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From the archives: Coalition forms to fight takeover

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook was launched in 1994 as a newspaper committed to ensuring quality and equity in Philadelphia public schools. We celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first publication this spring. We are featuring an article from our archives each week, shedding light on both the dramatic changes that have taken place in public education and the persistent issues facing Philadelphia’s school system.

This piece is from the Fall 2001 print edition:

by Paul Socolar

The award of a $2.7 million contract to the for-profit company Edison Schools Inc. to conduct a study of Philadelphia schools for the governor has galvanized community protests against a possible takeover of schools by Edison Schools or the state.

Edison was hired by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to prepare a report offering proposals for how to deal with the School District’s financial and academic crisis. With its foot now well in the door in Philadelphia, the company, which manages schools across the country, has expressed an active interest in taking over management of some or all of the School District.

In response, a multiracial coalition of 30 organizations has formed to oppose privatization of Philadelphia schools and to call instead for a focus on increasing funding to support improvement in public education.

The group, calling itself Philadelphians United to Support Public Schools, is organizing against plans to hire Edison to manage some portion of the School District. The growing coalition includes a wide array of groups, among them Asian Americans United, ASPIRA, the Black Radical Congress, Home and School Council, the League of Women Voters, Parents United for Better Schools, and Youth United for Change.

At a September 20 press conference announcing the formation of the coalition, the consistent message was "More funding, not Edison." Speakers highlighted concerns about the company’s track record in other cities and spoke against privatization and for-profit management of public schools.

Several weeks earlier, Edison’s arrival in Philadelphia was greeted by a raucous protest at the site of their temporary offices on North Broad Street, organized by the parent organizing group Alliance Organizing Project and the community organization ACORN.

ACORN, a national organization, played a significant role in community opposition to Edison in New York City last spring, where parents at five public schools overwhelmingly voted down a mayoral plan to have Edison run these schools.

In New York, parents had an opportunity to vote contracts with Edison up or down . But in Philadelphia, coalition members are expressing alarm that the deals and decisions may all be made outside of the public eye, by the governor and possibly the mayor.

Criticizing the governor’s deal hiring Edison, parent Wendell Harris of the Parents Union for Public Schools said, "We don’t know what else they’ve agreed to behind closed doors. We’re moving toward an end to any public accountability for how our kids will be educated."

Coalition members backed a resolution by City Councilman Michael Nutter, passed by City Council, to put a referendum on the Philadelphia ballot in November to give the public a chance to vote on proposals to privatize. Mayor Street did not sign it, blocking the referendum.

Coalition members have a range of specific concerns about the involvement of Edison Schools in Philadelphia.

"We know they have been kicked out of many other cities because they were too expensive, didn’t help the students, and just kicked out the students they didn’t want," commented Day Augustine of the Philadelphia Student Union, a student at West Philadelphia High School. "We will not accept that in Philly."

Edison claims that it has been able to achieve "hefty increases" in test scores at most of the schools it manages.

Augustine maintained that Governor Ridge’s invitation to Edison to do business in Philadelphia was a bailout for the company, which has never turned a profit.

"Edison acts like they’re coming in to save us, but in fact it’s us who are saving them. Edison is in worse financial shape than our schools," Augustine said. "They want to take over more of our schools so they can finally make a profit."

Edison reported losses of $38.1 million in fiscal 2001. Beset by a series of controversies, Edison saw its stock price decline to below $15 a share in late September, having lost more than half its value this calendar year.

Dr. Karin C. Bivins of the NAACP’s Philadelphia Branch raised a concern that turning over portions of the School District to Edison could lead to a resegregation of the schools. Predicting that an Edison takeover of schools would not extend to predominantly white schools in Northeast Philadelphia, Bivins said "The NAACP sees the takeover as a plan to segregate the African American, Latino and Asian public school students into ‘separate but unequal ‘ facilities." Bivins said the NAACP would consider legal action to prevent such resegregation.

Another focus of the coalition groups has been on urging that the Mayor and Board of Education immediately reactivate their racial discrimination lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The suit aims to rectify funding disparities on federal civil rights grounds.

"Our Latino children live in some of the poorest neighborhoods and attend some of the poorest schools," said Raymond Alvarez, chair of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. ”We believe there is clearly a racial disparity in the way the state provides funding to our children."

"We are convinced that Edison Schools or privatization is not the answer to the school system’s woes," Alvarez added. ”What we need is the state to provide funding; anything else is political subterfuge."

Not all education and community organizations are lining up in opposition to Edison, however. Some have remained neutral, and some are collaborating with Edison, including the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition and the Philadelphia Chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO). These two groups teamed up with Edison to co-sponsor a series of town meetings in September. At the forums, Edison executives introduced themselves as being in Philadelphia to do a study for Governor Ridge and then invited public comments from an open microphone.

Ernest Jones, director of the Philadelphia Workforce Development Council and co-chair of the BAEO, said his organization was trying to assist Edison in getting public feedback for their study. The Black Alliance is a new national organization whose mission is to "support parental choice to increase educational options." BAEO says it seeks members who are supporters of "educational options" including charter schools, government-financed school vouchers, and home schooling.

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