Police arrested four school activists Wednesday night for disrupting a contentious meeting at School District headquarters. The School Reform Commission had convened to decide the fate of 39 new charter school applications. Five were approved.
Chanting against charter expansion, the protesters, all members of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, said that approving any new charter schools would spell financial disaster for the cash-strapped School District.
“We’re opposed because we don’t think the District can afford it,” Ron Whitehorne, one of the protesters arrested last night, said in an interview Thursday. “By approving these charter schools, they’re exacerbating the budget crisis. Whitehorne is also a coordinator for PCAPS.
Also arrested were Kia Philpot Hinton, a parent and member of ACTION United; Wilma Frazier, a member of ACTION United; and Diane Payne, a retired teacher who is also a member of the Caucus of Working Educators, a social-justice faction within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers .
The District has said that expanding charter schools is an expense it cannot afford given its current financial situation. It faces an $80 million deficit for next school year.
“There are a lot of other issues around charter schools, but as far as we were concerned, this particular issue was fundamentally about the budget,” Whitehorne said.
After hours of testimony from the charter applicants and public speakers, the SRC began voting, one by one, on each applicant. After denying more than a dozen applications, the first approval was granted, with conditions, to Independence Charter School West, a proposed K-4 school in West Philadelphia to open in 2016.
About 30 people rose from their seats in protest and marched up the aisle, chanting, “SRC, we’re no fools, you’re destroying our public schools!”
Standing at the front of the room, Hinton shouted at the SRC. “What you are doing is beyond irresponsible,” she said. She then sat down in protest, joined by three others, two from Action United and one from the Caucus of Working Educators.
When the four didn’t obey orders to disperse, the police quickly arrested them with little commotion or resistance. "They were charged with disorderly conduct," according to District spokesperson Fernando Gallard.
The disruption was only one of many that punctuated the long and often tense meeting.
Earlier in the afternoon, students from the activist group Youth United for Change interrupted the start of the meeting with marching and chanting. But they left of their own accord.
Throughout the night, audience members shouted over speakers. Some argued with security guards who were confiscating people’s signs. Periodically, SRC members rebuked those causing a disturbance.
After the meeting, Whitehorne said that he and his fellow protesters were released within an hour. Their hearing is in April. He said he is planning to take his case to trial.