In one community hearing and meeting after another, the School Reform Commission has been told in no uncertain terms that its privatization plan and austerity budget are not acceptable to parents, students, educators, and community members.
In response, the SRC decided to defer a vote on its plan to farm out school management, the so-called "achievement networks," till next year. By law, the SRC must adopt a budget by May 31, and there is little question about what it will look like. Without the authority to raise revenue, the SRC is compelled to either cut or borrow more money.
At least two commissioners, Lorene Carey and Feather Houstoun, when pressed by students at a community meeting at Girls' High last week, agreed that they would go to Harrisburg to fight for more funding. But they said they would go as individuals. It appears that contracting out blue-collar jobs, expanding charter enrollment, and closing schools remain key SRC objectives.
By associating themselves with a slash-and-burn budget and a privatization plan that puts Philadelphia in the vanguard of corporate-sponsored school reform, the SRC, which is already compromised as an appointed body created by the state, has lost more credibility with school stakeholders.
On May 31, the commissioners have a choice. They can either forfeit their remaining moral authority by passing this budget, or they can take steps to respond to popular protest. Here are some options:
Commit to a comprehensive effort to find more funding at every level in conjunction with community allies and other distressed school districts around the state. This should include looking at tax reform that will raise a greater share of revenue from corporations and the wealthy, payments in lieu of taxes from well-endowed nonprofits, and de-funding expensive prison construction. Renegotiating the District's huge debt with banks and bondholders should also be on the table.
Open the books. Appoint a community-labor advisory board that could review the budget in detail and consider all possibilities for savings.
Agree to work with District unions to find short-term solutions to the District’s fiscal problems that respect collective bargaining and retain union jobs.
Create a broad-based committee of stakeholders that will develop criteria for school closures in a transparent way.
Halt all work by the Boston Consulting Group until the reports and their recommendations to date are shared with the public. The work they are performing is a public process and no additional consulting work on the transformation plan should take place without public discussion and a vote by the SRC.
Initiate a broad-based process in which parents, students, teachers, and citizens have a voice in shaping a plan that addresses how schools and the District should be managed.
Institute a moratorium on the conversion of traditional public schools to charters. Commit to supporting neighborhood schools as the bedrock of a public school system.
With many organizations mobilizing to bring people to the May 31 SRC meeting to press the fight against privatization and for full funding, the commissioners will have to make their decision in the glare of public scrutiny.
Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, an alliance of students, parents, school workers, educators, and community organizations, has come together in response to the school crisis and has issued a call for people to rally at District Headquarters at 4:30 p.m. Fifteen organizations have signed on, including Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Unite Here Local 634, Philadelphia Student Union, Youth United for Change, Teacher Action Group, Parents United, ACTION United, Fight for Philly, and several groups affiliated with Occupy Philadelphia.