For the last two decades, Pennsylvania’s political leaders have attempted to improve schools in Philadelphia without spending money. In 2001, Governor Thomas Ridge turned to Chris Whittle and his Edison Project to study the school system and create a reform plan. That December, the state of Pennsylvania disbanded the local school board and assumed total control of the district.
Since then, citizens of Philadelphia have endured – with minimal input – a relentless school choice agenda and the loss of public schools in their neighborhoods.
Politicians – not wanting to spend on education – often claim the problem is public schools have become bloated and inefficient. This assertion is normally paired with an attack on teachers’ unions as being the enemy of good pedagogy and progress. The medicine offered to solve these ills is competition and market forces. It is theorized that competition will improve management and force teachers to do their job better.
After two decades of implementing this theory in Philadelphia; test scores are still low, communities are still plagued by poverty and fraud is rampant. Worst of all, the public-school system has been significantly harmed.
Samuel E. Abrams wrote the book Education and the Commercial Mindset which begins with an examination of the Edison Project in Philadelphia. Abrams reports,
“In urban Philadelphia, property values are low and poverty is high. In 2000-2001, Philadelphia spent $7,944 per student on schools. The five school districts along the Main Line of the region’s commuter rail system, which services suburbanites living northwest of Philadelphia spent $11,421 per student.”
In the summer of 2001 just before leaving to become the first head of the Homeland Security, Governor Ridge commissioned Chris Whittle’s Edison Project to produce for $2.7 million a report on how to boost test scores and contain costs in Philadelphia. Ridge famously said, “Nearly a quarter million children are educated in it – or, truth be told, not educated.” (Abrams 110) Ridge’s successor, Lieutenant Governor Mark Schweiker was just as brutal saying, “After all, only 13 percent of the district’s high school juniors are able to read the newspapers with basic comprehension. And that’s not counting those who drop out.” (Abrams 110)
Edison’s report was not impartial. Both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News called it a charade. (Abrams 116) The report was overly critical of the school district and recommended that the Edison Project be put in charge of running it. Edison also called for reforming “failing” schools by turning them into charter schools or other private management.
Helen Gym (now on the Philadelphia city council) speaking for Asian Americans United, asked, “If this [privatization] is so innovative why aren’t they doing it in Lower Merion?” (Abrams 114) This turns out to have been a perceptive question. Lower Merion is 85percent white and rich. Still today, there appear to be no charter schools in Lower Merion Township. Charter schools mostly exist in poor communities without the political capital to protect their schools.
On December 21, 2001, Philadelphia became the largest school district ever taken over by a state government. The district was to be led by a five-member School Reform Commission (SRC). Three of the members would be named by the governor and two by Philadelphia’s mayor. Edison was named the lead consultant to the district and given management of 20 of the 42 schools identified as most in need of improvement.
That summer, the SRC hired Paul Vallas to lead the school district. Bruce Dixon of the Black Agenda Report wrote an article, “Serial School Privatizer “Chainsaw Paul” Vallas Gets Ready For His Next Job,” about Vallas’s political aims. In it he recalled Vallas’s record,
“Vallas next landed in Philadelphia, where, he surrounded himself with the usual dubious cloud of yes-men and consultants, engineered the privatization of a significant chunk of that city’s public schools, selling off public buildings to charter operators and well-connected developers and firing hundreds more mostly black teachers. … Vallas’s “blame the teachers, blame the deficits, blame the parents” rhetoric and practice exactly matched those of … Michelle Rhee. He left Philly schools in shambles, just in time to make New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.”
This may be a little unfair, but Vallas certainly has promoted the privatization of public schools wherever he served. He also opened the door for billionaire Eli Broad to infest Philadelphia with administrators trained at his unaccredited Broad Academy.
Broad believes that leaders of school district need financial and business management skills but require little or no experience in education. He also says that the best way to reform education is through competition and market forces.
Vallas is an example of the kind of school leader Broad sought to foster. He was someone who had little to no experience in education but understood finance. When Mayor Daily gained control of Chicago’s public schools, he made his budget director, Paul Vallas, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools.
Here Come the Broadies
Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch titled a 2013 opinion piece Broad Street Bully. In describing Broad trained administrators, he wrote,
“Paul Vallas, a former Illinois state budget director who arrived from Chicago in 2002 to take over Philadelphia’s schools, was an early archetype – and he won a $4.3 million grant from the Broad Foundation three years later to train new principals in an Academy for Leadership in Philadelphia Schools. His short-term successor here – a retired Army colonel named Tom Brady – was a graduate of a Broad academy.”
This was not the Tom Brady the Philadelphia Eagles defeated on the gridiron this past February. This Tom Brady was a 25-year Army veteran with no public school experience who attended the Broad Academy class of 2004.
Vallas left Philadelphia for New Orleans in the fall of 2007 and Brady led Philadelphia’s schools on an interim basis while the SRC searched for a permanent replacement.
In February 2008, the SRC hired the late Arlene Ackerman, who had an Ed.D in Administration, Planning and Social Policy from Harvard. She came to Philadelphia from the Broad Center in Los Angeles where she was the first Superintendent in Residence at the Broad Superintendents Academy. Previous to that she had served as Superintendent of Schools in Washington DC (1998-2000) and San Francisco (2000-2005). In her obituary, the New York Times reported,
“In San Francisco, ‘she was unwilling to listen to different points of view and not able to work with the entire Board of Education,’ Mark Sanchez, its president, said in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2008.”
By 2009, Ackerman was not only Superintendent of Philadelphia Schools, she was the newest member of the Broad Center Board of Directors. The following is the list of the board of directors from the Broad Center news release:
- Joel I. Klein, board chair, chancellor, New York City Department of Education
- Barry Munitz, board vice chair, trustee professor, California State University, Los Angeles
- Dan Katzir, board secretary/treasurer, managing director, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation
- Dr. Arlene Ackerman, superintendent, The School District of Philadelphia
- Richard Barth, chief executive officer, KIPP Foundation
- Louis Gerstner, Jr., senior advisor, The Carlyle Group
- Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson, superintendent, Seattle Public Schools
- Wendy Kopp, chief executive officer and founder, Teach For America
- Mark A. Murray, president, Meijer Retail and Grocery Supercenters
- Michelle Rhee, chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools
- Margaret Spellings, former U.S. secretary of education
Along with Ackerman on this list of well-known school privatization advocates is the power couple, Wendy Kopp and Richard Barth. Wendy founded Teach for America which now has a large presence in Philadelphia. Before Richard became CEO of the KIPP charter chain he was the Vice President in charge of operations in Philadelphia for the Edison Project. He went to KIPP in 2006. (Abrams 138)
Ackerman’s most lasting Philadelphia reform which is still in play today was called Imagine 2014. Ken Derstine an education blogger from Philadelphia noted, “While state funding to the district increased during the later part of the 2000’s under Governor Ed Rendell, much of this increased funding, and temporary funding from federal stimulus money, was devoted to School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 initiative which poured money into charters, Promise Academies, and Renaissance Schools.”
The Imagine 2014 initiative is still the official board policy promulgated by the SRC. It is a policy driving public school closures, undermining district control and encouraging privatized schools. The policy introduction states:
“The Renaissance Schools initiative is articulated in the School District of Philadelphia’s “Imagine 2014” strategic plan and is predicated on the belief that the School District has chronically underperforming schools that are not serving the needs of students and families and have not made adequate yearly progress as defined by state and federal laws, and that these schools need fundamental change to facilitate a transformation of the learning environment. With an urgency to dramatically improve the learning environment in these underperforming schools, the School District is seeking innovative ways to transform low-performing schools through new school models that include: in-district restructuring (Innovation Schools) and external partnerships (Contract Schools and Charter Schools).”
Innovation schools are promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is a politically conservative organization that publishes model legislation which is often introduced verbatim by Republican state lawmakers across America. ALEC receives major funding from the Charles Koch Foundation. The Philadelphia innovation school design meets the specifications of ALEC’s innovation school model legislation.
Phi Delta Kappan is a professional journal for education, published by Phi Delta Kappa International, since 1915. EdWeek carried an article by Julie Underwood and Julie Mead of Phi Delta Kappan discussing the effect and purpose of ALEC generated model education legislation. Their list of purposes includes, “Reduce the influence of or eliminate local school districts and school boards (Ladner, LeFevre, & Lips, 2010, p. 96) to be carried out through model legislation such as Charter Schools Act, Innovation Schools Act ….”
Ackerman was given a $900,000 severance in 2011 after she and Mayor Michael Nutter had a disagreement over which charter management company would be given control of Martin Luther King High School.
Joel Mathis reporting for Philadelphia Magazine wrote, “The Boston Consulting Group was brought into the District shortly after Ackerman left to continue Imagine 2014 ….” The interim superintendent chosen to replace Ackerman was Leroy Nunery who had “an extensive background in the private sector, including a two-year stint overseeing the charter school division of the former Edison Schools, a controversial for-profit educational management company.” Nunery was not a Broadie but Eli Broad (rhymes with toad) would have approved.
The School Reform Commission picked William Hite to continue Ackerman’s imagine 2014 which is now called the Renaissance Schools Initiative. A Broad Center posts says, “William Hite served as area assistant superintendent for Cobb County School District before joining The Broad Academy class of 2005.” In 2013, Hite led the effort that resulted in closing 23 public schools. His original list called for closing 37 schools. He has also enthusiastically promoted both innovation schools and charter schools.
The destroy public education (DPE) playbook calls for a combination of outside money, local money, and a local political leadership group. The national school privatizing umbrella organization Education Cities identifies Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) as their cohort in Philadelphia.
PSP is a 501 C3 (non-profit) organization officially listed with the IRS as The Philadelphia Schools Project. PSP has an associated 501 C4 (independent political expenditures) organization called Philadelphia Schools Advocates. PSP lists among its $5 million donors: The J. Mahlon Buck, Jr. Family, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Hamilton Family Foundation, Dorrance H. Hamilton, Patricia Kind, Jeannie and Mike O’Neill, Charlie Ryan.
A 2014 article in the Pennsylvania Gazette sums it up succinctly,
“Maybe you heard about the sixth-grader who died several hours after suffering an asthma attack at a school lacking the budget for a nurse last fall. Maybe you read about the firing this spring of three principals embroiled in a standardized-test cheating scandal that implicated 140 educators in 33 city schools. If you’ve caught any news about public education in Philadelphia recently, chances are it hasn’t been good. Headlines about the city’s school system have been so alarming, and so frequent, that it’s hard to know where to begin.”
Standardized testing is useless for evaluating schools, districts or teachers. These testing results do correlate very well with wealth or lack of same in a child’s home. Since the 1990’s they have been used to label schools in poor communities as “failing.” It is a fraud.
However, since the gauge being used to privatize Philadelphia’s schools is standardized testing shouldn’t the privatizers be hoisted on their own petard. Based on testing data, the last two decades of DPE reforms have FAILED miserably.
In 2009, Philadelphia joined Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA). The National Assessment of Education Progress tests the TUDA districts every two years. For a simple comparison, I have graphed the 8th-grade mathematics and reading scores in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Washington DC and the national average.
After two decades of closing and privatizing schools in Philadelphia to “improve tests scores,” these scores provide testimony to how fraudulent school reform has been.
Parents have also been learning by tough experience that charter schools are not public schools. In December 2014, two low-performing charter schools – Walter Palmer Leadership Learning Partners and Wakisha – ran out of money and closed suddenly just before the winter break.
This displaced more than 1,500 students and left parents and guardians in a nightmarish scramble to find another option. Since charter schools are private businesses and cannot be forced to take students, the public schools had to find a place for them.
The SRC recently shared,
“The SRC will remain as the governing body for the School District of Philadelphia until June 30, 2018. Mayor Kenney appointed nine members to the Philadelphia Board of Education (BOE) in April 2018. Beginning in July 2018, the Board will oversee the School District of Philadelphia.”
Still, the citizens of Philadelphia will not be able to elect a representative to the school board that they can hold accountable for decisions about schools. Mayor control of schools is against American tradition and undemocratic.
It is time to end this billionaire driven fiscal! It is time to boycott all charter schools because they are like wood rot destroying the main pillar of democracy, public education.