Philly school "restructure" plan meets stiff opposition


PHILADELPHIA - As this city's School Reform Commission prepares to roll out a plan for the radical "restructuring" of one of the nation's largest school districts, resistance and apprehension are building among education activists and supporters. The plan calls for the closing of 64 of the district's 249 schools over the next five years; it would increase the number of charter schools in the district and decrease the number of schools directly under the supervision of the central office.

In fact the central office would be virtually dismantled and much of the district's operation would be conducted by local "achievement networks" of 20 or 25 schools, which could be run by private contractors, universities, or local groups.

The district's plan is not winning wide approval. Teachers' union president Jerry Jordan branded the proposal a "cynical right-wing, market-driven" attempt by the SRC to hand off the main responsibilities of running a public school system. Two active student organizations - Youth United for Change and the Philadelphia Student Union - issued a statement expressing their "deep concern about the direction the district is taking," and about the possibility of recycling the now-discredited privatization plan of a decade ago.

The school district's proposal is being driven by its inability to fund the program currently in place. In March, the district put forward a $2.5 billion budget with a projected shortfall of between $185 and $218 million. The origins of the district's financial problems lie, in part, in a decade of state management.

In 2001, the state legislature eliminated the local nine-member school board and replaced it with the five-member School Reform Commission, appointed by the governor. Republican Tom Ridge, governor at the time, claimed that the action would cure the district's fiscal and educational performance problems.

Another part of the state's proposed solution was to allow for the establishment of charter schools to operate at public expense within the Philadelphia school district. While the charters are located in the district and are nominally public schools, each one has its own school board and is largely exempt from district oversight. Its teachers may organize a union but they may not join the 18,000-member PFT, which represents district teachers, librarians, counselors, secretaries, classroom aides, and others.

After a decade of state control, the district's financial condition is worse than ever. The district now includes 80 charter schools, which enroll approximately 25 percent of the city's K-12 students.

In a recent op-ed piece in the local press, teachers' union president Jordan detailed the increasing costs to local districts that the state's approach was having on school budgets. He pointed out that the state had, for the previous eight years, partially reimbursed local districts for the cost of charters, but that the administration of new Republican governor Tom Corbett had ended this practice last year. In fact, the Corbett Administration has imposed steep cuts in the general education budget for all school districts across the state in the last two years, another immediate cause of the current crisis.

The SRC has, over the past months, been revealing its agenda and its approach to finding "solutions." It has made no secret of its hiring of the Boston Consulting Group to make recommendations for "overhauling" or "restructuring" the district.

In December, 47 school nurses were laid off, and many schools were left without nursing services or coverage. The district has issued layoff notices to the members of SEIU Local 32BJ, District 1201 who make up a good part of its non-teaching staff: bus drivers, custodians, building engineers, and others. These workers would be rehired only if they agree to work for the lower prices quoted by outside bidders according to the District's "Chief Recovery Officer" Thomas Knudsen.

It has not escaped the notice of many in the labor movement and their allies that, of the district's current shortfall, $110 million is listed as "new debt service," which means payments to banks. In other words, workers are getting layoff notices while the banks will get paid.

This bizarre history has left many activists in the community unconvinced that the current funding shortfall cannot be solved short of dismantling the school district. Long time activist and parent Helen Gym addressed Knudsen and the SCR in a recent blog:

"You're not speaking to me when you'll go to any extreme to radically transform 'education delivery,' yet the most basic things parents and staff and students have called for-more teachers in our schools, bilingual counselors, nurses in every school, librarians, fresh food in the cafeteria, new buildings and playgrounds-are completely and utterly absent from your plan."

A leaflet issued by the labor group of Occupy Philadelphia said, "Wrong-headed priorities and a tax system designed to benefit the rich are the reasons we don't have the resources to provide quality education for all."

School nurses have organized weekly rallies outside the school district headquarters to protest the layoffs.

As of this writing, a town hall meeting has been called at the historic Mother Bethel AME Church to give parents and educators a chance "to express themselves about the plan."

The proposed changes must still be presented and approved by the SRC at a future meeting, where the Commission will have to face the sentiments and hear the concerns of the Philadelphia school community.

Photo: Students rally to stop their elementary school from being closed.   PW

Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.


  • This article is a wake-up call for working people all over the country. What’s happening in Philadelphia is threatening other cities, as in Chicago and New York and more.

    Teachers unions are standing in the way of the privatizers and the profiteers who are out to destroy public education. That’s why the corporate hatchet men want to destroy the teachers unions.

    I don’t think the teachers unions can win this fight by themselves. It will take a united fight by all of labor and its allies to win and save public education.

    It was through the unions that we got public education in the first place. Organized labor and its allies won public education over 100 years ago. Back in 1836, Massachusetts Unions fought for the first state child labor law. The law required children under 15 working in factories to attend school at least 3 months a year. The fight for compulsory education went hand in hand with the fight against child labor.

    Now the unions have to fight for public education, again. It’s the workers’ children who are in the public schools, not the children of the 1%. We have to fight for our children. And we have to fight for the right to have a union.
    We have to ask, “Why is the 1% destroying our public schools?” The answer that pops up is, “Profits.” Lots of profits are made from the privatization contracts. Sometimes I wonder if there’s also another reason. Perhaps the 1% don’t want our children to get advanced education. They fear that educated young people who can’t find jobs will rise up against the profit system

    In short, this is not just a teachers union fight but a fight for the whole working class

    Posted by Beatrice Lumpkin, 05/01/2012 10:43pm (4 years ago)

  • Here's a good article about the school closings.

    Posted by Sean Mulligan, 05/01/2012 5:00am (4 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments