PHILADELPHIA - More than 1,000 public school advocates packed the sidewalk and spilled onto Broad Street March 14 outside School District offices to protest plans to turn over eight public schools to charter or other private outside managers, and to decry the disciplining of a teacher who had publicly criticized the plans.
Speakers representing teacher, parent, student and community groups plus the labor movement addressed the rally. Many linked the crisis of public school funding to the attack on public workers and public services taking place across the country. Signs called school officials the "real bullies."
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan told the crowd that the city's school district had received a little-publicized multi-million-dollar grant from the Department of Education in order to turn selected "failing schools" over to outside managers.
The Education Department favors charter and other pro-business "turnaround" models over a more collaborative, student-centric model favored by teachers.
Jordan said, "We are here today to strongly urge the School Reform Commission to vote 'NO!'" He urged the commission to put the money into the schools directly, and to listen to teachers when planning changes in the district.
He took sharp issue with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's claim that 82 percent of the nation's public schools would be classified as "failing" under the federal No Child Left Behind guidelines.
He said, "This is the beginning of a very difficult battle that we will have ahead of us in the next several months."
Delores Solomon, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, the umbrella organization representing public school parents, encouraged everyone to write and call the governor and state legislators urging adequate funding for public schools.
Pennsylvania's new Republican Governor Tom Corbett last week proposed a draconian state budget that would include deep cuts in funding for the state's public schools.
Former City Controller Jonathan Saidel told the crowd that he and his family, including his parents and four children, had all attended the city's public schools.
"This country is built on education and we've got to support our teachers and students," he said.
Ted Kirsch, president of American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, said the battle now unfolding across the nation "is not just about the unions or the communities, it's about democracy."
"We are part of a movement grasping this nation. What we have here today is the beginning. Talk to your friends, neighbors and relatives and we will double and triple the size of this crowd," he said.
Pat Eiding, president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, also related the developments in the School District to broader issues, saying the council "represents all working people. We are under a big attack and we are coming together across this country to get the money from the billionaires and to give our kids a chance for the future."
Long-time parent activist Helen Gym noted it has now been 10 years since the state of Pennsylvania took over the School District, and the city is still waiting for meaningful change.
Pointing to district headquarters behind her, she charged, "This School District is in a time warp. The only thing that changes is the revolving door leadership in this building."
A decade ago the state, under previous Republican Governor Tom Ridge, disbanded the local School Board and put in place the five-member School Reform Commission.
Referring to high school teacher Hope Moffett, who has been disciplined and threatened with dismissal, because of her criticism of the "turnaround" plan, Gym said, "This rally today is all about hope, including the Hope in the basement!"
Moffett has been placed in isolation and assigned to what teachers call the "rubber room" while her case is being decided.
Photo: Ben Sears/PW