Helen Gym is a former Notebook editor and a co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, a citywide parent group focused on school budgets and funding to improve achievement and accountability in the public schools. She is a board member at Asian Americans United, a Chinatown-based community organization active in education, youth leadership, immigrant rights, and community development; an associate editor with Rethinking Schools, a national social justice teaching journal; and one of the co-founders of the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School founded by Asian Americans United in 2005. Pacific Citizen named Helen their Outstanding Asian Pacific American Community Leader of the Year in 2011, and she was the Philadelphia Inquirer's "Citizen of the Year" in December 2007 for her work in education, immigration and community activism.
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.