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Privatizing Public Education in Philadelphia?

Dear Deborah,

Philadelphia is about to take a fateful step. Thomas Knudsen, the recently retired chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Gas Works and now temporary CEO of the school system, has released a plan that will lead to the dismantling of public education in Philadelphia. The plan, or "blueprint," was written by a business strategy organization called Boston Consulting; it recommends the closing of 40 of the city's 249 schools in the coming year, with additional school closings in the years to come. The goal is to have a school district where the central district is phased out and a large portion of the students are enrolled in privately managed charter schools.

The most comprehensive (and alarming) account of the disestablishment of public education in Philadelphia is Daniel Denvir's article "Who's Killing Philly Public Schools?" As Denvir concludes, "If Knudsen's proposal goes through, the country's eighth-largest school district, in its fifth-largest city, will no longer exist in any meaningful sense. And neither will any remaining pretense that America offers everyone, regardless of race or class, an equal shot."

As Denvir reminds his readers, the public schools have been under state control since 2001, and privatization is not a new idea. For the past decade, the Philadelphia schools have been managed by a five-member School Reform Commission, with three members appointed by the governor and two by the Philadelphia mayor. In 2002, the reform commission hired Paul Vallas, the former superintendent in Chicago, to run the school system. Vallas launched a dramatic experiment in privatization, handing schools over to for-profit organizations, nonprofits, charters, and universities. One of designers of the privatization experiment was Edison Schools, which took over several public schools in Philadelphia, as well as the school system in Chester-Upland (also under state control).

In Philadelphia, the district schools competed with charter schools and other privately managed schools that had a contract with the city. RAND Corp. studied the privatization experiment in Philadelphia and concluded that neither the charters nor the privately contracted schools were getting better results than the district schools. By 2009, it was clear that the privatization experiment had failed. Meanwhile, Paul Vallas left for New Orleans, where he was able to work with a blank slate in a district where public education had been wiped out by a hurricane.

The bottom line, which neither the reform commission nor the mayor nor the governor wants to confront, is that Philadelphia's public schools have never been adequately funded by the state. Pennsylvania relies on property taxes, and poor cities have less money to spend on education than wealthy suburbs. Philadelphia parents and students have protested against privatization, but their protests have fallen on closed ears. Helen Gym, the Philadelphia leader of Parents Across America has been a vocal protest leader.

I happened to be in Philadelphia on the day after Boston Consulting's "Blueprint" was released, and I talked with reporters. They told me that the Philadelphia plan was based on New York City's "achievement networks." I must say I was stumped because I couldn't find anyone in New York City who could say for sure what these so-called achievement networks are or what they do. Everyone had a different idea of what Philadelphia was trying to copy. I asked if the School Reform Commission intended to double its spending on its schools, as New York City had done, and the reporters were taken aback: "Of course not, this is supposed to be a budget-cutting plan." I pointed out to them that New York City's school budget had gone from $12.5 billion in 2002 to about $24 billion today. They didn't know that.

I also noted that New York City's phenomenal state test scores had collapsed in 2010, when the New York state education department acknowledged that the state scores were wildly inflated. And New York City had seen some gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but not so much as other cities. So why was New York City a model? No one knew.

But this is the puzzle: Philadelphia is a city that ran a bold experiment in privatization that failed. A number of charters in Philadelphia are under investigation for corruption. Philadelphia had five years of the services of the nation's leading turnaround superintendent, Paul Vallas, and it remains in deep trouble. Philadelphia has had state control of its public schools for a full decade. Now the leaders of the city think that public education is the problem.

One of the local journalists explained the problem succinctly. He said, "The kids of Philadelphia are mostly poor and black. The people in the state capitol don't want to take responsibility for those kids. They cost too much."

Mr. Knudsen was asked how his plan would address the deficit, the layoffs, and the lack of adequate resources. He replied, "The things that other networks do in other parts of the country is that these networks attract resources." Ah, that's the answer. With enough privatization, wealthy donors will make contributions. The noble rich can be counted on to take care of the deserving poor.

I can't help being reminded of the origins of urban education in cities like Philadelphia and New York City. The earliest schools for children of the poor were charity schools supported in part by public taxes, but subsidized by the benevolent rich and managed by private boards of trustees. It seems we are now going full circle to recreate the charity schools of the early 19th century.

As we abandon public schools, we abandon any sense of public responsibility for a basic public service. That's worse than a mistake. It's a tragedy. What will be privatized next? Police protection? Fire protection? Clean air? Potable water?

Diane

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