by Lisa Haver
(This post appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News on February 1, 2016.)
When Superintendent William Hite announced that he had changed his mind about placing John Wister Elementary School into the “Renaissance” program and turning it over to Mastery Charter Schools, the school community rejoiced. He cited new data that showed the school had made significant growth. But at last week’s meeting, School Reform Commissioner Sylvia Simms introduced an eleventh-hour resolution, approved by the SRC, to override Hite’s decision. The resolution had not been posted before the meeting, and Chairwoman Marjorie Neff denied requests from members of the public to comment before the vote. It was a stunning abuse of power, even for the SRC.
Simms read a statement in which she expressed the “emotions” she felt after meeting with parents and Mastery representatives just days before the meeting. Wister parents fighting to keep the school public, who did not see Simms at any of the community meetings held over the past three months, were shocked. Some questioned why Simms was moved to action in this case when in 2013 she voted to permanently close 24 schools, even after hearing the pleas of their students, parents and teachers.
The SRC’s blindside has nothing to do with giving parents more choice; in fact, Wister parents now have fewer options. Students at the future Wister Mastery would attend Mastery Pickett for middle and high school. Children whose parents do not want them to attend a charter school from kindergarten through 12th grade would have to travel a longer distance each day, assuming that a school outside their catchment area would admit them. When parents were given a true choice, as those at two other elementary schools were two years ago, they voted overwhelmingly to stay in the district. What parents want their child’s school placed in a failed program? The 2015 PSSA scores show that, even with additional funding, none of the 21 existing Renaissance schools achieved a math score over 20 percent; only eight topped 30 percent in reading.
Nor does the SRC vote have anything to do with facts or data. Commissioner Feather Houston acknowledged the district used faulty data when it chose Wister as one of three schools to be turned over to charter companies.
The SRC’s latest assault on democracy leaves little doubt about its determination to move forward with the privatization of the city’s public schools. That agenda was rejected by the city’s voters in the most recent gubernatorial and mayoral elections. But the five SRC members, three appointed by the former governor and two by the former mayor, apparently have no intention of respecting the wishes of the voters. The SRC’s action leaves little doubt that the disenfranchisement of Philadelphia’s voters must end so that those with a stake in the district – that is, every resident and taxpayer – can choose a school board accountable to them.
No governmental body, whether appointed or elected, is permitted to rule by fiat. Sufficient time for consideration by both legislators and the public must be provided if we are to maintain a democratic system. An action with far-reaching consequences like converting a public school into a charter should not happen without notification or public discussion. The mayor and the governor cannot allow this action to stand.