City Council yesterday proved once again that Philadelphia’s schoolchildren come second to politicking. Instead of following through on its promise to guarantee the District at least $50 million -- a promise it made last August, when Superintendent William Hite refused to open schools otherwise -- City Council’s finance committee moved forward with a bill to halve that amount to $27 million.
It seems inconceivable for Council to behave in this manner, especially at a time when District finances have never been more dire. If City Council doesn’t move on filling the basic budget gap, the District will be forced to pass an obscene budget that will lay off staff and see class sizes go through the roof. The PR damage and the loss of internal capacity at the District is not something that can be made up even if Council were to later piece together funds over the summer.
Like most great things, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook was a concept and a vision long before it became the indispensable news forum it is today.
I still remember my first introduction – a large gymnasium in Feltonville with dozens of us in an ever-widening circle talking about a vision of an independent media outlet that would uplift the voices and concerns of parents, youth, teachers, staff, and concerned Philadelphians about our schools. I was surrounded by the most amazing and diverse array of visionaries from all over the city – longtime educators, parent organizers, community leaders, and artists – who made room for a rookie teacher like me with a bewildered political understanding about education and race politics.
We came from a variety of experiences far beyond schools: housing and criminal justice struggles, the Asian American movement, community development. The Notebook has always reminded me of how much I learned at the feet of so many of Philadelphia’s best grassroots leaders and activists.
A beloved 7-year-old child from Jackson Elementary School died yesterday, but don’t call it a tragedy. Tragedies are for things outside your control, things we couldn’t possibly predict, and for which we have no warning.
Tragedy is not the right word when this is the second child to die who was in a school without a school nurse. Tragedy is not the right word when the District creates a policy by which only students pre-determined as “medically fragile” are entitled to a full-time nurse. Tragedy is not the right word when Jackson Elementary until five years ago had a nurse five days a week. Today? They see her six days a month.
How shocked should we be really?
On Friday, Philadelphia School Partnership’s Mark Gleason embraced a stunningly blunt description of the District’s “portfolio model” at a session of the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting. Gleason was attempting to explain why the portfolio model depends on school closings in a system where multiple operators run schools.
“So that’s what portfolio is fundamentally. ... you keep dumping the losers, and over time you create a higher bar for what we expect of our schools,” he said.
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.”