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.

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Shock Doctrine Comes to Philly Schools

by Jody Sokolower

Philadelphia teachers and parents—and educators throughout the country—were horrified a few weeks ago when Thomas Knudsen, the School District of Philadelphia’s chief recovery officer, unveiled a five-year plan to close 64 schools (25 percent of the system), move 40 percent of students into charters, slash the central office to 20 percent of its former capacity, and divide the rest of the district into “achievement networks” run by third-party operators.

Mayor Michael Nutter said the district faced near “collapse” and that the plan was something Philadelphians needed to “grow up and deal with.” Can you believe that city officials later admitted that the charters and achievement networks wouldn’t actually save the district any money?

We are proud that one of the voices of sanity and resistance came from Helen Gym, a Rethinking Schools editorial associate and longtime parent activist in Philly. We are reposting her open letter to Knudsen here—not only because it analyzes so articulately what is happening and what is at stake in Philly—but also because Philly is not alone. Similar “saving the district from collapse” scenarios have already played out or are in progress in cities as widespread as New Orleans, Detroit, and Chicago.

Commentary: You’re not speaking to me, Mr. Knudsen

by Helen Gym

I am the mother of three children in District and charter schools in this city. I have been actively involved in stopping good schools from decline and helping low-performing, violent schools turn around. I believe in the essential role that a high-quality public school system plays and have fought for that vision. My 7th grade son will soon have outlasted four superintendencies, including yours. And I’m here to tell you that you’re not speaking to me.

You’re not speaking to me with this brand of disaster capitalism that tries to shock a besieged public with unproven, untested, and drastic action couched as “solutions.” You’re not speaking to me when you invoke language like “achievement networks,” “portfolio management,” and “rightsizing” our schools – and say not a word about lower class sizes or increasing the presence of loving support personnel or enriching our curriculum.

You’re not speaking to me when you plan to close 25 percent of our schools before my son graduates high school. You’re not speaking to me when you equate closing down 64 schools – many of them community anchors – as “streamlining operations,” yet you’ll expand charter populations willy-nilly despite a national study showing two-thirds of Philly charters are no better or worse than District-managed schools.

You’re not talking to me when your promises of autonomy come minus any resources, and when the best you have to offer parents is “seat expansion” – which just means larger class sizes without extra funds.

You’re not talking to me when you say all schools are public schools. They are not.

You’re not talking to me when you’ll go out of your way to spend $1.4 million for six-week consultants with whom you’ll boast of an “intimate, hand-in-glove” relationship, yet exclude community and public voices till you’re ready to drop the bomb.

You’re not speaking to me when you’ll go to any extreme to radically transform “education delivery,” yet the most basic things parents and staff and students have called for – more teachers in our schools, bilingual counselors, nurses, art and music, librarians, fresh food in the cafeteria, new buildings, and playgrounds – are completely and utterly absent from your “plan.”

In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been around the block a few times.

We’ve seen how promises of an 85 percent proficiency rate fall flat when all they’re based on is rhetoric and no concrete plan on how to achieve it; James Nevels’ School Reform Commission tried that. Contracts will do that? Sorry, we’ve been around that block, too. Ask yourself where the 2002 purported savior of Philly and Chester education, Edison Schools Inc., is today. Ask the Truebright Science Academy parents how it felt when their five-year contract didn’t work out, or the Martin Luther King High School community — after 10 years of Foundations Inc., they ended up with a school arguably worse off than when it started.

We’ve seen how privatization and charters have done little to radically impact systemic achievement and improve education. There are some great charters out there, but no more than there are great public schools.

We’re tired of the ridiculous labeling of schools as high-performing and low-performing. The label mentality assumes schools are in permanent stasis rather than in varying stages of evolution and devolution highly dependent on resources and institutional priority. By simply expanding high-performing seat capacity and closing down low-performing schools, you fail to understand or even seek to understand the very elements that make a level of performance possible. You don’t understand schools, you don’t understand success and failure, and you don’t understand how change happens.

I believe in something.

I actually believe in the value of institutions, despite having been burned by them plenty of times. I believe that professional educators can do a better job than the majority of the hucksters and hustlers and ideologues scoring off of public education’s demise.

I believe in the possibility of school transformation and the role that community and parent voices play in concert with schools and districts. I believe in the value of the public sphere and the responsibilities it owes to the most marginalized of communities — our immigrant students, special needs populations, and young people struggling with disciplinary issues.

I believe in choice options that co-exist to supplement, not destroy, a public school system. I believe in real, creative innovation in our classrooms, not the “drill-and-kill” test prep replicated in too many of these “high-performing” charters you tout. I believe in a vision of schools that is aspirationally led rather than deficit-based. Your focus on the bottom brings everyone down.

I believe our communities have always been there to pick up the pieces after administrations of hubris pass on. And I believe our public schools are worth fighting for.

Mr. Knudsen, these are the things that speak to me. So if you’re not speaking to me, who are you speaking to?

Helen’s letter was originally published at The Notebook: An Independent Voice for Parents, Educators, and Friends of Philadelphia’s Public Schools.

Related Resources

Rethinking School Reform offers a primer on a broad range of pressing issues, including school vouchers and funding, multiculturalism, standards and testing, teacher unions, bilingual education, and federal education policy.

Keeping the Promise? the debate over charter schools examines the charter school movement’s founding visions, on-the-ground realities, and untapped potential-within the context of an unswerving commitment to democratic, equitable public schools.