Should the rich rule the schools in Philadelphia and beyond?

rich high school

The following column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 20, 2018.

The story of how one wealthy man engaged in secret negotiations with officials to impose his will on one suburban high school became front-page news for days. Commentaries expressed outrage about the district’s rushed vote to rename Abington Senior High School in exchange for a $25 million gift from billionaire businessman Stephen Schwarzman, along with several other conditions,  including changes in curriculum and technology.  “Someone coming in with a lot of money can have a whole lot of influence over a public school,” warned one parent at a subsequent school board meeting. One Inquirer columnist expressed uneasiness  “that public schools could become beggars at the table of the uber-rich.”

To these suburban parents and pundits, we say: Welcome to our world.

In November 2011, the state-imposed School Reform Commission (SRC), absent any public deliberation, approved a multimillion-dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In return, the SRC agreed to several conditions, including yearly charter expansion, implementation of Common Core standards, more school “choice” and testing, and permanent school closures. No one elected Bill Gates, typically portrayed in the media as just a very generous rich guy, to make decisions about Philadelphia’s public schools. But his mandates have had devastating and lasting effects on the district, much more than renaming one school.

Abington residents were shocked to learn of the district’s covert establishment of a foundation that would make decisions, rather than the elected school board, about how to spend money from donors. Here in Philadelphia, the Gates Compact conferred authority upon the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) “to provide funding …to low-performing or developing schools.” PSP has since raised tens of millions from a stable of wealthy donors; most has gone to charter schools, in keeping with Gates’ pro-privatization ideology.

Read more: Public Eduction shouldn’t have to rely on private money

PSP’s influence has grown in the last seven years: the group now funds and operates teacher and principal training programs, oversees a website rating all Philadelphia schools, and holds the district’s yearly high school fair. PSP’s money, like Schwarzman’s, always comes with strings attached, whether that means changing a school’s curriculum or a complete overhaul of faculty and staff, as its 2014 grant to two North Philadelphia schools mandated.

Meetings of the PSP board, where decisions about funding, curriculum, and staff training of public schools are made, are closed to the public.   This board, composed mostly of wealthy suburban businesspeople, often has more influence over city public schools than the residents do.

This practice of ceding public decisions to private investors on a large scale first reared its head in 2001, when Philadelphia came dangerously close to privatizing the entire district and handing over the reins to the for-profit Edison Schools founded by media mogul Chris Whittle.

>> Read more: Many public institutions, like libraries, are funded by private money, but caution is key 

Gates, whose Compact has been adopted in several other cities, including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Nashville, and New Orleans, is just one member of what education writer Diane Ravitch calls the “Billionaires Boys Club” of corporate education reformers. Real estate developer Eli Broad is using his wealth and political power to stave off community opposition to his push to charter-ize half of Los Angeles’ public schools. The family of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, heirs to the Amway fortune, have used their billions to privatize public education through the unregulated proliferation of for-profit charters in Detroit and other cities throughout Michigan. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave $100 million toward then-Gov. Chris Christie’s 2010 plan to transfer Newark students from neighborhood schools to charters. Newark residents, who learned about this massive cash infusion when it was announced on Oprah, had never been consulted about what they wanted in the “One Newark” plan.

Abington residents were justifiably angry about the board’s intention to rush through a vote without full public disclosure.

Like the opioid crisis, it seems to have taken a less urban and more middle-class population to alter the media’s perspective on the damage inflicted. This appears to be a brushfire in Abington, while rule by the rich has been a fact of life for almost two decades in Philadelphia, where the less affluent, mostly minority community continues to be disenfranchised in matters of school governance.

Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and cofounder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. Deborah Grill is a retired teacher and school librarian and a research coordinator for the alliance.



Eyes on the SRC: April 19, 2018


by Karel Kilimnik
April 16, 2018

The SRC appears determined to maintain its legacy of non-transparency in its final months. Almost every month, the SRC fails to post resolutions on time. APPS sent several emails to the Commissioners, reminding them that they agreed to post resolutions at least two weeks before every Action Meeting as part of the court-ordered settlement to our 2016 Sunshine Act violation suit. Finally, the Resolution Summary and Description for the April 19 meeting appeared on Thursday April 12, a mere eight days before the scheduled meeting.

Now that the information has been released, it is hard to understand the delay. The heading on the Description simply states:  This meeting of the School Reform Commission is a Budget Hearing for the purpose of hearing public comment on the FY19 Budgets. There are no action items. The School Reform Commission is scheduled to vote on the FY19 Budget at its Action Meeting on May 24, 2018.

Why the secrecy? The April 19th meeting is not listed on their schedule as a Budget Hearing but as an SRC Action Meeting.

We expect the new School Board to make a commitment to keep the public informed, and in a timely manner, when it takes power on July 1.

The SRC will most likely consider the revised application of the Franklin Towne Charter Middle School (FTCMS) at its April 26 meeting. Thus far, it is the only new charter applicant to reapply after being denied by vote of the SRC at its February 22 meeting, obviously taking to heart the encouragement expressed by Commissioner Bill Green just after that vote. One of the members of the FTCMS board is the chief of staff for State Representative John Sabatina, who supported Green in his recent failed Congressional campaign.

 Green must recuse himself on this vote.

This soon-to-be-dissolved body has the ability to approve a deeply flawed charter application that would become a financial burden for the District—indefinitely. In fact, there are few substantial changes in their revised application. In her February report, APPS member Diane Payne  listed several reasons for denial, including:

• Franklin Towne operates a K-8 elementary school—why the need for a separate 450-student Middle School?
• Student enrollment is 83% white
• Circular financial and real estate dealings (cited by former City Controller Alan Butkovitz in his 2010 report)
• FTC CEO oversees two schools and draws a salary of $260,000

Their revised application provides no remedies for any of these issues. The SRC must vote again to deny.

Defenders of Public Education Needed to Testify at this April 19 Meeting

Please consider attending the April 19th meeting at 440 N. Broad to express your concerns about this proposal.  CFO Uri Monson has repeatedly testified that charter schools represent the largest item in the district’s budget. We cannot afford any more. As Dr Hite implements the district’s plan to close Strawberry Mansion as a comprehensive neighborhood public high school we ask: how can the SRC consider taking more money out of district classrooms and putting it into the hands of a charter operator with this kind of record? When do the needs of students in District schools become a priority?

To speak at any SRC meeting, call the Office of Family and Community Engagement at 215-400-4180 by 4:30 p.m. on the day before the meeting at which you wish to speak. You have 3 minutes to speak and timing your remarks is important because they will turn your mic off at the end of 3 minutes.

APPS will be posting the April 26 edition of Eyes on the SRC for that meeting in the coming days.

Also see:
Who is Eli Broad and why is he trying to destroy public education? | Defend Public Education
More on Broad in Philadelphia  |Defend Public Education


APPS News: April 2018


by Karel Kilimnik
April 13, 2018

End of the Line

As the lame-duck SRC limps towards the finish line, millions  of taxpayer dollars continue to flow into the pockets of  private vendors. Case in point: Carnegie Learning contract to provide professional development services to approximately 1500 K-8 Algebra I teachers in support of the District’s annual summer mathematics initiative” received another $3 million at the March 15 SRC meeting  (B-3). Carnegie has pocketed $15 million from District contracts over the past two years. Carnegie has little investment in public schools other than increasing their own corporate footprint. Why can’t those funds be used to hire experienced Math teachers and coaches who work for the district and know the students, the schools and the curriculum?

Vacant school buildings are being sold for pennies on the dollar and converted to marketplace housing. Despite community efforts, Ada Lewis Middle School, once the largest middle school in the city, was closed almost twenty years ago; the District allowed it to become a neighborhood eyesore.  Developers eye school buildings as potential profitable housing projects. At the March 15 SRC meeting, it was revealed (Resolution A-10) that the developer added a contingency clause to the sale of this property for rezoning to include residential and mixed-use development”.

 SRC to Vote on Charter Do-Overs

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Community Fights Closing of Strawberry Mansion High

strawberry mansion

by Lynda Rubin
April 9, 2018

 Several APPS members, in response to requests from community members, attended a meeting at Strawberry Mansion High School  (SMHS) on Wednesday, March 28. About fifty people—including parents, educators and alumni—attended the meeting, facilitated by Eric Becoats, Assistant Superintendent in charge of the district’s Turnaround Network. Like many of those in attendance, APPS members found out about the meeting from a notice posted on social media two days before. The district posted no banner about the meeting on its website, nor was there was any mention of possible change at SMHS at recent SRC meetings. Rumors had spread, in the absence of definitive information from the school district, that Strawberry Mansion, as a comprehensive high school, would be closing at the end of this school year. Some had heard that other programs, possibly twilight school or alternative education programs for students with academic and/or behavioral issues, would be housed in the building.

Using barely readable power-points, Becoats read through some possible changes and the reasons the district is “phasing out” the existing educational program at SMHS. There will be no 9thgraders admitted in September 2018. The remaining students will complete their years and graduate from Mansion.  Starting in September 2018, Becoats said, neighborhood students could attend a newly added accelerated school in the building, but he gave no details about the program or who would oversee it. An evening program for overage students and adults may be added later. In September 2019, 9thgraders could then be admitted to a new “skills-based” high school in the building.  Becoats said that was only “under consideration”, to which a community member responded, “So new students will evict existing students.” Becoats claimed that there would be full staffing until the last class graduates, and that the remaining students would complete their years and graduate from Mansion, but did not specify how the school could maintain sufficient staff for a variety of programs with declining enrollment. Nor did he seem to have any idea how the students in the remaining grades would deal with decreases in student body and staff.  Becoats continued to deny that Strawberry Mansion High School is being closed, as if the existence of the building constitutes the essence of the actual high school.

Parents, community and neighborhood leaders expressed their frustration at both Becoats’ dismissive attitude and the district’s lack of community outreach prior to making their decision.  One community member asked: Are we in the planning stage or the implementation stage? Becoats admitted that the district is now in the implementation stage.

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