Despite the strong marketing for "school choice" by politicians and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, communities that know firsthand what it's like to have lots of "options," like charter schools and vouchers, have found what's more important is to have a voice in how their schools are governed and operated.
That's the lesson to draw from Philadelphia, where the school district is about to complete a transition to local control after 16 years of governance by a state-appointed commission that emphasized cutting expenses and staff, closing neighborhood schools, and expanding charters.
State control of Philadelphia’s schools came to an end in November 2017, when the state-imposed School Reform Commission (SRC), which governed the schools, voted itself out of existence. This sets the stage for the transfer of power to a local school board appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney. The transfer of governing power is expected to be completed June 30.
This is a historic event, long in the making by a campaign of resistance led by Philadelphia citizens.
Local Control Is About Equality
"Transfer to local control is about working toward racial equality," says long-time Philadelphia community organizer Ron Whitehorne in a phone conversation. The city's residents are predominantly Black and Brown, and the state being mostly white, so state control essentially stripped people of color in the city of their democratic rights, he tells me.
"Local control is not a panacea," he says, "but when governance is rooted in the local community, it isn't as much apt to be hostile to the community."
"The new school board will be more community-based with people who have experiences In the community," says Horace Ryans, a youth organizer with Philly-based UrbEd. Ryans explains to me that a "new wave of student voice" rising in the city can only be heard if there are local leaders instead of distant officials in a far-off board.
"Schools are the core of our communities," says Philadelphia school parent and parent organizer Kendra Books. In a phone conversation, she tells me the state appointed SRC seemed mostly interested in dismantling and closing neighborhood schools and privatizing school operations through charter school management.
Brooks got involved in parent organizing in 2014 when a school one of her own children attended was suddenly threatened with being closed. Under the governance of the SRC, she recalls, "If you were a parent with a complaint, it was like talking to a wall." She faults the SRC for "hiring people with no knowledge of the community" who "did harmful things."
Ending Years of Harm
The state takeover grew out of a struggle over the state’s failure to adequately fund Philadelphia schools," writes Whitehorne in a yet-to-be-published short history of the district under state rule.
According to him, in the 1990s, lawmakers in the state capital enacted a new school funding formula that deliberately aggravated the chronic lack of resources for urban districts in the Quaker State, "particularly Philadelphia, which has the highest proportion of students living in poverty and the greatest number of students with special needs."
Philadelphia's school superintendent at that time, David Hornbeck, charged state lawmakers with racism and threatened to close schools early rather than institute lay-offs and cutbacks to instructional programs.
State lawmakers retaliated by passing ACT 46 which authorized the state to take over Philadelphia schools if the state deemed they were fiscally depressed. Due to the unfair funding formula, by 2001, Philadelphia's schools were in increased financial trouble, and the state took the schools over.
ACT 46, Whitehorne explains, created the SRC as the governing body to replace the local school board. The SRC was granted special powers to circumvent the state public school code and collective bargaining agreements with unionized school employees. The governor appointed a majority of the SRC's members, with the approval of the state senate.
Pennsylvania's school funding formula continued to be "among the least equitable state school finance systems in the country," Rutgers University professor and school funding expert Bruce Baker observed on his personal blog in 2013. "And Philly bears the brunt of that system."
As Baker explained, children with greater needs and schools serving higher concentrations of children with greater needs, like those in Philadelphia, "require more resources –more resources to recruit and retain even comparable numbers of comparable teachers – and more resources to provide smaller class sizes and more individual attention."
But year after year, Philly got less.
More budget cuts ensued after the recession of 2008 and the election of Republican Governor Tom Corbett in 2010, who cut about $860 million from public education in his first budget.
Consequently, "budget cuts to the city’s neighborhood schools, the city’s efforts to raise property taxes to offset what schools weren’t getting from the state, and the transfer of public resources to new charter schools and online academies motivated more well-off people to move to the suburbs and made Philadelphia 'one of the poorest and most highly taxed cities in the nation,” I reported in 2013 for OurFuture.
By 2014, the condition of Philadelphia schools had become a national scandal. Report after report recounted Philly schools with leaky rooves, busted windows, rodent and mold infestations, and no sports or athletic programs and no instrumental music classes.
Schools had to zero-out budgets for extracurricular activities, textbooks, and supplies. Most full-time school nurses, counselors, and librarians were let go, and class sizes ballooned to outrageous levels with 40-plus students in elementary classes and over 60 students in high school classes.
The False Promise of "Choice"
The deliberate under-funding of Philadelphia schools and its ensuing takeover by the state had another intention in mind.
"The real driving force was privatization," writes Whitehorne. Shortly after ACT 46 went into effect, the Republican governor, Tom Ridge, hired a leading for-profit Educational Management Organization (EMO), at a cost of two million dollars, to conduct a study of the district.
"Not surprisingly, the study recommended the privatization of the system with Edison to play the leading role," Whitehorne recalls, and Edison found itself in control of over 60 schools.
Widespread outrage forced the SRC to scale back the number of schools under Edison's control to 20, according to the Washington Post, with 18 other schools assigned to other EMOs. But by 2008, the Post article goes on to explain, those 38 school were doing little better than the publicly operated schools run by the district.
"The conclusion the SRC and its political supporters drew from this was not that privatization wasn’t effective," Whitehorne writes, "but that it had not gone far enough." Indeed, under a new " portfolio model" of school governance, underperforming schools were handed over to new charter companies that could dismiss union employees and hire new teachers and support staff.
The booming market for charter schools in Philadelphia worsened the funding situation in the district schools, as Daniel Denvir described in an article for The Nation in 2014. As public-school money followed students moving to charter schools, at a cost of $8,596 per student, the public schools were unable to reduce costs due to staff, building, and transportation fixed costs. "Because of these costs, each student who enrolls in a charter school costs the district as much as $7,000.," Denvir reported.
Charters were also able to game the state's special education funding system, according to Denvir, earning a "profit" of nearly $100 million more than what they spent on special education.
Today, there are 86 charters operating in Philadelphia "serving roughly a third of the city’s public-school students," Whitehorne writes, "the majority of them begun under the period of state control … Several of them have been identified as failing by the school charter office which has recommend their contracts be cancelled but the SRC has not taken this action. A number of stand-alone charters have been closed or not renewed but the process of closure can take years because of the appeals process created by the state charter law."
Pennsylvania's rush toward privatizing Philadelphia schools "had to do with race and class," Brooks tells me. "It's about the wealthy making money off Black and Brown kids."
Perhaps the financial undermining of Philadelphia schools and their sell off to charter companies could be justified if there was evidence of better results for the students.
That's hardly the case, according to a report comparing charter and public-school performance in Pennsylvania by the nonprofit organization Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY). The report found "a greater share of traditional public-school students met grade level expectations" than their charter school counterparts on 2016 state tests. In Philadelphia, the results for charters showed these schools “are struggling as much as Philly schools, or doing worse,” said Donna Cooper, the nonprofit’s executive director.
The report also found the costs of charter schools to public schools was "rising" as the "stranded costs" to students left behind in district schools was growing.
"in Philadelphia, for each child that attends a charter school, the district is left with $8,125 in stranded costs in the first year," the report states. "By year five, the stranded costs are still hefty at $4,433 per pupil."
Along with the measurable negative consequences of the SRC's rollout of financial austerity and charter schools, state rule of Philadelphia emphasized, under a mandate of "reform," education malpractice throughout the district, Whitehorne tells me in our call.
Teachers and schools were coerced to narrow curriculum to just the subjects of reading and math that are measured by standardized tests. Instruction was increasingly directed to scripted delivery and test prep, which "stifled creative pedagogy such as project-based and service-based learning." New approaches to teacher evaluation penalized teachers for teaching in classrooms with the most challenging students.
Teachers went four years without a contract and nearly five years without a raise.
Students also increasingly felt the brunt of "no excuses" discipline policies in schools that employed harsh punishments for school discipline infractions, including out-of-school suspensions of even very young children. Student advocates such Ryans are making discipline reform an emphasis in the transition of leadership from the SRC to local control. "We don't want to see what the SRC did being done any more," he tells me.
A Community Regains Its Voice
After years of intense citizen opposition to SRC rule by a wide assortment of advocacy organizations, community organizing group 215 People’s Alliance, an affiliate of People's Action, helped form Our City, Our Schools in 2016 to pressure the mayor and governor to make transfer of state control to a People's School Board a priority.
A 13-member nominating panel made up of parents (including Kendra Brooks), educators, public school activists, former school officials, and local business and non-profit leaders has generated a list of 45 school board nominees from which Kenney will select nine appointees by the end of March. The nominating panel received 500 applications and resumes in less than two months and interviewed about 80 potential finalists.
"We've been working really hard to convey to the mayor what good education looks like in Philadelphia," Brooks tells me – something she and other advocates had no opportunity to do under state rule.
"We want to see change, and the only way to see it to actively participate," Ryans insists. With the imminent transition to local control, he sees a far more viable outlet for that participation.
Whitehorne sees an even bigger lesson coming from the transition of Philadelphia school governance: "People who want to impose an agenda for schools – state control, privatization, reforms – are attacking democracy. Getting local control back is not just about education. It's about opposing an agenda to beat back democracy."