are equally being gutted by budget cuts – but education needs to be on that list, too, when our legislators are speaking. (Remember Gov. Corbett’s “Old Divide and Conquer Tactic” – we’re not falling for that.)

We have our work cut out for us! We have to keep a watchful eye on the privatization campaign now fully under way in the state’s largest school district. We can’t just ignore it and hope it will go away, or stay on the other side of the Allegheny Mountains. Instead, we’ve got to raise our Yinzer voices and yell with a mighty roar from Southwest Pennsylvania, “Steelers are #1! But when it comes to public education, we are all in this together: we must have equitable and sustainable state funding for all of Pennsylvania’s schools.”

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