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.