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Commentary: Is there a 'silent majority' for the District's transformation plan?

By Ron Whitehorne on May 24, 2012 02:38 PM
Photo: SEIU 32 BJ

"A handful of vocal opponents" on Broad Street yesterday.

Writing in today’s Inquirer, Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, attempts to explain why there have been few voices coming forward at hearings and community meetings to support the transformation plan. In his piece headlined "A silent majority for Philadelphia school choice," he writes that “a handful of activists with specific agendas” have hijacked the discussion. Meanwhile, “a whole lot of people” are “too busy” enjoying the fruits of school choice “to stage rallies, attend meetings or get on the phone with a reporter.”

This description echoes Richard Nixon explaining away massive public opposition to the Vietnam War by citing a “silent majority” that supported his policies. The nice thing about this argument is that because these supporters are silent, no one really knows what they think and thus anyone can freely attribute opinions to them. 

As a self-confessed “activist with an agenda,” over the last six months I’ve gone to dozens of meetings and talked with parents, educators, and citizens, including many who send their children to or work in charter schools. I’ve been struck by the amount of common ground there is between those of us who might be characterized as advocates for traditional public schools and people who are connected to charters. I don’t see much evidence of the rosy consensus that the Philadelphia School Partnership believes exists about school choice.

True, many parents have opted for charter schools, but not because of an ideological attachment to market-driven school reform. Dissatisfaction with neighborhood public schools, primarily due to issues of school climate and violence as well as academic concerns, has driven this trend. At the meetings on selecting a new superintendent, I heard many charter school parents express frustration with the lack of accountability and transparency that characterizes many charters. I heard many of these parents endorse the ideal of decent neighborhood public schools and regret that they felt compelled to opt out of these schools. 

This gets to the nub of the matter. Of course parents want good schools for their children. The question is: Why can’t we provide good, public neighborhood schools?  

The answer is we haven’t really tried: 

  • We have not adequately resourced our schools. School funding is hostage to the whims of the legislature or governor in Harrisburg.

  • We have not engaged parents, students, and educators in a sustained process of school improvement.  

  • We have not developed the kind of teacher education, training, and development that can improve instruction over the long haul.  

Instead we have destabilized schools with a steady diet of ill-conceived, often short-lived fixes passed off as reform. We have instituted a mind-numbing regime of test prep instead of developing a curriculum that meets the diverse needs of learners. And we have employed a zero-tolerance approach to discipline that simultaneously criminalizes students and fails to reduce violence and disruption.

Addressing these problems is not easy and will cost money. Instead, Gleason and the corporate-reform lobby push vouchers, expanding charters, and privatization in spite of a lack of evidence that these programs work.  

Gleason and his organization have strong support from corporate CEOs and have raised several million dollars. It is not clear how much support he has from parents, students, and educators.

What I do know is that the movement against market-driven school reform in general, and this plan in particular, is growing. Gleason, in an email blast about his op-ed piece, says,"a handful of vocal opponents have dominated much of the media coverage around proposed reforms.” The picture here effectively rebuts this point.

Citizens in Philadelphia are taking to the streets to make their views known because the political process is dominated by the monied interests and shuts them out. Not surprising that this alarms Gleason and his friends. As Mayor Nutter says, "Get used to it."

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Comments (5)

Submitted by Ken Derstine on May 24, 2012 7:11 pm

Presumptive President candidate Mitt Romney was at a West Philadelphia charter school today. He didn't find the "silent majority" he hoped for.

"Romney gets an earful at W. Philly charter school", Philadelphia Inquirer, at:

"Romney heckled in visit to inner-city charter school in Philadelphia", Washington Post, at:

Mayor Nutter had the gall to show up with the protesters to stump for Obama. Nutter is a personal friend of Kenny Gamble, owner of Universal Bluford Charter School. Universal also owns Universal Audenreid Charter School. It inhabits a new building which was built as a public school and then turned over to Universal. Universal has paid no rent since taking over the building. Nutter is 100% behind the School Reform Commissions plans to close 64 public schools and push 40% of public school students into charters.

Here are some comments from the Inquirer article before the visit from one of the protestors:

This was right across the street from my friend's house. My friend was actually interviewed by WHYY and photographed by the NYT with some kinda message about some kinda Republican Logic...Maybe it's a message that might get national exposure...Who knows.
— BarbarC

Per chance my friend still had his "STOP PRIVATIZATION" sign from yesterday's SEIU Union rally. He was two inches from throwing it away. Today though he went to see what the weather was when he saw a single news van...Walking up to literally ask who got shot he was told that Romney was coming. He came picked me up and barely got back on his block as a Black cop wouldn't let him back on the block. Walking around the block on the other end of the street a White cop did let us in (interesting).

Well we held up signs and my friend kept going in his house to get a new sign...He had the cops, Secret Service and media laughing...My friend.
Thank you
— BarbarC

It's true. My friend had several extra Obama signs and his neighbors were literally lining up to get signs from him. Three neighbors though proudly displayed signs my friend gave to them. One neighbor was given her sign on Saturday by my friend...She was so proud to have the sign, right on time. Mayor Nutter saw the sign and gave her a kiss. My friend told Nutter not to do "A Booker". The Mayor agreed that Obama got his vote.
— BarbarC

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 25, 2012 11:36 am

I agree--Nutter is a liar and any friend of Gamble is no friend of the people. Gamble has been a slithering type for 40 years and everybody in Point Breeze knows it. Nutter is Uncle Tom with a slick side playing all sides against one another for his own self aggrandizement.

Submitted by A Touch of Sense (not verified) on May 24, 2012 5:30 pm

Good job Ron -- Again. I read his commentary and the comments below it. I suggest that everyone hit the "Writing in today's Inquirer" link in the first line of Ron's commentary and read the comments.

I reserve the right to comment at a later time about the Philadelphia School Partnership, Mr. Gleason and the reasons why both are suddenly here in Philadelphia.

I want to keep things positive for now in memory of all of our soldiers who fought and died for us so we have the rights afforded to all citizens of Our Democracy. One of those rights is self governance of our public schools.

Submitted by concerned philadlephian (not verified) on May 24, 2012 5:55 pm

Nutter not only is behind the BCG proposal 100% and has allowed Universal to get away with theft, he also supported Ackerman and her shenanigans. Nutter also has refused to negotiate with the City workers since the beginning of his first term.

Nutter has no credibility. He was re-elected because his opponent with Milton Street in the primary and an unknown Republican in the general election.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 25, 2012 11:02 am

Well said--Is he a bunch of crap or what???? The people don't really understand the real agenda--YET !! They will at some point and will raise holy hell. The Churches are aware of the real deal.

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