News Analysis

Even before George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, Philadelphia was being set up for school privatization and similar measures now encompassed in the federal law.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) had tried unsuccessfully to get a voucher bill passed by the Legislature. He had to find another way. Ridge called it “school choice.” Through a series of laws, students would have the “choice” of charter schools, public schools run by education management companies, or scholarships to private schools.

But that wasn’t enough. With the support of two African American Democrats, Republicans won more privatization laws. In 1998, takeover law Act 46 was passed. This law stated that any school district with a financial deficit could be taken over by the state.

After years of cuts, Philadelphia schools were at bare bones level. Everyone knew the school district would be facing a deficit and therefore ready for state take-over and the largest experiment in school privatization.

Ridge asked Edison Schools Inc., a for-profit corporation, to evaluate the public schools and come up with an improvement plan. And what was the plan? Edison Schools would manage the schools for the state.

Philadelphians cried, “Conflict of interest!” Edison Schools needed the contract because it was facing bankruptcy.

Philadelphians United To Support Public Schools organized a strong fight back coalition of parents, students, teachers and community activists. SEIU Local 1201, representing the custodial workers, bus drivers and engineers, and HERE Local 634, representing the cafeteria workers, were militant in their anti-privatization efforts. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and education advocacy organizations filed suit against the state takeover, but the state Superior Court refused to hear the case.

The state did take over the Philadelphia schools, but appointed a five-member School Reform Commission (SRC) to run them. This was a partial victory. Edison Schools received only 20 schools instead of the entire district. Mayor Street promised his cooperation in exchange for increased funding and two appointments to the SRC.

Other Education Management Organizations (EMO) received 25 schools to manage, four schools were changed to charter schools and 21 schools were designated as reconstituted managed by a special department of the school district. EMOs and reconstituted schools receive extra money, anywhere from $450-$881 per student. These EMOs can fire teachers and ignore union contracts. One EMO, Victory Schools Inc. closed the libraries in its five schools and eliminated the librarians even though it received an extra $857 per pupil.

Since the SRC, whose members by law cannot be fired, knew nothing about running a school system, in 2001, the first year of the state takeover was chaotic, with many of the central office staff fired and nobody in charge. Approximately 40 percent of the teachers in EMO schools transferred to other schools within the district or out of the system.

Two years have passed since the state takeover of the schools. The “corrective measures” spelled out in No Child Left Behind are being implemented here – privatization, charter schools and offering transfers to students in failing schools. Two years ago 70 schools, all of them in African American and Latino neighborhoods, were identified as the lowest achieving schools by looking at standardized test scores in reading and math. All-Black and Latino schools have historically been neglected receiving less resources and more inexperienced teachers.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires every state to submit a plan showing how all (100 percent) of its students will become proficient in reading and math by 2012. At the end of the 2002-03 school year more than half of Pennsylvania’s schools had failed to meet their goals. In Philadelphia, 241 of 259 schools failed, although those figures have been challenged somewhat.

Parents in over 200 schools received letters advising them that their child had the right to transfer to a “successful” school. With so few schools labeled “successful,” where could they transfer their children? Rod Paige, secretary of education, told a press conference “that lack of space is not a reason for denying placement in a successful school.” None of this makes sense. The Bush administration wants parents to become confused and angry with public education, throw up their hands and accept vouchers and privatization.

Philadelphia students have made progress in spite of the NCLB regulations, not because of them. When parents understand what is going on, they will join coalitions to not only save public education, but to demand and get quality public education for their children. It won’t be easy, because the EMOs are big political contributors and the SRC plans to privatize more schools each year.

Public education and No Child Left Behind must be part of the 2004 grassroots movement to defeat Bush. Let’s make government accountable for real education reform.

The author is an activist and a former teacher in Philadelphia
and can be reached at