Now in Philly, a national mayors' conference has unwelcome education views
by Helen Gym on May 22 2013 Posted in Commentary
On a day that saw the closing of 49 schools in Chicago, it seems sadly fitting that Philadelphia is kicking off three days as the host city of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' national meeting on innovation.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors embraces controversial education reform trends that are spreading across the nation's cities: mayoral control of schools, parent trigger laws, charter co-location, and mass school closings. As head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mayor Nutter has supported the organization's call to bring a number of those reforms, particularly mass charter expansion and mass school closings, to Philadelphia.
Although the theme for this meeting is innovation, Philadelphia has been anything but innovative when it comes to education reform.
Instead we've followed a well-worn path of questionable ventures into areas like cyber-school outsourcing, mass charter expansion, mass school closings, mass layoffs, increased high-stakes testing (with the piloting of Keystone exams for 11th graders), and fractious union-blaming tactics. These aren’t localized responses to a specific Philadelphia problem. These are nationally homogenized trends sweeping through public education with the assistance of groups like the U.S. Conference of Mayors, whose core members are the faces of the corporate education reform movement: Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, Cory Booker in Newark, and Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles.
Embracing charters with little critical reflection is just one of the organization's stated priorities around “district-charter collaboration.” Despite a mixed academic record and significant concerns raised in Philadelphia ranging from barriers to entry to corruption, charters are praised as “outperforming their District counterparts” and “developing best practices” due to their autonomy. Moreover, the group's statement on district-charter collaboration makes unfounded claims, such as saying that charters have a “larger and more positive effect” on English language learners.
The Conference of Mayors supports two additional controversial practices: mass school closings and charter co-location.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors considers school closings a possible immediate measure to "address poor performing schools." This year Philadelphia closed 24 schools. Today, the Chicago school board voted to close 49 neighborhood elementary schools and one high school program. The Chicago vote is the largest mass closings effort in the nation.
While it’s easy to blame failure, numerous studies show mass school closings don’t impact the quality of a student’s education. A Pew report found that most students whose schools closed showed little, if any, academic gain. In Philadelphia, a Research for Action study found that 80 percent of students at closing schools would transfer to one that performed no better or worse than the school they currently attended. That seems to matter little to the mayors of the nation's biggest cities.
The controversial policy of charter co-location has led to dramatic complaints of inequity in school facilities, particularly in New York City. There have been serious examples of gross inequity and separate-and-unequal manifestations within the same school, where charter students who win a lottery enter through a separate entrance into a modernized, renovated school, while public school students attend the decrepit half of the building. The issue has been so controversial that well-known education professor Pedro Noguera, in resigning from his role as head of the State University of New York charter-authorizing body, specifically cited co-location as a problematic concern.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors supported Chicago's Mayor Emanuel after an acrimonious battle with the Chicago Teachers Union and also endorsed the controversial "parent trigger" law in September, which allows a group of parents to use petitions to convert a public school to a charter school. Despite the mayors’ endorsement, the law has failed to take hold in places like Pennsylvania, where it died in committee this year, and in Florida, where it has failed two years in a row.
Being a public education champion should be a fundamental responsibility of every big-city mayor. Instead, by embracing policies and practices like school closings and mass charter expansion, Nutter and far too many in the U.S. Conference of Mayors have used their bully pulpits to endorse questionable practices and push forward a national agenda that works to undermine public education rather than build it up.
Helen Gym is co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, an editor at "Rethinking Schools," and a contributor to and former board member of the Notebook.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.