The Struggle for Philly's Schools

Issue: 

The Struggle for Philly's Schools

At a rally organized by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers last thursday, May 30, students stand alongside their teachers, defiant and strong, to protest the closing of 23 more of Philadelphia's public schools and the gutting of school services. Photo by: Iris Kirsch.
At a rally organized by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers last thursday, May 30, students stand alongside their teachers, defiant and strong, to protest the closing of 23 more of Philadelphia's public schools and the gutting of school services. Photo by: Iris Kirsch.

Last month, hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians, mostly high school students, took to the streets to protest the closing of twenty-three schools and the discontinuation of vital programs such as athletic and arts activities, nurses and mental health counselors, and school libraries. These rallies were not random acts of adolescent rebellion, but protests with clear demands, carefully coordinated by youth organizers in the city of brotherly love.

I attended a rally organized by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers at the headquarters of the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) last week during the last round of public testimony before the official decision was made about shuttering these schools.  There, I met many incredible activist teachers and students, fighting hard for the schools they believe in. But I also met people like Nicole Kershaw, not frequently an activist, who was there not only as a teacher but also as a parent, and who, after a harrowing charter school experience, believes strongly in public schools.

After over a decade teaching elementary school in the SDP, Ms. Kershaw was acutely aware of how children develop. So when her first son grew far enough out of early childhood for attention deficit to be a reasonable diagnosis, she recognized the signs. Attempting to do the best for her child, Kershaw enrolled young DeVante in a private school. “They didn’t know what to do with him,” she told me over the din of disenfranchised people at the rally speaking truth to power.

By the time DeVante was in third grade, Kershaw had pulled her son out of the private school and put him back into an SDP elementary. “He was tested, they figured him out. He had great teachers, great public school teachers.” He was challenged and supported in good measure, and by the end of eighth grade he felt confident enough to want to go to Boys Latin Philadelphia Charter School, a rigorous, all-boys college prep school which has been touted as one of the more successful charter schools.

Kershaw was very up-front about DeVante’s abilities, and was assured that support would be provided for him.

However, in early November, Kershaw got called to the office at her job to take a phone call. On the line was none other than the school’s CEO, David Hardy, who is, according to the school’s website, “a nationally recognized authority on charter school education and school facility financing.” In an email Ms. Kershaw sent the school, she explains that he had called

“to complain and alert me that Boys' Latin was not a good fit for DeVante. During that time in November, Mr. Hardy stated that Boys' Latin is a college preparatory school. Mr. Hardy commented that DeVante should have been placed into a vocational school, then asked what my neighborhood school is, trying to coax me into taking DeVante out of Boys' Latin. Mr. Hardy went on insulting me by asking how did DeVante get through his previous school and also said that Boys' Latin has one curriculum and no one is going to “water down” the curriculum. Mr. Hardy went on to say the students can either do the work or they can't.”

Ms. Kershaw goes on to explain that his tone was so rude that it attracted the attention of the secretary of the school where she teaches, who asked, “who was Mr. Hardy and why was he speaking to me in that manner?”

A week after this initial phone call, the school “tested” DeVante again to determine his needs. Despite the fact that DeVante was failing most of his classes, his teachers reported that his behavior and ability were not impeding his academic progress. Devante had been working with a literacy specialist outside of school who had recently determined that his reading level was around 5th grade. However, the school’s tests put his reading level at 8th grade. According to their tests, they said, DeVante no longer needed the level of special education placement he had been receiving. Had this been allowed to stand, it would have removed the school from some of their legal responsibility to educate every child, regardless of ability, as per the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).

Another parent might have opted to avoid conflict, might have felt sufficiently shamed and taken her child out of the school. In fact, there is mounting data that proves special ed students are underrepresented in charter schools. Since it is illegal for schools receiving public funds to refuse to accept students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), it may be the case that many parents do fall victim to this type of pressure, and somewhat voluntarily remove their children from the charter schools.

Fortunately, as a public school teacher, Ms. Kershaw was well aware of the responsibilities of the school, though it took her several months to find anyone who would back her up. She called the charter network and the SDP office that oversees charter operations. They told her many times that they could not force the school to retest her son and implement the proper IEP.

Finally, after almost a month of trying different offices, Ms. Kershaw found support from Walter Howard, Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Liaison for Special Education in Charter Schools. He expressed frustration at what he saw as a systemic problem, and encouraged Ms. Kershaw not to let the school off the hook. However, this put Ms. Kershaw and DeVante in a very vulnerable position. Now, instead of being seen as a concerned parent, Kershaw was being treated as an adversary of the school.

DeVante’s story is not an isolated incident. In study after study, Charter schools have not proven to outperform public schools. So why is Philadelphia closing so many of the public schools that serve their poorest students and spending more money operating charter schools?

Philadelphia’s Long road to Charters

If you haven’t heard about what’s going on in Philly, you’re not alone. The mainstream media outside of southeastern Pennsylvania has been largely silent on the issue. Considering that it is the eighth-largest school district in the country, and less than 100 miles from Baltimore, it struck me as odd that we weren’t hearing more about the crisis there.[1]

Of course, there are plenty of reasons we’re not hearing this important story, including the fact that charter operators are the beneficiaries of failing public schools. Every time a public school is closed, there is a high likelihood that it will be replaced by a charter school. And since large philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation provide most of the funds for charter schools, they are working hard to control the narrative surrounding them. But the specifics of what happened in Philadelphia is also a convoluted and confusing tale to tell.

To begin at the beginning would take us back to the 90s, when then-superintendent David Hornbeck attempted to push through a merit-pay contract, amongst other anti-teacher reforms. Hornbeck’s most important contribution to the SDP came when he threatened to let the schools fall into chaos if the state of Pennsylvania didn’t increase school funding. They didn’t. They took over the city’s schools instead.

For the last twelve years, SDP has been run by the School Reform Commision (SRC), a five member board with three members appointed by the Governor of Pennsylvania and two appointed by the Mayor of Philadelphia. Their initial plan was to turn over control of the entire School District of Philadelphia to Edison Schools, Inc., a for-profit company formed in 1992. However, the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) worked side by side with their teachers’ union to organize against Edison and was able to curtail that somewhat, one side effect of which was sending their stock plummeting from a high of $38 a share to a low of fourteen cents.

By the end of the last decade, the city was in considerably better financial position, thanks in part to an infusion of funds won when organizing groups pressured then-Governor Ed Rendell to change the formula for funding the city's schools. This change came at the same time as the federal stimulus money Obama sent out during his first year in office. However, according to Nijimie Dzurinko, who was President of PSU at the time, this was spent on Charter schools and testing contracts, and it took a few years before this money started hemorrhaging, and the budget fell out of balance fast and hard.

Arlene Ackerman, then Superintendent of schools, enacted Renaissance 2014, a plan to replace low-performing schools with charter schools. At that point, in 2009, there was already a lot of data about the ineffectiveness of charter schools, but though the PSU and other groups fought valiantly against it, “people didn’t listen because the money was there,” said Dzurinko.

Some of the money used came directly from the Gates Foundation, who both paid to create the Great Schools Compact, a plan to increase the presence of charter schools in the city, and funded carrying out the plan they had paid to create.

“Now that the money has dried up,” explains Dzurinko, “the charterization has largely happened.” This, then, is the route of the city’s nearly $300 million dollar budget shortfall: a large percentage of the city’s education funds are tied up in Charter schools, which generally spend more per student than their public counterparts. And it’s not all even going to educate children. The day I was in Philly, their city paper ran an article which chronicles an alarming amount of waste and mismanagement.

Iris Kirsch

Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.