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The plan: Travesty or opportunity?

By Dale Mezzacappa on Apr 24, 2012 06:48 PM

It is a new day, a bold experiment, an opportunity for innovation.

Or, it is a travesty, the end of public education as we know it, a cynical right-wing ploy. Not to mention a new twist on the decision a decade ago, for which the District has little to show, to turn over schools to education management organizations.

Sixty-four closed school buildings. A skeletal central office. “Achievement networks” of affiliated schools, at least some led by current District educators, perhaps by universities, that operate on performance contracts. More charter schools and charter networks. Renegotiated, or abrogated, labor contracts.

As the full implications sink in of the School District’s blueprint for “radical” restructuring – a tame description, under the circumstances – reaction is ranging from outrage to guarded optimism that city students might actually get a better education. 

The School Reform Commission is doing this because it has few options and has to act with urgency, said SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos. “We know that what we have now isn't working,” he said. "We either achieve fiscal sustainability and succeed at providing safe, high-quality schools or become a mere social program."

Added Mayor Nutter: "If we don't deal with it, the system is going to collapse." He urged all the players to "grow up and deal with it."

But neither the SRC nor the mayor has been willing to talk about the systematic disinvestment in the city's schools.

Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen did point out that the high-powered consultants brought in to "right the fiscal ship" had concluded that individual school budgets had been wrung dry and that, compared to other big districts, its administration is not top-heavy nor its spending out of line.

No matter.

"The new watchword is 'Live within our means,' but the means within we have to live is a political choice," said one school official who did not want to be named. "The assumption is, now we have the right amount of money. Before, it was too much. That is the constraint under which they have to operate politically."

Hence, the plan for next year: more borrowing and union concessions or outsourcing of services. Knudsen said the District now knows it could privatize facilities and transportation to save some $50 million. But he is still talking with the union that represents those workers, District 1201 of SEIU 32BJ.

The local has been "negotiating with the School District to reach an agreement that cuts costs, saves jobs and provides Philadelphia school children with a safe, clean learning environment," said 32BJ President George Ricchezza in a statement. "No outsourcing deadline has been set in those talks. 32BJ SEIU will continue to bargain in good faith to reach an agreement, but we won’t be pushed by [outsourcing] threats."

As for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, by far the District's largest union, they are having none of it.

"This is a cynical, right-wing and market-driven plan to privatize public education, to force thousands of economically disadvantaged families to select from an under-funded hodge-podge of EMO- and charter-company-run schools and to convert thousands of professional and family-sustaining positions into low-paying, high-turnover jobs," Jerry Jordan, PFT president, said in a statement.

In an interview, he was more tempered – but not much. Although he chose his words carefully, Jordan said that the PFT would not reopen its contract to save part of the $156 million that Knudsen is shooting for in fiscal 2013 through wage and benefit "restructuring." The contract is up in August 2013.

"We’re prepared to negotiate next year, at the appropriate time," Jordan said.

The city's two major organized student groups, Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change, issued a joint statement that questions the "political motivations behind the District's decisions and their impacts on young people. On its surface this proposal seems like yet another attempt to privatize our schools. We saw what happened with Edison in 2002." 

The variety of providers that already exist has led, the statement said, "to warehousing students with the greatest need in the most underfunded schools."

The authors of the District's new educational blueprint plan are trying to promote the notion that the "achievement network" concept is not just about signing on more charter organizations, but letting the District's own successful teachers and principals unleash innovation and creativity. It will also provide new opportunities for partnerships with universities and an array of nonprofits.

In fact, how the achievement networks will be organized and operate is still very much a work in progress.

Some observers, however, are hoping that these achievement networks provide a real opportunity.

"You're never going to get fast-paced change with a centralized, cookie-cutter approach," said Diane Castelbuono, a former District and state education official now directing education policy for United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania. "This plan reflects that."

One person consistently mentioned as someone who could lead such an achievement network is Chris Lehmann, principal of Science Leadership Academy, a Center City high school.

He said he was game: Given a choice, he said, would always prefer a grassroots movement to top-down control.

"Empowering principals and giving more school autonomy is really important," he said. "I trust that the principals and teachers and parents and students of Philadelphia can come together in their communities to invigorate their schools. I think there are a lot of leaders in the District who are up for the challenge of both working within their own schools and working with their colleagues to help schools get better."

Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters PA and a consistent advocate for more funding for the District, said she feels that "principals and teachers have to recognize the opportunity" presented by the achievement networks.

At the same time, she wonders who will be willing to take this on when there seems to be little regard for whether they will actually have enough resources and support to carry out their ideas. This kind of autonomy seems to come only at times when there is no stomach for more investment in schools, she said.

Ths system's dire straits are "a consequence of systematic underfunding by the city and state," she said. "We have to be serious about what the real needs are if we want a high-quality and equitable education."

The SRC plans to hold a series of public meetings on the restructuring plan, starting May 1 at District headquarters.

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Comments (20)

Submitted by New Teacher (not verified) on April 24, 2012 11:33 pm

This travesty is an opportunity to rethink certain decisions we've all made vis-a-vis the School District of Philadelphia... errr, I mean the Philadelphia Ecosystem of Public and Pseudo-Public Schools.

Submitted by anonymous. (not verified) on April 25, 2012 12:28 am

This is the look of racism and bigotry towards the poor. We better all stand and fight this or our children are dead meat. Funny isn't it that these carpetbaggers didn't give a rat's ass about our kids' problems until they saw a profit to be made off the backs of those same kids. Now, they're stomping on one another to "help." Disgraceful doesn't even begin to describe these slithering cretins.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on April 25, 2012 7:26 am

What do they mean by "Achievement Networks?" It sounds more like Newspeak to me.

Instead of turning our schools into "true professional learning communities" and "true charter schools" where teachers and the parents are given control of the learning program, we get more of the "psychobabble of privatization."

Privatization has not worked anywhere in America, so why are we making that Agenda our priority?

What we know about Great schools is that Great schools are "well functioning school communities" where the principle of the "best interests of its students and school community is, in fact, the guiding principle that governs our schools."

How are we going to make every school, in reality, a " true professional learning community?" That is the plan I want to hear about!

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 25, 2012 7:32 am

It can be an opportunity. "Closure" can also mean consolidating the charters, that is keeping the buildings and having actual "reorganization" of admin. for both charters and traditional... if the Great Schools Compact is in earnest (ha).

Curiously, it was not proposed to have any "sliding scale" fees - Although that would have raised even more protest from the better off families, it might be more fair than raising property taxes? What btw ever happened to the windfall the City raised from sales taxes (more to come from the Recovery State income tax line)?

Submitted by anonymous. (not verified) on April 25, 2012 9:02 am

Surely you jest or you're the Universal President of the Optimist Club. This is a money making scheme for the 1% and folks of that ilk to steal money designed for the poor. These same folks would steal from the poor boxes at legitimate churches then lecture others on the need to "give back." Of course, it's all for the kids. Pond Scum.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 25, 2012 9:12 am

Stealing money designed for the poor has taken place now for over 10 years in the PSD "proper". Just take a look at where the Title I funds have gone.

Rather than jumping onto the "Conspiracy Theory" bandwagon, how about some real suggestions/solutions. Do you have a working solution?

What do you think about having a "sliding scale" fee structure? That would provide more funding from stakeholders, those in fact who can choose charter over traditional. In my opinion, at a certain point increasing taxes also equates to "stealing".

Submitted by anonymous. (not verified) on April 25, 2012 1:14 pm

Agreed but now it's time to "kick the bums out" as they say in South Philly. No more talking, wishing, hoping, singing etc. They DON"T CARE.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 25, 2012 7:33 pm

I would like to see black and white proof that every charter is paying the necessary fees to compensate the district for the fair rent of the building. Before that happens, no financial formula should be constructed. That is where you will see all the little political deals and be able to prove how the political forces are tilting against the unions!

Submitted by anonymous. (not verified) on April 25, 2012 7:09 pm

Some of that has already been exposed. Kenny Gamble's cretins are guilty of not paying and got away with it until just recently. They may still be not paying up. The bottom line is there is no need for more information and facts, we know what is happening and WE need to stop it. I keep calling the PFT to ask why Jordan isn't supporting his people. No real answers, of course.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 25, 2012 7:23 am

Oh forgot to say they need to make these Achievement Networks their own LEAs so that they can have the advantages that charters now have in seeking grant funding.

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on April 25, 2012 8:28 am

I think it could be considered an opportunity in an ideal world. But I think it would be naive to think that this is not just a way to fast-track turning more and more district schools in to charters. I foresee whole achievement networks, whole parts of the city, being charterized.

We need to put systems in place that will require community, teacher, parent participation in the management of these achievement networks.

Submitted by Helen Gym on April 25, 2012 8:01 am

This guy: "Mayor Nutter urged all the players to "grow up and deal with it."

Don't even get me started.

Submitted by anonymous. (not verified) on April 25, 2012 9:05 am

Yes, that bizarre statement wasn't only unnecessary and cruel but speaks volumes about his feelings for the residents of Philly. I hope it comes back to bite him.

Submitted by Ken Derstine on April 25, 2012 9:00 am

We cannot forget that this economic crisis is not an "act of God". It is a man-made crisis. The PBS program Frontline is beginning a series about the 2008 bailout of Wall Street and how it is not over. Parts one and two of "Money, Power & Wall Street" are available here:

Also, we cannot forget that Governor Corbett cut education funding in the current budget by over $1 billion ($300 million in Philadelphia). At the same time he increased funding for prisons, including the building of three new prisons, two of which will be privately owned and for profit institutions.

This is a deliberately created crisis to privatize public education in the interests of the 1% who brought on the 2008 banking crisis. See this article from Alternet about how this is happening in Pennsylvania:

Right-Wing Campaign to Privatize Public Ed Takes Hold in Pennsylvania: In Pennsylvania, voucher proponents have spent more than $1 million on election season so far. Will the state set a national precedent in privatizing schools?

Submitted by anonymous. (not verified) on April 26, 2012 4:48 pm

Of course and obviously, we're being pressured into believing that this "crisis" came out of the blue or is somehow a result of our doing something abhorrent. Corbett is 100% responsible for this slaughter of our kids and city so let's put the blame where it belongs---ON US FOR NOT VOTING. This is what you get,when the populace sits home rather than voting. It;s our own fault and WE allowed this bigoted, racist killer of inner cities, to become Governor. We did that !!!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 23, 2014 8:31 am
The problem is there is no one to vote for. Both parties are in with the privatization agenda. The 99% need our own party with our own program for the needs of society as a whole, not the needs of the 1% which the current two parties represent.
Submitted by A Touch of Sense (not verified) on April 25, 2012 9:09 am

Mayor Nutter is the one who should "Grow up and deal with it." It is his responsibility to find ways to fund our schools adequately and turn our schools into well functioning school communities.

If we added up all of the money wasted on "outside experts" who are not experts at all and "charter operators" who offer no new ideas or innovations at all, we might be able use the money for our children.

It is obvious that our children are still beneath the wheel of politics. The plan is obviously just another stab at balancing the budget on the backs of teachers and support staff when the real issue is how to fund public education properly.

What has not worked, is the state takeover of our schools. Everything that has been "rolled out" since the takeover has been a dismal failure. What you propose is not innovation. It is more of the same hollow rhetoric with no real substance.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on April 25, 2012 10:48 am

Mayor Nutter's callous (and somewhat jejune) comment is particularly galling because his daughter is already in Masterman and will more than likely not be hurt by the blowing up of the District. His self-interest is astounding. The PFT and the Democrats of this city need to stop supporting need to stop supporting politicians who have NO real ideas or concern for the poor and disenfranchised of this city. We need a mayor who will fight for us in Harrisburg, not bow down to the interests of moneyed friends who are looking to make a buck on the backs of the poor. We need to unseat those who will not keep the best interests of the people at heart.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 25, 2012 12:25 pm

Here is what I find really interesting-----ACKERMAN put the District $629 million in the hole, not the teachers, school police, school nurses, school librarians, school psychologists. If we never had the $629 million debt than the District would be in good standing I assume. What bothers me is this plea that the District needs help and teachers will have to re-negotiate their contract. Why? The PFT needs to get more vocal on the news and let it be known for those that don't know that the teachers didn't cause this mess. I also heard in yesterday's meeting that the District plans to do away with the salary step increases in futures contracts. Really? This is a step in the right direction? Also, if the Charter Schools cost millions to run then why keep adding more if we are so tight on money??? Doesn't anyone speak up to the SRC about this? This whole thing is ridiculous!! If they are trying to union bust by adding more Charters then Jerry Jordan and the PFT and AFT need to come up with a game plan---I know---walk out for a few days and they will have no one to teach in th schools. Sometimes, the union needs to get a little more tougher of a stance. Or, challenge again ACT 46. C'mon, I hear nothing about that!!!

Submitted by anonymous. (not verified) on April 26, 2012 5:19 pm

We need to, We need too, We need to. WE elected Nutter and Corbett. WE did it. Nutter's comments are indicative of someone who knows nothing can happen to him politically. He's a taking head for the rich, you are correct and a disgrace towards his community in particular and Philly in general BUT HE JUST DOESN'T CARE ABOUT YOU, ME, THE KIDS OR THE KIDS' FAMILIES or he wouldn't utter such sentiments for all to hear. Corbett is a bigoted, coldhearted nazi whom WE elected. We did this to ourselves.

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