Layoffs and School Closures in Philadelphia

Below we preview our Action Education column from our Summer issue, about the massive school closings in Philadelphia. Helen Gym, a Rethinking Schools editor, is a parent and long-time activist in Philadelphia who has been one of the leaders of the movement to save public schools. On June 7, after the magazine went to press, the district announced a staggering layoff of 3,783 employees. This will only further devastate the public schools in Philadelphia and fuel the fires of privatization and corporate education reform. We’ve included some resources and links at the end of this post to help you stay up-to-date with the fight to save public schools in Philadelphia–and across the country.

School Closures Rock Philadelphia

by Helen Gym

HelenGymThis spring, the School District of Philadelphia vot­ed to close down 24 schools, about one in 10 pub­lic schools, affecting nearly 10,000 students across the district. The vote followed months of protest and community opposition, and was backed by Demo­cratic party leadership in the city, primarily Mayor Michael Nutter—co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors—and by newly sprouted nonprofit organizations focused on school “transformation” models.

The district’s push to close schools, in classic “shock doctrine” style, is playing out in the context of Philly’s third massive fiscal crisis and its 12th year under state receivership. A late spring school budget stripped Philly schools of all non-legally mandated personnel, resulting in zero secretaries, assistant principals, counsel­ors, librarians, and classroom assistants. Also zeroed out were all sports, extracur­ricular and gifted programs, and book and supplies money. Summer negotia­tions over teachers’ contracts are under­way, with the district demanding more than $131 million in givebacks and elimi­nating most teacher protection.

Philadelphia’s school closings plan is a massive disinvestment, not only in public education, but also in vulnerable communities. Swaths of Philadelphia are now “education deserts” where no public neighborhood school option exists. Nine of the 24 schools closed are high schools, disrupting young people during their most critical years toward graduation. Parents have raised concerns that the school closings are the tipping point of a disinvestment spiral that threatens every school in every neighborhood of the city.

Philadelphia’s plan follows patterns well documented in other cities where mass school closures have occurred:

  • Role of Private Philanthropy: A local foundation solicited millions of dollars from private donors to contract directly with a private outfit, the Boston Consulting Group, to develop a mutually agreed upon plan to restructure Phila­delphia schools. Two parent groups and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP have filed a complaint with the city ethics board that the foundation, its private do­nors, and the Boston Consulting Group engaged in lobbying rather than philan­thropy. The foundation’s head suddenly resigned after receiving preliminary no­tice of the intent to file the ethics com­plaint.
  • Concurrent mass charter expansion: Philadelphia’s school closures were accompanied by mass charter school expansion, a specified “contract deliv­erable” in the agreement between the Boston Consulting Group and its private donors. The same year it closed 24 public schools, the district expanded charters by more than 5,000 seats and closed only one of 26 charters up for renewal. Char­ters with school performance index fig­ures that ranked them among the worst in the district received five-year renewals and expansions. Charter expansion is es­timated to add more than $139 million to the district’s costs over a five-year period.
  • No achievement gains: Local re­searchers found that there was no sig­nificant difference in academic quality between closing schools and receiving schools. More than 80 percent of the dis­located students will transfer to a school no better than the one they currently at­tend, according to Research for Action. Moreover, the district’s unprecedented cuts to local school budgets—25 percent across the board—make already fragile receiving schools even more vulnerable amidst a massive effort to merge student populations.
  • Disparate impact: School closures overwhelmingly targeted low-income black neighborhoods. Although the dis­trict has a 55 percent African American student population, schools targeted for closure were more than 80 percent Af­rican American. Philadelphia’s Action United was among a group of organiza­tions across the country that signed onto a civil rights complaint with the U.S. De­partment of Education around disparate racial impact of school closures. The De­partment of Education has said it will in­vestigate. In addition, many of the schools targeted for closure had high percent­ages of special needs students. One clos­ing high school had a 30 percent special ed population and was merging with a school with a 33 percent special ed popu­lation. The district average is 14 percent.
  • Fast-tracked process: The district suspended the traditional process for closing schools and instead put schools on an accelerated timeline, limiting time and opportunities for public discussion and debate. One elementary school, M. H. Stanton, had fewer than 60 days notice between the announcement of its closure and the formal vote to close the school. Stanton was the subject of a 1994 Oscar-winning documentary, I Am a Promise, about its success in serving a low-income, predominantly black community.
  • Questionable monetary savings: District officials have not disclosed a full account of transition costs and other ex­penses associated with closing schools. A 2012 Pew study of six school districts found that school officials frequently overestimate cost savings. In early May, Chicago officials admitted they may have overestimated savings from school closures by at least $122 million. Wash­ington, D.C., reported that 23 school closings had not only failed to reap any savings, but also had actually cost the district nearly $40 million in expenses.

Although these elements have a familiar ring, the opposition to school closings in Philadelphia has generated encouraging signs. A large communi­ty-labor coalition formed with signifi­cant support and engagement from the American Federation of Teachers. This group, the Philadelphia Coalition Ad­vocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), organized town halls and has focused on a “community schools” vision. Student walkouts and rallies have started to take center stage. A broad coalition of com­munity advocates highlighted the in­consistency of mass school closures with mass charter expansion. As a result, the district announced no charter expan­sions for the following year. And a strong protest movement from parents and communities across the city seems likely to result in some level of increased fund­ing for schools.

In addition, Philadelphia has ben­efited from a vibrant, independent edu­cation media, including the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a citywide edu­cation newspaper, and the Media Mobi­lizing Project, which has created videos and other storytelling vehicles to docu­ment the resistance.

In this critical moment, school clo­sures in Philadelphia should not be seen simply as an end in itself but as a means to an end that has yet to be determined. Where the final endpoint lies will be de­cided in the struggle between grassroots community activists and the moneyed and political interests seemingly bent on dismantling public education across the country.

Additional readings and resources:

  • Teacher Action Group-Philadelphia has launched a “Faces of the Layoffs” site where people can view why we need to fight to restore these positions.
  • Parents United for Public Education (of which Helen Gym is a co-founder) issued this statement: “This is not a school.”
  • Media Mobilizing Project has posted a video about the national pushback against corporate ed reform.

Is education activism important to you? We feature stories about communities fighting for public schools in every issue of our magazine. Subscribe today.

6 thoughts on “Layoffs and School Closures in Philadelphia

  1. On behalf of teachers, parents and communities around the nation, thank you for your activism and advocacy on behalf of the students we serve.

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