After 16 Years of Activism, Philadelphia Is Reclaiming Its Public Schools

Sixteen years ago, based on financial straits that they say the district was in, they said that the state having state control of the schools would make the schools better, but it actually didn't. And when they took it over, that is when we began to see the decline in education levels. Sixteen years ago, a school district in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, said that due to financial straits, the state would take over the school district. When they took it over, a decline in education levels began. (Photo: Pixabay)

We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 88th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with A.K. Klagsbrun and A.L. Little of 215 People’s Alliance, a multi-racial collaborative dedicated to fighting for equity and justice in Philadelphia. They discuss how their city is taking back control of public education.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talking on Thursday, and the news today is that Philadelphia is taking back control of its public schools. First off, tell us about the news breaking today. What is going on?

A.K. Klagsbrun: We just came from city hall, where Mayor Jim Kenney, who was elected on a pro-education platform, just announced that he will be calling on the School Reform Commission (SRC), which is the 16-year-long body that has ruled Philadelphia schools as part of a state takeover, to abolish itself and therefore claim the Philadelphia schools for local control. This is 16 years in the making, since the beginning of the SRC. Our coalition has been calling for this to happen, so we are pretty excited to see it happen this year. It is going to happen on November 16.

A.L. Little: This is a great moment, but it is not just a great moment for the people who were part of this process. This is a great moment for the children of Philadelphia — the students of Philadelphia who have been affected by this failed experiment that last 16 years. Now they have an opportunity to actually receive the same education as their counterparts in many suburban districts. Hopefully, we will be able to see a changeover from the rule of the SRC to now local control here in Philadelphia.

Talk about what it has meant to have Philadelphia schools controlled by the state, because I think a lot of people aren’t familiar with the situation.

Little: One of the things I think the SRC should have fought for more diligently is a fair funding formula for our Philadelphia districts. When you talk about the funding that comes to Philadelphia and the funding that comes to the suburban districts, it is like night and day. The funding that is given to the suburban district, it is so much more than the funding which students get here in Philadelphia. It makes it pretty much impossible for the teachers to be able to educate our children the way they need to be educated. Now, hopefully with local control we can begin to fight and see a difference and a change in the funding and the way that our children receive monies from the state and from the federal government.

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of when and how Philadelphia schools got taken over by the state?

Little: Sixteen years ago, based on financial straits that they say the district was in, they said that the state having state control of the schools would make the schools better, but it actually didn’t. And when they took it over, that is when we began to see the decline in education levels. We began to see a rise in charter education, where more charter schools were awarded the opportunity to open schools here in Philadelphia. Not all over the state, but primarily here in Philadelphia. They were allowed to open up schools all over Philadelphia.

Then, you began to see schools closing, slowly but surely. More public schools were being closed and more charters were being opened. Then, from there, it was about six years ago when they decided that they wanted to close like 60-something schools in Philadelphia. That is what really got the masses involved, where they said, “No, we can’t tolerate this. We are not going to tolerate this.” Then, the biggest piece of this was all of these school closures were in the Black and Brown communities.

Tell us about the years of fighting for this. How did your organizing get started? What are some of the things you guys have done over the years to really change this?

Little: Our City Our Schools coalition started about a year ago, under the 215 People’s Alliance umbrella. We started this fight a year ago because we knew that our children here in Philadelphia deserved more, so we decided to take on the challenge of getting rid of the SRC either through self-dissolvement or through whatever method needed to be done to get it done. We took on the fight.

It was a hard fight because we had to go out and organize communities, we had to have tons and tons of meetings with the powers that be, the stakeholders that are in place, and we had to sit down and have conversations with them and give them our vision of what the fight would take and what we would have to do in order to win the fight and be able to move forward and to regain local control.

Now, for myself, I got involved with the school situation when they decided to close 64 schools. One of the schools that they were deciding to close was my old alma mater T.M. Peirce Elementary School, but it was also the school that my children attended. And not just my children, but many children in that school and from that neighborhood would be forced to walk almost over 10 blocks just to get to the next school that they were talking about sending these children to. So, I got involved to say, “Hold up. No, we can’t do this.”

We went out and we organized the community, sat [in] at different SRC meetings, testified, meeting after meeting, challenging about having to walk this distance that some of these children would have to walk through. T.M. Peirce was one of the schools that was saved, but unfortunately, many of the other ones weren’t able to be saved. But again, they were only in the Black and Brown communities.

I actually lived in Philadelphia for a little while, and I remember [former Philadelphia Mayor] Michael Nutter running on a campaign with ads with his daughter saying, “My dad is the only one with a child in Philadelphia Public Schools.” I wonder if you could talk about the need for a change in the mayor’s office for this to come about, as well.

Little: I mean, to be honest — Mayor Nutter, in his campaign, he said, “I am the only person who has a child in public schools,” but he didn’t do enough either to help our schools because they were failing under his administration. He didn’t run on an education platform as Mayor Kenney did, and we really appreciate the work that the mayor’s office did to get this done.

But going back, under the Nutter administration, he ran with his daughter saying, “I have a child…” but he did absolutely nothing to help the schools. He didn’t go out there and go to Harrisburg and make continuous arguments as to why we need local control. He didn’t do any of those things. So, just the mere fact of getting up there saying, “I have a child that attends public schools…” Yeah, you attend public schools, but what else are you going to do? And he did nothing.

You got to this point after quite a lot of organizing. Are there any particular events or campaigns or any things that you guys did over the last year or the last seven years that stick out in your mind?

Klagsbrun: The Our City Our Schools coalition formed a year ago, really seeing a political opportunity where there was a pathway to abolish the School Reform Commission and win back local control by getting three of the five SRC commissioners to vote to abolish themselves. We saw an opening where there was going to be three open spots over the course of a couple of months. In the short time period where we had Mayor Kenney as our mayor — a mayor who ran on a pro-education platform — and Gov. Tom Wolf as a governor who also ran on a pro-education platform, we thought, “Let’s pressure them to put three people in place who will be in place to vote this thing out of existence.”

We launched last fall. We did a whole ton of meetings with city council members. We invited SRC commissioners out to hear from the public. There was a moment where they had to confirm that they were going to come, and then less than 24 hours before, cancelled their attendance at a public forum.

Then, we consistently packed the School Reform Commission meetings for probably the last six months, escalating the tension at each one. Then were getting ready to move a strategy within city council, as well. That is when our conversation changed in tone with the mayor’s office and it became clear that they were going to move forward on this vote to abolish the SRC.

We are really excited about it, but this was a really hard fight over the past year and really grew on 15 years of people organizing against the SRC and highlighting the myriad of issues that have come with it.

What happens now?

Klagsbrun: The actual vote is November 16. We are going to have a rally at 4 pm on November 16 outside of the school district building. We are going to walk down to vote together and then have a victory party. Then, the real work that we set out is making sure that the next school board is a true people’s school board.

Our coalition has put forward three main criteria. One: that we need the true stakeholders of Philadelphia schools — the parents, teachers, the school staff, the students — to play a huge role on this next board.

Two: that this board has to end the conflict of interests that plagued the SRC. No one that is on there or their families should be profiting off of Philadelphia School children’s education.

Three: that this needs to be a fighting school board. We know that our work isn’t done for true racial and economic justice in the schools, and we need a school board that is going to take on. … A school board that is going to fight for local corporations like Comcast to pay their fair share to our schools. And we need a school board that really sees itself as pushing forward an education justice movement in the city as opposed to being a barrier to it.

You mentioned conflicts of interest. Has that been a particular thing on the School Reform Commission?

Little: Mrs. [Farah] Jimenez is one of the commissioners on the SRC who has a stand when it comes to charters being yay or nay-ed when it comes to being up for approval. So that is definitely a conflict of interest. Then we have one of the former commissioners, Sylvia Simms, who is now a lobbyist, too.

These are the types of conflicts of interest that we have to get away from, because at the end of the day, our children’s education is not for sale. Our children’s education means more. Because it is not about us, it is about my 6 year old, my 7 year old, my 9 year old and my 17 year old. It is about them, because they are the future. These are the children, and every other child here in city of Philadelphia who is trying to get a good quality education so they can be productive adults in this society.

What else should people know about the fight for Philadelphia’s public schools?

Klagsbrun: We are going to keep going!

Little: You took the words right out of my mouth. They should know that we are here to stay and we are here to put on a fight for anything that pertains to education on the public front for the children of Philadelphia. That is what the people need to know. And we need more people to get involved.

How can people keep up with you and how can they get involved?

Klagsbrun: The 215 People’s Alliance website is at Then, we are also on Facebook and all the social media things. Our City Our Schools coalition website is, which is a coalition of over 15 community, state, labor unions, parents, teachers and student groups that have come together around this first successful phase in abolishing the SRC and, of course, more democratic control of our schools.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.