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Hot debate about revoking K12’s science contract
By by Paul Socolar on Nov 23, 2005 12:07 PM
Back in 2002, throngs of protestors regularly descended on School Reform Commission meetings for raucous debates about contracts for private companies to provide educational services to the District.
On November 9, 2005, it was a debate and vote about K12 Inc., a private company contracting with the School District, that triggered perhaps the most impassioned scene at a School Reform Commission meeting since the votes on privatization in 2002.
The most heated controversies in the SRC’s short history have revolved around similar issues of contracting out and even involved a few of the same characters.
An estimated 100 activists and community members turned out at the November 9 meeting to call for termination of the School District’s $3 million contract with K12 Inc., an educational services company, because of racist remarks about Blacks, crime, and abortion made by K12 founder and former chairman William “Bill” Bennett. Bennett is a part owner of the company.
Angered by the School Reform Commission’s 3-2 vote to uphold the contract with K12, members of the audience brought the SRC meeting to a halt with their shouts of protest, prompting the commissioners to leave the auditorium. The crowd of protestors regrouped and then many stayed on to engage in an impromptu heated, hour-long dialogue with two SRC members and CEO Paul Vallas, who returned to the meeting room to face them.
The decision to maintain K12’s contract stands for now (it comes up for renewal in June), but opponents of K12 continue to organize and pressure the SRC to reverse their vote. Members of the Legislative Black Caucus have written letters to the District protesting the vote and say they are exploring a $3 million reduction in state education aid to Philadelphia if the $3 million contract is not revoked.
A. Bruce Crawley, who heads the African American Chamber of Commerce, noted, “Community people are starting to ask other questions too. The longer the District drags it out, the more attention is being paid to the District’s procurement process.”
Musing about race and genocide
Bennett, a former U.S. Secretary of Education in the Ronald Reagan administration who is now a talk show host, triggered this chain of events with a comment on his radio show in September. Bennett said, “if you wanted to reduce crime … you could abort every Black baby in the country and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.” Bennett subsequently defended his remarks as “a thought experiment on public policy.”
Within days, the comments created a storm of controversy. A Philadelphia Daily News report noted parents were organizing to sever the District’s association with Bennett’s company, K12, which has one contract to provide elementary grade science curriculum and another to play a management role at the Hunter School.The news story led CEO Vallas to call the company and urge them to end their relationship with Bennett, Vallas said later. The next day Bennett did in fact resign from the board and leave his part-time K12 position.
Company officials have acknowledged that Bennett retains ownership of “less than 5 percent” of K12’s stock but have repeatedly stated that they have done everything they can legally do to sever the connection.
Yet company spokesperson Bryan Flood told the Notebook he did not know whether K12 officials had asked Bennett to divest of all company stock.
Moreover, Flood said K12 would not discuss Bennett’s past compensation or the terms of any severance agreement with K12. As a privately held company, K12 is not required to disclose such information.
K12’s narrow majority
SRC member Sandra Dungee Glenn argued that the Bennett resignation did not go far enough and proposed the termination of K12’s contract. “Any company that would have a corporate culture that would permit such outrageous, racist remarks is a company I don’t believe we should be doing business with,” she said.
Dungee Glenn’s stance was backed by Commissioner Martin Bednarek, who commented, “I don’t care if he resigned. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as far as I’m concerned.”
But a three-member majority – James Nevels, James Gallagher, and Daniel Whelan – voted to maintain the contract. Before voting, Gallagher denounced Bennett’s comments but defended K12’s performance on the science curriculum contract as “satisfactory.”
Vallas also maintained that Bennett’s resignation was enough. “I know the people who have been part of K12 – (CEO) Ron Packard and others. They do a good job, and they’re great guys, and they’re having success, and they were as outraged and appalled about Bill Bennett’s comments as anyone else was.”
But Bennett has a long history of extremist statements and stances, such as calling for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education.
Nor is Bennett the only figure at K12 whose political stances have stirred protest.
While he has stayed clear of any public debate about the K12 contract, K12 Senior Vice President of Education and Policy Charles Zogby was a controversial figure in Philadelphia’s battles over privatization in 2001-02, before joining K12.
Zogby is remembered in Philadelphia as the former Pennsylvania Secretary of Education who in 2001 developed a school takeover plan that would have turned over management of the School District central office and 45 schools to the for-profit firm Edison Schools Inc.
As the state’s Secretary of Education, Zogby signed the declaration triggering the formation of the School Reform Commission under Act 46 that year.
It was Zogby who then interviewed candidates for the position of School Reform Commissioner on behalf of his boss, former Governor Schweiker.
The three votes needed to save K12’s contract were provided by Schweiker’s three SRC appointees.
Community opposition to K12
Organizations such as It’s a Family Affair, Central Germantown Council, Concerned Black Men, and the African American Chamber of Commerce were among those that mobilized for a large turnout at the November 9 SRC meeting and presented testimony.
During the meeting, there were chants of “We want you to know the contract must go.”
“We do need to send a message that even an idle thought about genocide in Black communities will never be tolerated by any of us,” Crawley explained.
For many, the K12 controversy raised issues about accountability in District contracting.
Debbie Moore of It’s a Family Affair questioned whether there is an adequate policy in place, regulating who gets contracts and why. “If not, we are demanding one be established with community participation,” she said.
Commissioner Dungee Glenn argued that K12’s services amount to “nothing that cannot be easily replaced by another” contractor.
But Nevels countered that advice from District legal counsel was that “terminating the contract may lead to the District having to pay extra money.”
Speaking to Vallas, Nevels and Dungee Glenn after the vote, Rev. LeRoi Simmons of Central Germantown Council commented, “I’m hurt. I’m shocked. I’m disappointed. My expectations were way too big.”
He added, “K12 isn’t making a big difference, other than to destroy any confidence this community has in you.”