11 September 2013

On Philly Schools

On the afternoon of May 30, hundreds stood at the headquarters of the Philadelphia School District to protest the worst school budget in Philadelphia history. The press had already taken to calling it a “doomsday budget,” a seriocomic term that obscured as much as it expressed. The proposed $2.4 billion budget would leave schools with only the barest signs of education: a principal and a core group of teachers. Counselors, sports, secretaries, librarians, music and art teachers, as well as all support safety staff, would be eliminated. Dressed in red (the color of the teachers’ union, but also, of course, of a deficit budget), waving signs and holding banners, parents, students, district employees, and community members massed on the stairs of the squat concrete building. They spilled out into Broad Street, in clear view of City Hall, chanting “Save our schools!” and “Shame on the SRC!” Near the front of the rush, a student pep band performed under the direction of their teacher, who faced layoff. 

Inside the building, in the auditorium of the District Education Center, the public school district’s state-imposed governing body, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC), was preparing to vote on the controversial budget. The auditorium, too, overflowed with protestors, many of them prepared to deliver comment on the proposal before the vote. Four of the five members of the SRC were joined by Superintendent William Hite behind a long row of tables topped by microphones, name placards, and bottled water. The fifth Commissioner, Joseph Dworetzky, participated via teleconference. As the doors were closed and the last people jostled for room, the district leadership talked quietly among themselves and even smiled. 

But as the meeting came to order, they took on the grave, nervous expressions they would wear for the duration of the evening. The bulk of the meeting had been set aside for public testimony on the proposed budget, during which the SRC could field questions and respond to concerns. One by one, parents, teachers, and students delivered indignant, anguished, oftentimes tearful speeches. Many spoke about crucial programs that would be cut from the schools, the importance of counselors and cafeteria workers, and the already vulnerable populations that would be hit hardest by the cuts. Others attacked the SRC directly, calling the budget, and the process of its creation, hurried, callous, and racist. 

After two hours of comment from the public, Pedro Ramos, Chair of the SRC, proposed a vote. The budget passed 4–1. The immediate question was whether what remained after the thousands of cuts could really be considered “schools.” Before casting the sole dissenting vote, Commissioner Dworetzky stated that “wherever the line falls between a school and not a school, what’s being proposed here is very close to the line.” But the question was treated as academic. His fellow four commissioners cited their legal obligation to approve a budget before May 31 and voted yes. One week later, it was announced that layoff notices were being sent to 3,783 district employees. 

The budget vote was only the latest blow to Philadelphia’s public education system, whose schools have bled from cuts for generations, and was hit especially hard this past year. Just two months earlier, in April, the SRC had voted to close twenty-four of the city’s public schools, a decision that is anticipated to dislocate over 14,000 students this fall and funnel them in to new, now dramatically understaffed, buildings. As schools open this week, many students will be forced to attend school in unfamiliar neighborhoods. The potential for gang violence and turf feuds is expected to escalate with the influx of unfamiliar faces. And with so many neighborhood schools closing, parents worry about longer walks for their young children, walks of up to two miles in the dark before school. Unsurprisingly, the closures affect economically vulnerable and minority students almost exclusively: 81 percent of students in now-closed schools are black, 93 percent come from low-income households. 

Nothing is ever truly settled (or beyond further degradation) in the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), but the budget vote carried with it a grim sense of finality. The argument behind the closings is that these schools were underutilized, expensive to maintain, and academically underperforming. Their closure was framed as a sacrifice for the sake of the district. But it is overwhelmingly young people of color, and those who work in their schools, who will bear the brunt of these closings and witness the worst effects of the budget cuts. Over the last six months, the SDP and the state of Pennsylvania have decided, again and again, that this is acceptable.


The woes of the district go far back, but the outlines of the current fight first came into view in April 2012, when the SRC announced its plan in to save the beleaguered School District of Philadelphia by tearing it down. That spring they offered the public a sweeping school reform package based on a report prepared by the illustrious Boston Consulting Group, a firm publicly famous for its studies of consumer shopping habits, Trading Up, and the predictably less successful sequel, Trading Down. The BCG promised to “right-size” the District and “return [it] to structural balance.” Hired by the SRC—for a five week engagement and a presumably enormous sum—and bankrolled by the charter school–friendly William Penn Foundation, BCG had developed a blueprint for the future of public education in Philadelphia that would dismantle and reconstruct the entire system, with hope of making it more efficient. Asked by the SDP to focus on developing a “portfolio model” for managing the schools and identifying areas where costs could be cut, the plan called for the closure of forty schools by 2013 and sixty-four by 2017. It also recommended “modernizing” operations by replacing transportation, cafeteria, maintenance, and custodial workers with subcontracted, non-unionized labor; significantly reducing the district’s central office staff (also unionized); and splitting the centralized school district into a series of de facto mini-districts, so that they could be awarded competitively to charter management organizations, nonprofits, and groups of educators. According to BCG, the district should focus “on expanding high performing schools and attracting high-quality leadership and operators, rather than directly managing schools.”  

The reason given for the overhaul was the SDP’s near insolvency: it faced a budget hole roughly the size of $300 million dollars for the 2012–2013 school year, which would balloon to $1.1 billion by 2017 if left unchecked. (And this figure banked on Mayor Michael Nutter’s ability to raise an additional $94 million for the schools by pushing a highly unpopular property tax revaluation measure through City Council). 

In reality, the shortfall came from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s unprecedented cuts to basic education. His 2011–2012 budget eliminated over $1.1 billion dollars from state education funding, which amounted to $400 million in lost revenue for the SDP. While that alone would be a disastrous blow to a struggling district, the SDP was also contending with no longer extant stimulus funding, $331 million burned in failed interest rate swaps, and—most importantly—the accumulated effects of one of the most regressive state school finance systems in the country. 

State school finance systems are in theory designed to do two things: account for a local district’s ability (or inability) to raise revenue from property taxes, and subsequently to provide more financial assistance to districts with greater need. In effect these systems are highly variable—running the gamut from progressive to regressive—and Pennsylvania’s is one of the worst, where poor areas here get significantly less funding than richer ones. This is a problem for districts across the state, but Philadelphia has a poverty rate of nearly 29 percent, and a deep poverty rate (those with incomes less than half the poverty line) of 12.9 percent, the worst rates of any large American city. Its tax base is predictably weak, and its school system heavily dependent on state and federal aid. As a result, big cuts to things like state education spending have devastating effects.

To hear it from BCG and its allies in the city government, on the other hand, the real problem in Philadelphia is that the SDP lived too long outside of its means, that its excesses were those symptomatic of public programs: inefficiency and protectionism, bureaucrats and bus drivers’ pensions. Few were fooled. The plan provoked an immediate outcry, and was denounced by activists, parents, teachers, and community groups as corporatist, racist, right-wing, and unnervingly obscure in its language. In the following weeks, meetings were held at churches and community centers across the city, marches by labor unions yielded high-profile arrests, and a series of charged City Council meetings revealed obvious tensions between the SRC and members of the local government. In spite of this, at a May 31, 2012 public meeting filled with protestors carrying signs and waving petitions, the SRC approved the $2.5 billion operating budget for the 2012–2013 school year—an operating budget that even the district’s Chief Recovery Officer admitted provided only for “a bare-bones level of services and programs.” It was a harbinger of things to come.

The year following the announcement was marked by an intensified struggle between district officials and the increasingly diverse and assertive confederation of opponents committed to rolling back the SRC’s decisions. More community meetings were held, walkouts were staged, commissioners were shouted down in tense public meetings. In April 2012, activist groups and labor organizations met to discuss a collective response to the BCG plan and formed the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), and a comprehensive counterproposal to the reform plan was delivered to the recently installed Superintendent William Hite. But the SRC was undeterred. 

In April of this year the SRC voted to shutter twenty-three schools; any ground gained in debate with the district vanished underfoot. Around the same time, the district opened contract negotiations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers with what Diane Ravitch called “the most insulting, most demeaning contract ever offered in any school district to my knowledge.” It called for pay cuts of 13 percent for those who earn more than $55,000 and 5 percent cuts for those making $25,000 or less; would eliminate stepped raises and freeze salaries until 2017; extend the school day by an hour; eliminate seniority; require teachers be available for conferences with parents and students outside of the normal workday (unpaid); allow for unlimited evening meetings (also unpaid); and eliminate the district’s responsibility to provide librarians (for schools with 1,000 students or more), counselors for each school, employee lounges, water fountains, parking facilities, desks for teachers, and “a sufficient number of instructional materials and textbooks.” Superintendent Hite said that such protections do not belong in a professional contract.

What many had hoped would yield progress or slow the district’s slide toward privatization became one more reminder of the weak position held by any group working against the SRC, even those with strong public support. The reasons for this are important. Why the district and the SRC hold such high ground, despite their apparent insanity and unpopularity, has little to do with necessity or fiscal responsibility. Their success in implementing unpopular policies in the face of relentless, inventive protest suggests that we are dealing with a new configuration of power in our public authorities, of which Philadelphia’s school system may constitute one the purest examples. 


A funding crisis is never just a shortfall in money. In 1998, the district superintendent David Hornbeck, in a fit of indignant activism, threatened to shut down Philadelphia’s public schools unless the district received the additional funding from the state he deemed necessary for operations. Hornbeck’s move was audacious, and the Republican-led Pennsylvania General Assembly responded with full force by passing Act 46, an unassuming item tucked into the middle of an otherwise perfunctory appropriations bill, which gave the Secretary of Education power to declare any school district in the state “under distress” should it sink to below specified standards of conduct. Curiously, it included a provision that allowed a district of the “first class”—one with a population of 1 million or more—to be labeled distressed if it met a second, more stringent list of conditions. 

Once a district of the first class was named distressed, an administrative machine would lock into place. Most dramatically, the local Board of Education would be dissolved and placed under the control of a five-person School Reform Commission, staffed with members appointed by the governor and unaccountable to the public they governed. In a preview of future attacks on public sector unions, Act 46 would also limit collective bargaining between teachers and the SRC, strip them of their right to strike, and allow the State to impose a contract if they did (all of this despite the fact that Hornbeck, not the teachers’ union, had threatened shutdown). At the time, there was only one district of the first class in Pennsylvania: the School District of Philadelphia, the only district threatened with shutdown.

In the end, the schools remained open and Act 46 sat dormant. But in the fall of 2001, citing abysmal test scores, staffing shortages, and a multimillion dollar budget deficit, Governor Mark Schweiker (a Republican who had taken over after his predecessor, Tom Ridge, was appointed to the newly created Department of Homeland Security) revived Act 46 and initiated the state takeover of what was at that point the fifth largest school district in America. Schweiker initially sought to turn control of all district schools over to Edison, Inc. a for-profit school management group—effectively privatizing the entire school district. After months of student protests, negotiations with the city, and lawsuits filed by a host of organizations including the Philadelphia Student Union and the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP, a compromise was reached. In the end, Edison, Inc. was awarded only 20 schools (a failure that sent their Wall Street stock plummeting), and Mayor John Street managed to wrest two appointees to the SRC from the state. What began with Hornbeck’s attempt to demand equitable funding three years prior had led to the largest state takeover of public education this country has ever seen. For various reasons, it is a history neither the SRC, nor successive school superintendents, Philadelphia mayors or Pennsylvania governors have seen fit to mention. 

In the years since the takeover—which coincided with another systematic intrusion into the lives of schoolchildren, the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act—the performance of the school district has been discouraging. While test scores saw small gains each year, they remained far below the state average; high school graduation rates hovered around 60 percent. In keeping with national trends, the SDP also encouraged systematic deprofessionalization and championed “choice” in their public schools. Charter school growth exploded, skilled teachers were replaced with temporary workers from Teach for America, scripted curriculums were made mandatory in many schools, and the number of precarious workers in the District more generally seemed to grow. 

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I wound up working in the school district almost by accident during the fall of 2010. I had graduated from school in the Midwest the previous spring, and spent the following summer reading on a bench in front of the student union while my bank account dwindled and everyone I’d known for the last four years trickled out of town and toward the coasts. Eventually this arrangement became untenable, and I made an arbitrary move to Philadelphia with a few friends. With the “Great Recession” proceeding unabated and no connections in the city, I answered an ad on Craigslist for an AmeriCorps position tutoring English in the public schools. I was hired within days. 

EducationWorks, the nonprofit that was my direct employer and the largest AmeriCorps program in PA, assigned me to work at Frankford, a public high school located in the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of the same name. My job was to act as a classroom tutor for ninth grade English classes serving high-risk students (those testing two to four years behind in reading). The pay was bad, we were given a stipend of $1,150 a month, which worked out to about $7.20 an hour before taxes, but I was excited to work with kids, and motivated by the opportunity to do meaningful work.

When I arrived in October of 2010, Frankford had been classified by the state as a “persistently dangerous school” every year since 2006—a designation based on a sustained ratio of student population to “dangerous incidents.” There are currently six such schools in the state, all of them in the city of Philadelphia. Frankford enrolled close to 2,000 students—nearly 90 percent of them black and Latino—but on a given day only 75 percent attended school, and an even smaller number actually made it to class, electing instead to wander the halls or disappear after signing in. Standardized test scores fell well below the district’s already low average. Over 85 percent of the student body was considered economically disadvantaged. One hundred percent were eligible for free lunch.

Issues of “school climate,” as the euphemism has it, tended to dominate the attention of the administration. This was made apparent to me on the first day, when my already short orientation ended abruptly after my new supervisor and assistant principal both bolted from her office midsentence in order to chase down a truant student. From the beginning I maintained a low profile, due to the flexible nature of my position and the general hum of chaos that permeated the building. I retained this weird, liminal status throughout my tenure at Frankford. I wasn’t a teacher, I wasn’t even an employee of the school district. As an AmeriCorps member I was on the books, but somewhere in the margins; academic support staff without much accountability or real supervision (let alone real pay) best used to plug holes left by budget cuts and understaffing. My job was at once highly ambiguous and paradigmatic: flexible, unprofessional, supported by an unpredictable source of funding, its existence was a testament to what the system needed and what it could afford. The District employed thousands of us.

I was ostensibly a tutor, and in a few of the classes I was attached to—typically better run classes with more engaged students—I did a lot of tutoring: one-on-one work with kids who were struggling, small group homework help, essay workshops, and the like. But in other classes (or in the halls) I played different roles, mostly out of necessity. I would sit and attend to a particularly distractible student, for example, or play back-up disciplinarian if a teacher needed support. Once or twice I broke up a fight; often I was a chaperone or a shrink. Some of this work seemed tangential to what I was supposed to be doing. As the months passed I came to realize that the extra tasks were my job. I was there simply to be a body, to sustain a vague sense of order or calm, and that this was, to varying degrees, the job of every single adult employed in one of these schools. From veteran teachers to school safety officers, everyone’s first priority was to create an environment where one could teach. 

At this small task we often failed. The school was dysfunctional. There was a lot of bullying and fights happened frequently. Many students I knew felt unsafe; several transferred after getting jumped or robbed. Still more had grown inured to it all. For them, things popping off were a respite from the intense boredom that constituted the school day. Part of this was the result of poor leadership: I remember the principal, bemoaning the disorder in his halls, comparing students who roamed between classrooms to cockroaches. “Turn on the lights, catch them in the act,” he told us, “and BOOM! they’re gone.” But it was hard not to suspect, even then when I knew very little, that the problem was systematic, district-wide. Still, it was good work. I learned a lot about working with students, thanks chiefly to mentoring by excellent, experienced teachers who were very good at a very difficult job, and I felt like an important, positive part of some of the classes I worked with. But the overall lack of support was exhausting, and many days I left Frankford dispirited and at a loss.

By the end of the 2010–11 school year, rumors began to circulate that the district would lay off 16 percent of its work force, including 12 percent of its teachers, as a result of the Governor’s budget. Few of the teachers I worked with were sure that they would have any job in the fall, let alone jobs at Frankford, and the students all knew it, too. There were walkouts at Audenried, a district school slated to be turned into a charter as part of a turnaround initiative. Two of the three students I had worked with every day, sweet, thoughtful guys who never missed our after school program, had been jumped on or near school grounds by their classmates. One of them wouldn’t return in the fall and the other simply disappeared—transferred, probably, but I’ll never know for sure. The kids who beat and robbed him kept attending school, despite being suspended; evidently there was something about school they liked.

I was saved the trouble of declining a second year in the position when the stimulus money funding our program ran out. Were the program to continue in the fall, already strapped schools would have to pay my wage, and there was talk that I might be put to work in the cafeterias when I wasn’t tutoring. I bowed out, somewhat deflated and not a little relieved. It was strange to leave an environment where you felt, all at the same time, terribly needed but entirely powerless. 


Shortly after the doomsday budget passed and thousand of pink slips were sent out, talk began about a rescue package for the district. While politicians in Harrisburg had remained silent during the SRC’s budget vote last spring, happy to let the district undergo its very painful, public expiration, they have since entered into negotiations with Philadelphia officials to restore some measure of funding. In order to close their $304 million budget gap, the district asked for $60 million from the city, $120 million from the state, and $133 million in concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). Governor Corbett responded with a financial plan,  fashioned with the help of the Philadelphia School Partnership’s Mark Gleason and the Vice President of Comcast, David Cohen. Both are proponents and patrons of corporate style reform: one—Cohen—is neither an elected official nor even a bureaucrat. The plan purports to close the gap in the budget, but in actuality relies predominantly on union concessions and city dollars. It approves the extension of an existent sales tax hike against which the city can borrow $50 million, points to $30 million in back taxes the city was already planning to collect, and promises a one-shot $45 million infusion in federal overpayments, recently forgiven by the Department of Education. 

But as Mayor Nutter and City Council members discovered when they petitioned the state for the funds, those $45 million dollars, the only significant contribution from Harrisburg (and not really their money to begin with), comes with big strings attached. As Charles Zogby, the state’s budget secretary, made clear, the funds will be withheld until the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the PFT is overhauled and serious concessions are won. “I don’t think anyone should assume that just any agreement is going to unlock those dollars,” he said. “Investing this money is one thing, but there has to be a belief in what we’re buying.” 

What they are interested in buying is a district with a shaken, toothless union. The big-ticket reforms sought to include a longer work day for teachers; abolishing seniority rules with regards to staffing; evaluating and paying teachers based on “performance”; and significant cuts to benefits and wages. That these are the same demands as made by Superintendent Hite or Mark Gleason and his PSP should not seem coincidental: this is a concerted effort. Nor is it unrelated that two days after city officials were rebuffed in their attempt to get that $45 million, the SRC, emboldened by Act 46, voted to suspend sections of the Pennsylvania School Code in order to sidestep seniority rules and suspend yearly automatic pay raises for teachers. 

Attaching budgetary appropriations to contract negotiations is a clear example of how a financial crisis can be leveraged in order to extract concessions from labor and advance a corporate agenda in the guise of an educational one. To rebut this attack on the district will require some sort of a serious and disruptive action, one that refuses to surrender control to the state and instead demands equitable funding for the city’s schools. Ultimately, such a movement would have to argue for the reinstatement of a democratically elected Board of Education, the dissolution of the SRC, and an overhaul of the state’s regressive school finance system. 

The most obvious route to this type of confrontation would be a strike organized by the PFT and supported by labor and activist groups across the city and state. In the United States today, public school teachers constitute the country’s largest group of public sector workers, and more than half of the country’s unionized public employees are teachers. Add to that the number of paraprofessionals/blue collar workers employed by school districts and you have a very serious potential for disruption. Community coalitions have been important for canvassing bodies and bringing the force of a city to bear on a district, but for posing a moral and economic threat, a union with a social justice goal proves the sharper weapon. The fight over schools is labor’s fight. The success of last fall’s strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), their first since 1987, has galvanized resistance around the country and begun to reframe the discussion surrounding turmoil in our public schools and how it can be addressed. 

Led by the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), a left group of teachers, paraprofessionals, and clinicians who gained control of the union in 2010, the CTU struck for better pay, benefits, and working conditions. But in a rare move, Chicago’s union took the offensive and also demanded things well outside the purview of the contract, advancing a vision of public education totally distinct from that of corporate reformers. In their study The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve the CTU managed to describe the connection between union demands and social issues, particularly racism, poverty, and inequality in the district. Their strike earned a level of public support rarely enjoyed by a public sector union. It was an assertive answer to the national reform agenda, as well as a victory for social unionism and a testament to its effectiveness in building broad, popular support. 

But with schools opening this week and pressure on the PFT intensifying, a strike remains a remote possibility. When I discussed the probability of such an action with a retired teacher and PFT member who asked to remain anonymous, s/he said that the union was, as far as democracy goes, “not in a good place” and that a strike like those seen in the ’70s and ’80s was unlikely. However, there was mention of radicalization among the PFT rank and file, as well as organizers being brought in by the American Federation of Teachers to help that process along. In addition, the teacher I spoke to cited Philadelphia’s Teacher Action Group (TAG) as an increasingly influential voice for progressive development within the union, and pointed to the various groups working together through PCAPS as an indication that the PFT was prioritizing its relationships with community groups. 

A more drastic tactic was the nationally covered “fast for safe schools” by members and supporters of UNITE HERE, who represent the cafeteria workers and 1,200 student safety staff (workers who monitor the hallways and the lunchrooms) in the district. The safety staff had been laid off; the union made clear that this would profoundly affect the safety of students in the district. For two weeks, workers, parents, politicians, and sympathizers occupied a small corner outside Governor Corbett’s Philadelphia office and starved themselves. The moral victory was resounding. The entire public conversation shifted: would the schools that opened in the fall be safe? Superintendent Hite intimated openly that he might not open schools in the fall, if he couldn’t be guaranteed money from the city. Eventually the money came; nearly all the laid-off safety staff were rehired. 

Just as heartening has been the sight of organized students. Youth United for Change (YUC) and the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) have mustered several successful student walkouts, numbering in the thousands. Few things can renew your faith in public education more than being in a crowd of thousands of teenagers, marching, shouting, and protesting.


But these are only the first steps. And Philadelphia is just one of many cases. All across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania districts are in similar positions, with an estimated fifty or sixty approaching serious financial troubles, which points to another potential block of support: inter-district solidarity. Whether these energies can be effectively organized to repel the privatization agenda remains to be seen, but the elements of resistance are present and the stakes have never been higher. 

In Philadelphia, the immediate challenge is to exercise as much control as possible over the reconstitution of the SDP as funding is secured and people are rehired. This week, students are returning to understaffed buildings with overcrowded classrooms. The district will average one nurse per 1,500 students and place no counselors at schools with fewer than 600 students. Teachers are working without a contract and $45 million allocated by the state remains dangled over the negotiating table. There is still no money for books, supplies, or librarians. Without more money from the state, that is regular, reliable, and borne of a commitment to the equitable funding of poor districts, the public schools in Philadelphia are going to get much worse; if school funding isn’t restored soon, stripped of safety officers and counselors and support staff, they will get exponentially worse and quickly. And what then? Perhaps the further degradation of public schools feeds a panicked enthusiasm for even more charters or voucher programs. Perhaps total deprofessionalization. Certainly more of it. Perhaps these reformers get so good at starving these public schools that your own city decides to hire them. Perhaps they are already there.

Image: On Feb. 14 2012 Pennsylvania public school students, parents and teachers converged at the Capitol Rotunda to denounce Gov. Corbett's education calls and demand better schools. Photo by Kara Newhouse via Flickr.

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