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What do the Renaissance voting results tell us about school privatization?

By Ron Whitehorne on Jun 13, 2014 10:36 AM

For years, the mantra from those who think charter schools are the answer to what ails Philadelphia's schools has been “people are voting with their feet,” citing the mushrooming numbers of families who have transferred out of traditional public schools in favor of charters.

But over recent weeks, the people voted with ballots and they voted decisively against turning over their schools, Steel Elementary in Nicetown and Muñoz-Marín Elementary in Kensington, to charter school management companies.

Parents voted by a more than 2-1 ratio against Mastery Charter. This was in spite of an aggressive campaign by Mastery and the fact that a Mastery-run Steel, drawing on a generous District contract and private funding, would have significantly more resources than if the school were managed by the District.

The margin at Muñoz-Marín was even bigger, with three quarters of voters casting a ballot to keep the school under District control. Here, too, parents expressed concern about the impact of budget cuts on instruction and school climate, but nevertheless voted to stick with a District-run school.

The larger question here is whether this vote is indicative of broad opposition to the District’s policy of relying on a few favored charter school companies to turn around so-called failing schools. This year was the first time -- and, I dare say, the last time? -- that the District has allowed a parent vote on converting schools to charters.

Steel and Muñoz-Marín both serve impoverished, working-class communities of color, one being predominantly African American, the other Latino. Although there are certainly differences in the schools and the neighborhoods, some common elements are also clear.

Both schools had a core of parent leaders who were strongly opposed to the charter option. Both School Advisory Council leaders (Kendra Brooks at Steel and Maria Cruz at Muñoz-Marín) worked to rally parent opposition.

Both schools had veteran teachers and principals who also opposed the charter operators. Positive relationships between home and school counted for more than standardized test scores for most parents.

In both neighborhoods, the public option had significant community support, both locally and citywide. In Nicetown, faith and community organizations joined the fight. In Kensington, the support of State Sen. Tina Tartaglione and her organization played a significant role. Parents United, the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, and rank-and-file teachers all actively supported both campaigns.

The results of the votes suggest that broader inferences can be made about the District’s Renaissance charter initiative and the notion of school choice.

Parents are not happy with underfunded, often poorly managed, public schools, nor should they be. But what frequently is overlooked is that they remain identified with the core values at the heart of public education. At both Muñoz-Marín and Steel, parents have stood up strongly for equity, the idea that all public schools should offer a high-quality education to all children.

There is strong sentiment in our communities for investing in neighborhood public schools and making them more accountable to the community. This sentiment cuts across the charter-District divide.  

At a meeting in Kensington, one parent lamented that she wanted to support the neighborhood public school, but felt that due to the lack of resources she had to vote for the charter, which would be better able to serve her child. Other parents responded by saying that we can’t just do what’s best for our individual families, but must act as a community to strengthen a community institution. The attachment to democratic values remains strong in spite of the bureaucracy and inequity of our public school system. Charters promote a market-driven, parents-as-consumers approach that cuts against what has succeeded in improving conditions for working-class communities.

Both charter school companies came up against this in somewhat different ways.

Mastery offers a very particular vision of school turnaround, one that some people enthusiastically embrace and others vehemently oppose. But the Steel vote might have been less a referendum on the Mastery model than a rejection of top-down imposition by the District.

That being said, the idea that Mastery knows what’s best for North Philadelphia did not play well with Steel parents. Although the District's governance needs to be more democratic, Mastery and other mega-charters are run like businesses with a self-perpetuating board of directors and minimal public oversight and accountability.

ASPIRA seemed much better positioned to carry the day, having a history of advocacy in the Puerto Rican community. However ASPIRA’s evolution from a community organization that supported unions and opposed school privatization to a business with substantial real estate holdings seems to have cost it support among working-class Latinos.

What public education advocates should be saying is that it’s time to dump the whole top-down shock doctrine of turnaround schools in favor of investing resources in neighborhood schools and building real partnerships among staff, parents, and the community. Rather than relying on charters to fix the most troubled schools, the School District of Philadelphia needs to look at alternatives, like community schools, and look at districts like Union City, N.J., which made dramatic achievement gains without any privatization.

As long as we have the "portfolio" crowd of Gov. Corbett, Mayor Nutter, and Philadelphia School Partnership head Mark Gleason calling the shots, this seems unlikely.

Ron Whitehorne is a retired teacher and a coordinator for the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (10)

Submitted by Notebook reader (not verified) on June 13, 2014 3:01 pm
This makes sense.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on June 13, 2014 7:16 pm
Ron, you are the Best and I can not imagine it said any better than this commentary. I watched the entire process as it unfolded and I have learned valuable lessons. As a believer in democracy, it was thrilling to see both school communities rise up and speak. I also thank Paul Kihn and Dr. Hite for supporting the vote of the parents and taking a giant step forward toward Democracy in Education. The best practice of creating Great schools is to support them with adequate resources, collaborative leadership, and well experienced and highly educated teachers. Community building always works better than destruction of communities and there is no place for corporate raids on our public schools. If the test scores are such a problem, which of course are not valid anyway, may I suggest that a few "certified reading specialists" be assigned to those schools to teach and to create collaborative Reading programs. Maybe some Math specialists, too. Or does that make too much sense?
Submitted by gloriaendres (not verified) on June 14, 2014 2:15 am
Rich, you and Ron make perfect sense. There is definitely a grassroots movement emerging that rejects the corporate model of education in favor of a totally democratic system. Parents see through this charade and know that when privatization is the model, there is no real choice except with the company that runs the school. They do not like the implication that someone else knows what is "best" for their children. Your idea for reading and math specialists is outstanding. I also think that children need more arts and sciences in the schools. Children need to find success in all areas.
Submitted by aonymous (not verified) on June 14, 2014 3:26 pm
Rich, Why, why, why!!!!! do you find the need to congratulate the likes of Kihn and Hite for as little as being shamed in accepting the parents vote when street riots were a possible alternative? I am waiting for a change of heart that leads to them stopping the privatization of our schools. They have taken NO giant step. They have had NO metanoia!!!! Metanoia definition:a profound, usually spiritual, transformation; conversion. Great idea!!!! There is a new word for Hite and PSP's next new idea. We are running out of fancy words! We've gone through renaissance/ innovation/ transformation, etc ..... Can't wait to hear about the new metanoia schools. Wonder what they will be like? One thing is for certain, they will not be staffed by veteran teachers with experience in the classroom.
Submitted by aonymous (not verified) on June 14, 2014 3:00 pm
This is in repl to Rich Migliore's comment above, not to Ron with whom I agree.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on June 15, 2014 9:21 am
Love the questions. Why? Because effective leadership is positive in nature. Like all of the advocates in our community, I wish to be able to persuade Dr. Hite and Paul Kihn to listen to me and Us. In my now 4 decades of actual leadership experience, I have never seen negative leadership bring about a positive result -- never. I have never read any competent authority on leadership promote negative leadership. Effective leadership is about building relationships and community, not destroying them. Ron Whitehorne is an effective leader because he does it so positively. He even gets arrested in a positive way. He passionately stands up and works for what he believes in. My favorite book on leadership is Encouraging the Heart: A Leader's Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others by Kouzes and Posner, who studied more effective leaders worldwide than anyone. A teacher at Furness gave me that book as a gift. Dr. Hite knows full well that I want him to REJECT his Broad Superintendents Academy teachings. He, Paul and the SRC know full well where I stand on those issues of privatization and profitization of public schools, and the other crucial issues before us. They know where my heart sits. They know because I and our APPS colleagues let them know at every SRC meeting what we think and what we oppose. I wish to be persuasive. Positive reinforcement is the best practice I have ever learned -- in the classroom and the schoolhouse.
Submitted by Lisa Haver on June 14, 2014 3:24 pm
Great analysis, Ron. One caveat: Hite/Kihn/Gleason are working on other strategies to "transform" schools, as they have begun to do with Blaine and W D Kelley schools. This took place without a parent vote or any community engagement at all. Acceptance of the PSP grant meant dumping the teachers without cause. The Alliance will continue to support parents and teachers who are fighting to save their schools and keep them public and democratic.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 14, 2014 10:41 pm
We need to continue to build on these victories. We also need to keep in mind that the SRC and District will also learn from these two experiences. They want to continue pushing their brand of corporate education reform. We need to keep a close eye on them. Read the Resolutions for every SRC meeting even if you cannot attend in person. The March 20th SRC meeting contained SRC-12 - "Suspension of Certain Sections of Policy #012 - Renaisssance Schools Initiative that included language about "….individuals or organizations interested in an Innovation School, a Contract School, or a Charter School.." When asked what a Contract School is Chairman Green refused to answer. So I searched on the District website….sounds like the old EMO model which was tossed out years ago. We need to be vigilant about further “transformations” and “innovations”. From the District website: “A Contract School is a School District school that is managed and staffed by an external organization. The external organization (whether a for-profit or anon-profit entity) is responsible for managing all aspects of the school, including the employment of school staff under a reconstituted design and program. The School District will enter into a contract with the organization that specifies the responsibilities of both parties and establishes accountability for Contract School performance. The contract will include provisions outlining requirements for student enrollment, student achievement, data reporting, grade configuration, facilities, and inclusion in the School Annual Report and other District accountability systems. The external organization will have autonomy over the school’s allocated budget and staffing.” Karel Kilimnik
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 15, 2014 1:18 pm
This will be the last time the parents will vote. Next year they will slam through whatever they want via the SRC.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 15, 2014 4:39 pm
They are already doing it at Blaine and Kelly. No vote. No due process for teachers being pushed out to make way for a "turnover".

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