THE PAST three years have put a world of hurt on Philadelphia's public schools. On top of devastating budget cuts from Harrisburg, communities have been rocked by School Reform Commission votes to close more than 30 neighborhood schools and turn others over to charter companies. Students have been subjected to more high-stakes tests whose results are used to justify those decisions. Though these actions have resulted in more harm than good, there are still some, including those who have a hand in them, who are actually calling for more.
School closings were sold to Philadelphians mostly as an economic issue. The district promised savings of $22 million, but netted only half that after moving and reorganization costs. School communities were broken up, young children walked longer distances to and from school, and enrollment in receiving schools swelled. Once-thriving schools became eyesores.
Although conceived as a way to cultivate innovation, the charter-schools movement has become a means for edu-entrepreneurs to make public education the new marketplace. Study after study has shown that district schools perform better than most charters. The district's failure to provide anything close to meaningful oversight has led to financial fraud and questionable academic achievement. Last year, parents at two neighborhood schools rejected district efforts to convert their schools to charters.
Why did we go down this path in the first place? Who decided that these measures constituted "reform"? Short answer: Bill Gates and those who signed his Great Schools Compact in November 2011. The compact - whose signers include representatives from the district, the mayor's office, charter organizations and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia - calls for moving tens of thousands of students into charters, closing neighborhood schools, an accountability method based mostly on standardized test scores, and an overhauled application system no longer controlled by the district.
Compact signers authorized the Philadelphia School Partnership, a private nonprofit, to oversee the Great Schools Compact Committee and ensure implementation of its mandates. Neither the Partnership nor the Compact Committee allows the public to attend their board meetings. PSP has expanded its role since 2011, using tens of millions from corporations and foundations to fund schools of its choosing. Grants to district schools have come with strings attached; many have mandated changes in curriculum and replacement of teachers and staff. Even after parents in a packed SRC meeting expressed overwhelming opposition, PSP is still pushing for the compact's Universal Enrollment system, in which students would be required to apply online for any school - district, charter or archdiocesan. Thus, control of enrollment and placement of students would move from the public-school system to a private organization.
But we can learn from our mistakes, right? We can admit that the reform agenda of closing schools, expanding charters and overtesting students hasn't worked. We can advocate for smaller class size, more support staff, libraries in every school, well-trained and experienced principals. That depends on who "we" is - the same decision-makers meeting behind closed doors, or the parents and community members whose voices have been muted by an increasingly non-transparent decision-making process?
Incredibly, PSP - which makes no secret of its pro-charter, anti-labor agenda - has just issued a report that calls for more of the same failed policies, including more school closures and forced transfers of students. At a time when Superintendent William Hite is implementing programs to help students deal with the trauma in their lives, this would serve to create only more instability in schools and neighborhoods.
PSP even urges the SRC to "approve every charter applicant with the potential to serve high-poverty students effectively." Imagine the financial ruin that would result if the school district were forced to pay for 40 more charter schools.
Growing numbers of Philadelphians have called for the dissolution of the state-controlled SRC and a return to local control. Parents, teachers and students should not have their wishes, nor their democratic rights, take second place behind the CEOs of corporations and foundations - especially out-of-town billionaires - who know nothing about education.