This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
It’s been over a year since Philadelphia’s schools set out on a radically new course, with a state takeover followed by a move to turn over dozens of schools to outside managers. Around the country and around the world people are watching this Philadelphia experiment because it represents a new level of corporate and private involvement in public education. Federal education legislation may push more school systems in this direction.
Some see this as a hopeful experiment, but one year into it, it looks to us like another one of those experiments politicians would only perform on other people’s children. If their own children attended the schools involved, officials would have chosen reform strategies that have more of a track record. They would also have paid attention to getting feedback from those who will be directly affected.
However, we live in a time when many politicians are hostile to the poor and are eager to brand urban public schools a failure, so they can justify abandoning the nation’s stated commitment to create schools systems providing quality public education for all.
But — you may ask — didn’t the state have to step in on behalf of Philadelphia children to insure that they get a decent education? Certainly something needed to be done.
Yes, but the state could have stepped in first to correct its decades-old failure to provide adequate education funding for the less wealthy parts of the state like Philadelphia. The bailout provided by the state was significant, but still not sufficient to reduce class sizes, to attract top-notch teachers and principals, to purchase state-of-the-art materials and develop relevant curriculum, and to train teachers in their use.
And the former administration in Harrisburg insisted that much of the new money go to pay extra to private firms for their school management role. (As a result, we have an experiment where some schools have more money to work with than others.)
When the School Reform Commission (SRC) stepped in to run Philadelphia’s schools, the first order of business should have been listening to communities about what changes they wanted for their schools and creating processes for involvement.
Instead the SRC looked only at test scores to decide which schools should be taken over, and then paired education managers and schools through an arbitrary process, without inviting community input.
Protests against the takeover by thousands of Philadelphians did not go unnoticed. Their three-part message was straightforward and sensible:
- parents, teachers, and students deserve a voice in what happens to their schools;
- our schools deserve adequate funding; and
- children don’t deserve to have private, for-profit companies forced upon their schools just to suit a political agenda.
The protests resulted in a decision to give schools to a diverse group of providers and reduced Edison’s role in the school reform plans. They showed how passionately Philadelphia students, parents, and staff feel about their schools. And they have helped to pave the way for new Governor Rendell to make increased state funding for schools the focus of his first months in office.
But one message that still has not gotten through to District leaders is that Philadelphians are tired of having decisions made about their schools without consulting those directly affected. This year the process for deciding on whether outside managers would have their contracts renewed was not one in which the SRC ever invited the public to participate. The criteria for evaluating how the EMOs are doing have not been made clear to the public.
With donations flowing from EMOs to local elected officials, what does seem clear is that this is a political decision, in which EMOs are making sure they have someone politically powerful watching out for their interests.
It has not been an inclusive process. In April we saw the SRC vote to turn over four schools to private managers just minutes after these plans were announced. As an afterthought, the SRC added a provision that the decisions were conditional, based on the outcome of public meetings for community input.
A more positive example of how to involve the public was the recent process for considering the District’s plans for closing four schools. Plans were announced and schools notified in December, but CEO Vallas led a months-long process of meetings and discussion in the communities, and a decision was not made until April. Protests in support of E.M. Stanton were so impressive they managed to persuade Vallas to keep it open.
We need a sea change in how the takeover is being managed. The SRC and Vallas need to be consistent and aggressive about involving the stakeholders in discussions of plans before decisions are made. Both the data and the standards they are using to guide their decisions must be made public.
Let’s create a process that meets all the criteria public officials would insist on if critical decisions were being made about the future of their children’s schools.