Philadelphia's Charter School Expansion Crushing Public Schools

A Feb. 14 rally at the Capitol Rotunda denouncing Pennsylvania Gov. Corbett's plans for cuts to education. (photo: Kara Newhouse)

Philadelphia's Charter School Expansion Crushing Public Schools

Communities push back against plan to close nearly one in six of the city's public schools

Charter school expansion in Philadelphia has 37 public schools--nearly one in six--slated for the chopping block come June, and has sparked outrage in local communities.

Critics of the mass school closures plan argue that it will take students away from their own communities, that there is no proof the students will receive better education, and that it is ultimately a privatization plan that siphons money away from public institutions and puts it into charter schools.

The New York Times called the plan "an unprecedented downsizing" that would affect "17,000 students and more than 1,100 teachers."

The Times continues:

The proposed cuts -- which are scheduled to be voted on in March by the School Reform Commission, a state organization that oversees the district -- have ignited angry protests from teachers, students and parents. They argue that children, particularly in their elementary years, should not be forced to attend school outside their neighborhoods; that academic improvements would be disrupted; and that students attending new schools would be victimized because of longstanding inter-neighborhood rivalries.

Students at the affected schools brought their concerns over the closures to City Hall on Friday, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

"I feel down," said Shemar Bates, 11, a sixth grader at Duckrey, in North Philadelphia on the edge of Temple University's campus. "I feel shocked. I don't want them to close my school." [...]

"Please, Mayor Nutter, think of us as your own children," said Khyrie Brown, 12, a seventh grader at L.P. Hill in Strawberry Mansion. "Don't forget, we all have dreams." [...]

"I think you should save our school," one Duckrey student wrote. "I think this is because our school is a part of my family history."

The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, a grassroots group that launched a campaign "in response to a massive privatization effort led by corporate interests seeking to implement failed education policies," has countered the School Reform Commission plans with a blueprint (pdf) of their own the group says would improve every school. While the closings are portrayed as necessary due to the city's "fiscal crisis," PCAPS says that the "crisis" can be easily fixed by:

  • Restoring state funds that were cut by Gov. Tom Corbett.
  • Funding Philadelphia schools equitably, through use of the funding formula enacted in 2008.
  • Stopping the expansion of charter schools, and closing all charters that fail to both demonstrate superior performance in educating all students and provide an innovative educational model that is unavailable in district schools.
  • Reallocating funding from lower-priority projects, such as the governor's expansion of the Pennsylvania prison system.

Helen Gym, a co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, writes that the track record out of other cities that have closed neighborhood schools while expanding charter schools in the name of addressing fiscal crises should serve as a warning to Philadelphia:

In Chicago, an internal document leaked to the press showed how school administrators there failed to inform the public of associated transition costs for closing and consolidating a proposed 95 public schools. Administrators had contended that the school closings would save between $140 million and $675 million over 10 years. However, the document showed that District officials estimated that they would lose a huge portion of those savings because of an "upfront cash investment" of anywhere between $155 million and a whopping $450 million in personnel, transportation and safety costs.

How can our District state that the proposed school closings will save enough money to make it worth the chaos when it hasn't publicly shown its calculations and accounting for all the expenses?

The sale of school buildings also has questionable value. A 2011 Pew study of six school districts nationwide found that most districts overestimate the amount of money they expect to gain from school sales. Many buildings stand idle for years and contribute to neighborhood blight. Indeed, the recent announced sales of three Philadelphia school buildings reaffirm that fact. The schools earned little more than 60 percent of market value. One of the schools sat on the market for a decade. Another school, Muhr Elementary, sold for $150,000, less than half its market value of $360,000.

Finally, the District has failed to demonstrate the most important factor in closing and consolidating schools - that we end up with a school system stronger and in better shape than the one we're trying to repair. The numbers don't lie on the academic impact of school closings nationwide. Numerous studies have shown school closings have little impact on student achievement. Over the last decade, Chicago has closed down nearly 100 public schools. According to a 2009 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, 82 percent of students simply moved from one underperforming school to another, including schools on academic probation.

And Black Agenda Report's Bruce A. Dixon wrote previously on how, while the charter school push/public school privatization plans are hardly limited to the city of Philadelphia, the issue has received scant media attention:

The fix has been in for a long time, and not just in Philadelphia. Philly's school problems are anything but unique. The city has a lot of poor and black children. Our ruling classes don't want to invest in educating these young people, preferring instead to track into lifetimes of insecure, low-wage labor and/or prison. Our elites don't need a populace educated in critical thinking. So low-cost holding tanks that deliver standardized lessons and tests, via computer if possible, operated by profit-making "educational entrepreneurs" are the way to go. The business class can pocket the money which used to pay for teachers' and custodians' retirement and health benefits, for music and literature and gym classes, for sports and science labs and theater and all that other stuff that used to be wasted on public school children.

The national vision of ruling Democrats and Republicans and the elites who fund them is to starve, discredit, denounce and strangle public education. Philly and its children, parents, communities and teachers are only the latest victims of business-class school reform. And they won't be the last.

One of the recent CEO's of Philadelphia Public Schools was a guy from Chicago named Paul Vallas. Vallas's previous job was head of Chicago's Public Schools where his "innovations" included military charter schools and wholesale school closings to get around local laws that school parent councils veto power over the appointment of principals. Vallas was succeeded by Arne Duncan, now Secretary of Education, and arrived in Philly in 2002. As CEO of Philly schools he closed and privatized chunks of 40 schools, leaving town for post-Katrina New Orleans where he closed more than 100 public schools and fired every last teacher, custodian and staff person to create a business-friendly citywide charter school experiment. After his post-Katrina destruction of New Orleans public education, Vallas went to post-earthquake Haiti to commit heaven only knows what atrocity on the corpse of public education there.

* * *

Local news ABC6 has video from parents and students speaking out against the closures at the School Reform Commission's first meeting on Dec. 20:

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