In the Schools of Philadelphia

Flickr/It's Our City

The Philadelphia School District headquarters in downtown Philadelphia

On December 13, a large group of parents, students, teachers, and activists gathered in front of the headquarters of the School District of Philadelphia—a drab, low-slung building on Broad Street, one of the city’s major arteries. In the numbing cold, the crowd’s mood was bitter: The district had recently announced the 37 schools slated to be closed next fall. Around 17,000 kids will be relocated, mostly to institutions with academic records no better than those they currently attend. Chants of “The Mayor don’t care!” rippled through the crowd as attendees carried gravestone-shaped signs reading “R.I.P Philly Schools.” The protesters—among them Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT)—were there to demand a moratorium on school closings, which many fear will further urban blight as school building are vacated and lead to violence as different neighborhood populations are combined.

Organized by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS)—which includes the PFT, the district’s other unions, student activists, and parent and neighborhood groups—the protest is one of many demonstrations since the closure list was released. A recent community meeting in North Philadelphia, where a third of the targeted schools are located, drew 1,000 angry participants. On Martin Luther King Day, a rally was held to save West Philadelphia’s Gompers Elementary School and similar actions are planned for other schools in the city’s northern neighborhoods. These skirmishes are the latest in the long battle over education reform in Philadelphia and other urban centers, and which have only accelerated in the wake of the recession and the austerity policies adopted by many state governments. 

The beleaguered state of Philadelphia’s school system is not a new story. The city’s education system has been underfunded for decades. In a city with a poverty rate of 28.4 percent, and a large immigrant population, per pupil spending was $13,272 in 2009-2010, lower than the state average and well below the neighboring, wealthy Lower Merion school district, which spends over $26,000 (education spending is largely funded by property taxes, which systemically disadvantages lower-income districts and their higher-need student populations). Not surprisingly, the educational outcomes are terrible: In 2011, four-year graduation rates in Philly public schools were just 61 percent. State leaders in Harrisburg eagerly blame the district’s chronic deficits and poor performance on incompetent and wasteful city administration. 

Following a confrontation in which the school superintendent threatened to shut down the district because of inadequate funding, the legislature passed Act 46 in 1999, which laid the ground for a state takeover in the event of (inevitable) fiscal or academic troubles. In 2001, the School Board was replaced with a state-controlled School Reform Commission, the teachers union lost the right to strike, and charter schools expanded. Today, the reform commission, comprised of two mayoral and three gubernatorial appointees, controls public education in Philadelphia. 

But since the election of Governor Tom Corbett in 2010, things have gotten even worse. Over a billion dollars was slashed from public education statewide. The district was forced to lay off 3,700 employees, including 1,600 teachers, and close eight schools. Despite the cuts, the system still faces an estimated budget deficit of $1.1 billion. A proposal advocated by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a multi-national firm hired with private funds but embraced by the school district, recommended sweeping closures, dozens of new charter schools, and privatizing the district’s workforce to close the gap. The BCG’s proposal presents an existential threat to the PFT: If huge numbers of public schools are replaced en masse with charter schools, its membership would plummet.

The plan enraged parent, student, and community groups. At a meeting in the PFT’s headquarters, PCAPS was formed. A series of protests followed the initial meeting, including a major demonstration at the May 31 meeting where the School Reform Commission adopted its threadbare operating budget for the following year. “After that [action], we decided we really needed to develop an alternative,” says Ron Whitehorne, a retired district school teacher, an active participant in PCAPS, and a member of Occupy Philadelphia’s Labor Working Group. “The [reform commission] and their defenders in the media were characterizing us as naysayers and defenders of the status quo.” 

A little more than half a year later, PCAPS released a 40-page alternative to the BCG proposal that offers a radically different vision of public education in the city. “We are here to do something our elected officials have failed to do,” Qunisha Smith, director of community development for Action United, an advocacy group, told a room of reporters and T.V. cameras when the plan was released. “The Boston Consulting Group’s proposal is a business plan—not an education plan.”

District officials have argued that they are not bound by the BCG’s recommendations and point out that they have rejected many of the suggestions, which is true. But the December 13 school closing announcement, later endorsed by the new superintendent, show they aren’t ignoring it either. The PCAPS proposal—written after extensive canvassing, workshops, and town-hall meetings with teachers, parents and students—stands in opposition to both the BCG proposal and many of the trends that have defined education reform over the last decade. It calls for a reduction in the role of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, a temporary freeze on school closings (to allow time for more community input and a cost-benefit analysis), and a cessation of dramatic charter expansions. (PCAPS’ members stress that they are not categorically opposed to charter schools, just rapid, sweeping expansions of them.) The proposal calls for a return to local control of the school district, which the reform commission has controlled since 2001. It also argues for restoring the funds slashed by Corbett and increasing funding for Philadelphia schools to levels commensurate with the needs of a high poverty population.

PCAPS is preparing a financial analysis of its proposal, to be released most likely next month, that will outline a series of ideas for funding its vision for public education in Philadelphia. But it will require investment beyond anything available at the city level, which just raised property taxes to help plug the current budget gap. “I have read the PCAPS report and I strongly agree with all of its aspirational goals,” says Councilperson Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents the seventh district. “However, it will be all but impossible for the District to balance its books or achieve the goals laid out in the PCAPS report without restoration of the steep cuts Harrisburg has made to education funding.” 

PCAPS’ attempt to sway political opinion in Philadelphia seems to have been successful among many of the city’s delegates to the legislature and the City Council; members have expressed concern with the closure plan, including Council President Daryl Clarke, whose district covers much of North Philadelphia. “There is a disproportionate number of schools to be closed in North Philadelphia,” Clarke recently told The Philadelphia Tribune. “Realistically, the likelihood of a re-use of some of those buildings is extremely limited. They close these schools down, and they walk away.” But the reform commission is still split between members appointed by the Republican governor and by the Mayor Michael Nutter, who expressed support for the BCG proposals after they were released last spring. The state capitol in Harrisburg is completely controlled by Republicans, who have a track record of antipathy towards Philadelphia, and no desire to raise taxes for education funding. 

On January 7, the district’s new superintendent, William R. Hite, released his own plan for Philly public education. Hite accepts sweeping school closures and appears to be asking for massive givebacks from the district’s unions, but rejects a dramatic expansion of charter schools, which he argues are at a "natural saturation point." (There are currently 80 charter schools in Philadelphia.) But Hite has not embraced PCAPS’ demand that the city fight for more state aid, which would be necessary to enact its vision for a revitalized public-education system funded at levels equal to the city’s needs.

 

The Philadelphia School District’s workforce is organized under several unions, with UNITE HERE local 634 representing cafeteria workers and SEIU Local 32BJ, District 1201 representing maintenance and building workers. PFT is by far the largest, however, with 10,000 members, and most powerful. 

Like many American unions, the PFT has long been committed to service unionism—a model that chiefly focuses on enforcing contracts and protecting its own members—rather than social-movement unionism, which takes on broader political and economic issues that affect all working people. There have been previous forays into community-labor partnerships, including brief alliances during a contentious 1980s strike over funding and another in opposition to the 2001 state takeover of the school district.

But in these years of recession and austerity, the PFT’s leadership has been attempting to engage the community more intensively, as exemplified by its participation in PCAPS. “We’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with a lot of the community groups in Philadelphia,” says Jerry Jordan, president of the PFT. “[But now we are] so much more cohesive than we have been in the past. We want this to be an ongoing relationship that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will have with a number of community groups that we are involved with now. We want it to be even greater.”

But according to several teacher activists, the PFT membership’s presence at the series of rallies and protests following the school-closure announcements seemed wan—they hadn’t noticed a lot of their co-workers at the rallies. The teachers who are present certainly weren’t as noticeable as the members of the Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change, who led marches and protests at school reform commission's meetings, or the rambunctious and red-shirted members of UNITE HERE locals 634 and 274. 

Jordan says teachers have been attending, often straight from work (hence the lack of union garb), and that they have been particularly noticeable at the rallies around neighborhood school closings. “They are wearing what they wore to teach that day,” Jordan says. “But believe me, it does not mean there is a lack of interest in what is happening in the school system.”

“PFT is further behind than I’d like them to be but they are making efforts I didn’t see them do a year ago,” says Timothy Boyle, a PFT member in his sixth year with the district and a longtime activist. “They’ve made a real effort with their staffers and tried to get their younger members an opportunity to give feedback and meet and do some of that networking, and where in the past it had seemed very much like a union for the older members, people who were established.”

The union has begun holding happy hours across the city for its younger members, which Jordan periodically attends, to give them a space to get to know each other outside of school, bond, and discuss their work, their union, and their challenges. Such attempts at cohesion will be particularly important as the PFT’s current contract with the district ends in 2013. The PFT’s contract negotiations later this year will undoubtedly be compared to last summer’s Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) eight day strike, which also played out in an austerity-focused environment amid discussion of school closings. The Chicago teachers used the strike to raise issues far beyond members’ wages and benefits, actively embracing the social unionism model and winning demands that ranged from textbooks for students on opening day to new physical education and arts positions. 

The CTU’s militant position came as a result of Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) insurgency rallied grassroots teacher leadership and wrested control of the union from the moribund service-oriented leadership. The closest equivalent in Philadelphia is the Teacher Action Group (TAG), which has no electoral ambitions as of now. The teachers interviewed at the protests and through TAG generally feel that the PFT’s leadership is moving in the right direction, but that the union needs to focus more on organizing and engaging with rank-and-file members. (The national American Federation of Teachers, which PFT is a member of, has sent an organizer to Philadelphia to bolster the union’s community outreach.)

“I think they just don’t have the mechanism right now to be organizing, having not done that for the last ten years; it’s hard to instantaneously shift momentum,” says Anissa Weinraub, a TAG leader who has worked for the school district for seven years and has been laid off twice and transferred twice. “It’s still more of a hierarchical service-oriented union. When teachers talk about ‘the union’ they are not necessarily referring themselves but to the elected leadership or the staffers. Something I learned from Chicago is that the rank-and-file teachers have to start understanding ourselves as leaders from the grassroots.”

A series of fiery rallies and community meetings have met Superintendent Hite’s campaign to convince the public of the closure plan. So far it is the parents and students of the threatened neighborhoods who have caught the most press attention, although Jordan and a variety of PFT members and staff have participated in the effort as well. "I don't know who made these decisions, but they couldn't have been people who know these neighborhoods," Jordan told a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter last week. On January 24, the City Council approved a resolution suggesting the one-year moratorium on school closings, which was a key demand in PCAPS’ proposal. But it is the School Reform Commission that will have the final say. After a series of hearings on the proposed school closing in February, the reform commission will make a final decision on March 7. 

Whatever the outcome, the closure decision will not be the last battle in the struggle over Philadelphia public schools. “This is a now or never fight we are in,” says Hiram Rivera, executive director of Philadelphia Student Union, and veteran of school reform battles in New York City. “The CTU proved that it can be done and that the community will support the teachers. Parents and students would be more willing to support teachers if teachers showed that they were more willing to support them.”

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