Philly Today, Pittsburgh Tomorrow

Massive demonstrations. Eighteen arrests, including students, parents, and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Tears and sobbing as entire communities learned they would no longer have a school. What happened in Philadelphia yesterday could be happening in Pittsburgh very soon. Last night the state-imposed School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to close 23 more schools in the city of brotherly love. Citing financial woes and population loss all too familiar to those of us here in the steel city, the SRC considers school closings its only option. No matter the devastation to neighborhoods. No matter that Philadelphia’s student population loss problem is largely due to charter schools siphoning students away.

The SRC has justified these school closings by saying that students in “low performing” schools would be better off in “better” schools. But this is a line right out of the corporate-reform playbook and not based on any evidence. In fact, this strategy has been tried over and over again in other cities and evidence indicates that students do not do better in different schools. And school districts do not even save money: “research shows that it’s hard for school districts to recoup the closure savings they project, and a study from the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute found that only 6 percent of students displaced by closed schools performed better in their new academic environments.” [Huffington Post, 3-7-13] Six percent. Six.

With that data, you cannot seriously suggest that closing down neighborhood schools is a strategy for improving student performance. Worse, these school closing plans fail to acknowledge the civil rights and equity issues involved, since poor communities and people of color are disproportionately affected. To close schools overlooks the critical importance of those institutions in struggling neighborhoods. It is a failure to see the larger ramifications in a city and a failure to think carefully about alternatives.

Our colleague, Philadelphia parent activist Helen Gym, points out that it is a failure of imagination and vision that is really killing public education. Inadequate resources have created enormous problems for the Philadelphia school district, “But it has been mortally wounded by a lack of vision to combat a relentless effort by corporate education reformers to declare the death of the neighborhood school.” Gym explains that Philadelphia’s school closing plan is really about:

“collapsing failing schools into failing schools, with no promises of investment and, perhaps even more alarming, with the likelihood of even greater disinvestment. Cheering on the sidelines will be private organizations that funded and contracted with the consultants driving many of the proposals. In their “vision” of a new school landscape, going to school is as simple as choosing your brand of soda. Corporate ed reform-speak labels the defenders of public education as “emotional” and “sentimental” while they claim the language of data and logic. In fact, there is plenty of data to show that the shift we have seen from neighborhood schools toward an increasingly choice-based system is not serving the city’s most vulnerable students. Data from around the country show that school closings minus a vision for re-investment are little more than self-cannibalization, where closings tend to breed more closings.” [The Notebook, 3-7-13]

Does any of this sound familiar? Pittsburgh has hired consulting firms to help it plan for the future amidst warnings that it will deplete its entire reserve account by 2015. [“PPS: Planning a Privatization Scheme?”] What seems clear is that this plan will feature another round of school closings for our city. We need to re-think the assumption that school closings are inevitable. As another Philadelphia colleague and parent activist, Rebecca Poyourow, warns: “mass closings of … public schools undermine our children’s educational prospects, compromise kids’ safety, contribute to the drop-out crisis, uproot communities, and destroy jobs and neighborhoods—all for little to no savings.” Consider Poyourow’s pointed questions to their mayor, substituting “Pittsburgh” for “Philadelphia”:

  • Why does Philadelphia have to pursue such cut-rate, imitative policy?
  • Why are we being forced to buy into this mass school-closing plan, copied from other cities where it has already flopped?
  • When we have data from other cities where such plans have proven disastrous, and when we have local data that the receiving schools are no better (and sometimes worse) than the schools Philadelphia students are being forced from, why do we have to travel down the same road? [Parents United, 3-6-13]

What Philadelphia is doing is essentially divesting in its own neighborhoods. It is a stunning lack of vision on the part of the city as a whole and a refusal to acknowledge the central role that schools play in the life and vitality of their communities. Pittsburgh needs to pay close attention to what is happening in our sister city across the state and think carefully about our vision for public education here. Rebecca Poyourow suggests:

“We need to find a way to harness the capacity for schools to be hubs for neighborhood cohesion and economic development, perhaps through the joint use of schools that are currently under-enrolled—arrangements in which non-profit or for-profit entities, public agencies, or civic groups pay rent to share the use of school buildings and grounds.  Considering such an idea is exciting, but it would take collaboration and innovation among city government officials, the school district, and neighborhood groups.  It would mean combining discussions of policy with the local knowledge of students, teachers, parents, and neighborhood residents.” [Parents United, 3-6-13]

Pittsburgh has the time right now to have that conversation and to consider such big ideas. We have to start questioning the inevitability of school closings and challenging the faulty underlying logic that claims that hurting neighborhoods will somehow save us money and improve student learning. But we have to start now. Otherwise, as Philly goes, so goes Pittsburgh.

10 thoughts on “Philly Today, Pittsburgh Tomorrow

  1. I believe that if the State would take over, we would finally have some form of direction and organization.  The District is at an all time low as far as teacher morale.  There needs to be better leadership at the top.  The School Board needs to be a Board of 9, not a board that is crumbling. 

    Our District is self-destructing!  All of the Grants, temporary positions, initiatives, and temporary interventions ARE NOT THE ANSWER!!  Strong leadership from the top down is imperative.

    Principals are leading schools by arrogance and fear.  This does not make for a healthy culture for any school in the district.


    Thanks for Listening

    Great Passion…

    Clear Mission…

    Focused Action.

    • Debra, I agree that we need strong leadership with a clear vision. However, I strongly disagree that we should allow the state to take over. This has led to disaster across Pennsylvania where it has happened. In the districts that have financially collapsed (for a mix a reasons, not least of which is inadequate state support) state-takeover has led to massive school closings and charterization. In other words, the state’s answer is to hand public schools over to private operators — which have proven less effective (on the whole, there are exceptions) at actually teaching students. We must find answers here in Pittsburgh that promote strong, healthy, adequately and equitably funded public schools.

    • Debra-
      I do not see principals leading with arrogance and fear, but the government. With the looming threat of not meeting AYP, it is all educators who are working in an atmosphere of uncertainty. Good principals know the amazing work their teachers can do, but are confined by endless rounds of standardized testing, required by the state. We do need strong leadership. But we need leaders who understand education, not legislation.

  2. Thanks for sharing our story–we may be mourning school closings today, but we’re still organizing too. I hope Pittsburgh public education advocates can frame the debate early and think about the political leverage they can exert around school funding, ethics, governance, and transparency. Figure out what tools Pittsburgh has.

    And here is another wonderful piece by Elaine Simon on school closings as a repeat of disastrous urban renewal policies:

  3. Thank you Jessie for thoughtful reflections and the need to take some lessons learned from Philadelphia’s struggle. Governor Corbett’s anti-child budget has pushed districts across the Commonwealth to the breaking point. Many will be forced to adopt extreme measures many of us would normally consider unimaginable. But we can’t let the unimaginable stop us from being both strategic and proactive. It’s incumbent upon communities not to remain static or naively hopeful that better solutions will come along. The solutions need to come from us. Otherwise they will be done to us.

  4. This article is tremendously troubling. I spent the past two years teaching in North Philadelphia and have witnessed first hand the devastating affects of school choice and privatization in that community. I now teach in Pittsburgh and find myself witnessing the same movement gaining momentum here. Who can tell me what is being done here is Pittsburgh to gain traction in the fight to preserve public education? What groups are organizing here to ensure that our public schools are not turned over to private charter organizations? Where are educators organizing to let leadership know we do not approve of outside consulting groups coming into our city to promote their privatized agenda?

    • I realize your questions may be in part rhetorical, but the literal answer is “right here.” There is a growing grassroots movement here in Southwest PA fighting budget cuts, privatization, school closures, high-stakes-testing, and more. We are connected through this blog, our Facebook page, Twitter, and through other groups working in partnership on these issues such as PIIN and OnePittsburgh. If you haven’t had a chance, poke around on Yinzercation and check out the homepage to see a sampling of all the work this movement has been doing. We welcome your voice — we particularly need educators speaking up.

  5. The Pittsburgh Public School System has been closing schools on and off for the past 15 years. From 93 schools in 1997, they currently stand at around 54 schools. In 2004, they closed 12, ’06 they closed 22 schools, and ’11 they closed 7, Also Pittsburgh hired consultants in 1997 and 2009 to identify schools for closure. Philadelphia should have learned from Pittsburgh’s process. (Page 2)

    • Yes, this is true. But Pittsburgh’s population has been shrinking. And it’s public school population even more so (with a large proportion of those wealthier families remaining in the city choosing to send their children to private schools). The state has prevented Pittsburgh from incorporating its metropolitan region the way that most other large cities have done — if we had been permitted to do so, we would see that our region has not shrunk nearly so much as it appears. However, the population loss in the city has been real and has provided real momentum for school closings. It’s hard to argue against the need to close at least some buildings. But where does it end? How do we shift the conversation to saving neighborhoods?

  6. Pingback: Where do we go from here? | Parents United for Public Education

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