After listening to the mayor’s budget address on Thursday, I had to wonder the last time elected officials had visited our schools to do some real fact-finding.
In case a reminder is needed, our schools are barely schools anymore.
Is it fair to send our children to schools where the student-to-counselor ratio is 1,200 to 1? Or where a school staff person balances insulin-shot injections, phone-call duties, and administrative filings because we’ve eliminated so many nurses, office staff, and assistant principals?
What public agency has more than $230 million in revenues and some of the highest salaries in town, but doesn’t feel like sharing a $60 million windfall with the schools it’s supposed to help fund?
Yup. That would be the Philadelphia Parking Authority.
This spring, the PPA will put up for sale the first of 150 taxicab medallions, which will raise $400,000 to $500,000 apiece. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to do the math. Over the next nine years, the sale of 150 medallions could bring in $60 million to $75 million.
So where is this money supposed to go?
New York City used the sale of its taxi medallions to address budget deficits. But here in Pennsylvania, the state created a brand new “Taxicab Medallion Fund,” which will distribute the proceeds of the medallion sales right back to the PPA. This special fund shields the PPA from the traditional profit-sharing arrangement it has with the city and schools.
“Pay to play” is a widely reviled practice in government, but that’s effectively what the District's legal argument would establish through its challenge of an open records case in state court.
For more than 10 months, Parents United for Public Education and our lawyers at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia have been fighting to make public the Boston Consulting Group’s list of 60 schools recommended for closure and the criteria it used for developing the list. In 2012, BCG contracted with the William Penn Foundation to provide “contract deliverables,” one of which was identifying 60 public schools for closure. William Penn Foundation solicited donations for this contract, including some from real estate developers and those promoting charter expansion. The “BCG list” was referred to by former Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen in public statements. But District officials refused to release the list, saying that it was an internal document and therefore protected from public review.
In April 2013, Parents United and PILCOP won our case with the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, largely because the District appears to have shared the BCG list with top officials at the William Penn Foundation. Now the District is taking its challenge to state court.
The Philadelphia School Partnership’s role in a controversial Council briefing on universal enrollment last month highlights the organization’s role in lobbying for controversial education policies and initiatives – even as it promotes itself as a philanthropy.
Last week, I wrote about PSP’s plan to create a private entity that would “outsource the enrollment and placement” of students into District, charter, and parochial schools. “PhillySchoolApp,” as the entity is being dubbed, would take the concept of “common enrollment” beyond what any other city has done. First, it would include parochial schools and coordinate the availability of tax-subsidized scholarships in the matching process. And second, it would take the crucial function of student placement out of the hands of the School District.
For months, the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) has been working to put in place a new citywide process for placing students in schools. Most troubling is that PSP wants this process to be run by an outside, private entity that is created by PSP and could eventually charge a per-pupil fee from participating systems.
“Universal enrollment,” as it is called, would match students to either a District, charter, or parochial school whenever they decide to transfer, move, or transition to another school level.
The PSP proposal would not only take the current student-placement program out of the District’s hands -- unprecedented in any other city -- it would also include parochial schools and coordinate the selection process with the availability of scholarships, which are now often provided through two controversial, voucher-like business tax subsidy programs in Pennsylvania.
As we enter the school year, the purposeful underfunding and abuse of the state-run School District has never been more clear. Twenty-four school closings. Children headed to schools even worse off than the ones they attended. Every single school across the city crippled by the deliberate refusal to staff them safely and responsibly.
Many of us have protested, marched, and testified against this, and we will continue to do so. But as the school year begins, it has never become more important for us to document and register formal complaints to record the neglect and abuse of Philadelphia’s children.
The title of Alfie Kohn’s 2000 book,The Schools Our Children Deserve, has become a visionary slogan for public education advocates across the country. It was the phrase I was thinking of last week as I listened to dueling press conferences from the mayor, the District, and City Council about the lack of funding that threatened the opening of school.
It wasn’t because I heard the phrase echoed by our public officials. I heard the opposite. Instead of funding the schools our children deserve, they talked about funding the schools we can minimally afford, or funding the least we can get away with, or funding schools not in gross legal violation of basic educational standards.
Last Thursday, City Council decided that democracy was inconvenient.
Faced with a deluge of phone calls and an unprecedented outpouring of parent action supporting the progressive Use & Occupancy tax, City Council President Darrell Clarke shut down an expected vote on the tax and instead announced that the city would seek more than $74 million for schools through a tax on cigarettes and improved delinquent-tax collection.
One City Hall insider told me that certain members of City Council were “sh*!%ing bricks” at the number of phone calls they were receiving and were unhappy at the idea of taking a public vote on the Use & Occupancy tax. At least one City Council office said it had received almost 100 phone calls on Wednesday, the day before the vote.
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.
Are we in a financial crisis? For the thousands of students who organized a massive walk-out today, yes. But not for a certain sector of contractors who are benefiting from the School Reform Commission’s decisions lately.
The same day that elementary school parents flooded City Council to rally for school funding and a sizeable crowd attended a panel on the destructive impact of high-stakes testing, the SRC on Wednesday approved nearly $1.3 million in contracts related to assessment and accountability, including a million-dollar contract to Pearson for high-stakes teacher and principal evaluations.
High-stakes testing and communities pushing back have been all over the news lately. Just this week, Senate Democratic leaders held a press conference opposing the implementation of Keystone exams, mandatory end-of-course state exams that will go into effect for September's 9th-grade class. Amid a backdrop of unprecedented statewide cuts under the Corbett administration, Senate leaders said the Keystones would "cost taxpayers dearly" and were being implemented "without a full understanding of the benefits for students, teachers, administrators, and taxpayers.”
Parents United for Public Education has won its state Right To Know request to gain public access to the list of 60 schools identified by the Boston Consulting Group for closure and to the firm’s criteria for school closings -- a request for information that the District has consistently denied to the public.
Last spring, the Boston Consulting Group came under intense criticism for a plan that promoted school closings, massive charter expansion, and privatization of key functions within the District, such as transportation. Under its multimillion-dollar contract with the William Penn Foundation, BCG agreed to provide the foundation a number of “contract deliverables,” one of which was identifying 60 schools for closure. The “BCG list” was referred to by former Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen in public statements, but District officials had refused to release the list, stating that it was an internal document and therefore protected from public review.
Against a backdrop of unprecedented school closings and disinvestment in public education in Philadelphia, journalist and author Barbara Miner will be in town Thursday to share wisdom and hope for our schools’ future. She will be discussing her new book, Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City, at an event and book signing hosted by the Media Mobilizing Project, Parents United for Public Education, TAG-Philly, and the Philadelphia Student Union.
Thursday's School Reform Commission vote on the recommended closure of nearly 30 schools will undoubtedly have a major impact on the future of the city's public school system. In advance of the vote, the Notebook asked prominent Philadelphians to offer their thoughts, using new data and maps on school attendance patterns in the city as a starting point.
One of the biggest challenges our schools face has as much to do with a lack of vision about public education as it does with a lack of resources.
Like most of the public, I’ve been baffled by the District’s latest rationale for closing down an unprecedented number of schools in a single year. In observing the school hearings this week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a quote by Maya Angelou: “There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.”
That statement couldn’t ring more true when looking at the District’s proposal to close down one in six Philadelphia schools, including wiping out 9 public schools in the 19121 and 19132 zip codes (plus Vaux will no longer be a high school). The plan will disrupt the lives of 17,000 children in the District – more than 10 percent of the population – for a questionable savings that amounts to barely 1 percent of the District budget.
Moreover, the District has failed to show any lessons it has learned from cities across the country that have closed down public schools with little impact on finances or student achievement.