When Philadelphia public schoolchildren return to their classrooms on September 9, 2013, there will be fewer schools, fewer educators and fewer opportunities because of mass school closings and what amounts to financial starvation.
It all started late in 2012, when the Philadelphia School District (PSD) revealed it would be shutting dozens of schools to fill in a $304 million budget gap.
By April, the School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to close 23 neighborhood schools, 10 percent of the city’s total, despite widespread outrage from parents, teachers and students.
In June, the SRC approved massive budget cuts that stripped Philadelphia schools to their bare essentials, eliminating clubs, athletics, art, music and most other extracurriculars. The following month, PSD sent layoff notices to 3,783 employees – including 676 teachers, 283 counselors, 127 assistant principals, 1,202 noontime aides and 307 secretaries – leaving the district severely understaffed at a critical moment.
There will be no aides to help manage larger class sizes and no support staff to supervise lunchrooms and playgrounds. For already-crowded schools receiving students from shuttered buildings, the chaos will be exacerbated.
With less than two weeks until zero hour, there is growing concern that the eighth-largest district in the country is woefully unprepared to open its doors.
An Undemocratic Process
Philadelphia residents have been rallying against school closings and mass layoffs for years, but their voices are routinely ignored – largely because the decision-making structure is accountable to no one.
Since 2001, PSD has been governed by the School Reform Commission (SRC), made up of five members. Three are appointed by the governor, two by the mayor. Before that, Philadelphia schools were headed by a school board selected by the mayor from a pool of individuals nominated by a civic panel, also appointed by the mayor. In other words, residents of Philadelphia have never really had a say in how their schools are run.
School districts across America depend on federal, state and local funding to function. According to the Education Law Center’s School Funding Report, Pennsylvania school districts receive an average of 35.8 percent of funds from the state, compared with a nationwide average of 43.5 percent, making Pennsylvania one of the ten lowest contributors of state education funding in the nation. This has forced Pennsylvania’s school districts to rely on local property taxes to make up the difference, leaving the poorest districts, like Philadelphia, at a severe disadvantage.
For years, the city has had to beg the state for scraps to keep its schools functioning, but this year’s cuts to everything from art, sports and music to counselors, nurses and secretaries has turned schools into skeletons of their former selves.
The situation is so dire that education policy expert Diane Ravitch and President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten wrote a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan begging him to intervene.
“Due to draconian budget cuts, the public schools of Philadelphia are being starved to the point where they can no longer function for the city’s children,” they wrote. “We believe your direct and public intervention is required to ensure the existence of educational opportunity in that city.”
PSD Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has requested $180 million of emergency aid – $120 million from the state, $60 million from the city – as well as a 10 percent pay cut for teachers, among other concessions. He warned that absent at least $50 million from the city, schools would lack the necessary staffing to open on time, prompting Philadelphia Mayor Vincent Nutter to borrow $50 in general obligation bonds. But teachers and principals say it’s not nearly enough.
Marjorie Neff, principal at J.R. Masterman, the highest-rated high school in Pennsylvania, told NewsWorks that the money will allow the school to hire back one counselor, one assistant principal and one more secretary. But she says one counselor for 1,200 students is “not a functional level.”
Daniel Lazar, the principal of Philadelphia’s Greenfield Elementary School, resorted to a letter campaign asking parents to donate $613-per-student to plug a $355,000 budget hole.
The state of Pennsylvania, currently under the control of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and a GOP-dominated Legislature, offered to throw in a paltry $45 million, but only on the condition that the district get teachers to agree to $133 million of salary cutbacks and health-care concessions. This comes as no surprise to the people of Philadelphia, given Corbett’s outspoken disdain for public education and teachers’ unions.
After all, one of his first acts upon entering office in 2011, was to cut $1 billion from public education, one-third of which targeted the Philadelphia School District. He has since continued to slash school dollars while simultaneously giving away an estimated $3 billion annually in corporate tax breaks, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PBPC).
Department of Education press secretary Timothy Eller disputed the PBPC findings.
“PBPC’s claim is based on false information,” he told Truthout in a written statement. “Since taking office, Governor Corbett has increased state funding to all Pennsylvania public schools by more than $1.17 billion. In addition, since Governor Corbett took office, the amount of state dollars supporting Philadelphia School District has increased $164.4 million (14 percent).”
“To correct PBPC’s assertion, in 2011, the federal government cut more than $1.1 billion from Pennsylvania’s public schools with Philadelphia losing nearly $195 million in federal funds,” Eller said. “Governor Corbett has increased state funding to public schools.”
There is some truth to Eller’s argument, but as Isaiah Thompson at Axis Philly points out, it doesn’t entirely hold up upon closer examination.
In 2009 and 2010, under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, state education spending decreased only because it was supplemented by a temporary infusion of federal stimulus money as part of Washington’s attempt to alleviate massive state budget deficits. That funding ran out in 2011, forcing Corbett to increase the state’s contribution to education. However, that increase was far below the amount needed to replace the federal stimulus.
An analysis by the Public Law Center of Philadelphia showed that Corbett’s cuts to state funding were far from evenly distributed:
“Recent PDE data reveal that the low-income students on average lost 50 percent more in state funding than higher income students: $615 in spending reductions compared to $401. The disparity in cuts based on race is even more dramatic. Caucasian students lost on average only $366 per student while non-white students lost on average $728 per student, twice the amount of funding cut from the average Caucasian student. Although the restoration of $39 million to distressed school districts last year helped minority and low income students, the impact of the disproportionate cuts continues. The remaining cuts, for example, are still 188 percent greater for minority than white students.”
The racial disparities in school closings are even more striking.
Although Philadelphia’s black students make up 58 percent of the district’s overall student population, they account for 81 percent of those affected by school closings. In stark contrast, just 4 percent of those affected are white children, although they account for 14 percent of all students. Furthermore, low-income students make up 81 percent of PSD students, but 93 percent of those affected.
Closing Schools, Building Prisons
Meanwhile, Corbett and Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel are spending $400 million to build a prison complex in Philadelphia, making it the second-most-expensive facility ever constructed by the state.
They say the prison will replace the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, which originally was built to house Philadelphia prisoners, who make up 25 percent of Pennsylvania’s prison population despite the city’s accounting for just one-eighth of the state’s population.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “When finished in 2015, the new cell blocks, classrooms, and support space, surrounded by twin 40-foot fences and a LEED-certified earth berm, will replace the old prison and its reinforced-concrete walls as home to 4,000 offenders, including 700 serving life sentences.”
That comes out to over 800 more beds than the prison it’s replacing, leading to accusations that the state is preparing for an increase in the prison population. Moreover, The Associated Press reports that Graterford “will be mothballed rather than demolished so that it could be used again in the future.” As Decarcerate PA notes, if the past is any indication, there’s a good chance Graterford will remain a prison after the new one is built:
In 2003, the DOC built a new prison in Fayette County to “replace” SCI Pittsburgh. The DOC claimed that the Pittsburgh prison needed to be shut down because it was too old and decrepit to fix. But in 2007, the DOC reopened SCI Pittsburgh to address overcrowding. Now SCI Pittsburgh – embroiled in lawsuits alleging rampant sexual and physical abuse of prisoners – and SCI Fayette are both filled to capacity. In a recent Daily News article, DOC press spokesperson Sue McNaughton admitted that the existing Graterford will be used to relieve temporary overcrowding in the prison system.
This is just one of several myths debunked by Decarcerate PA as part of a grass-roots campaign to stop Pennsylvania from pouring more than $600 million into prison expansion at a time when schools are shutting down because of budget shortfalls.
Gomian Konneh is a 17-year-old rising senior at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration, a magnet school ranked as Pennsylvania’s number-one high school by U.S. News and World Report.
She expressed frustration over the state’s construction of a new and expensive Philadelphia prison. “Philly is largely African-American and Hispanic. We’re minorities,” she told Truthout. “They expect us not to make much of ourselves. It’s the biggest slap in the face.”
As a member of the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), Konneh has met several students whose neighborhood schools will be closed in the fall. “There’s this misconception that neighborhood school students are less scholarly or academic. But these kids are just as smart as any of us. The fact is that they get less support than we do,” she told Truthout.
“If we put more priority into education and gave an incentive for these children to try and be successful,” Konneh said, “then we wouldn’t need to build $400 million prisons.”
Anxiety, Outrage and Fear
“It’s impossible to call an institution a school when it has no guidance counselors, no aides, no secretaries, no assistant principals, no support staff whatsoever and reduces schools essentially to what’s legally required by law.” Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education (PUFPE), told Truthout.
Gym has two Philadelphia public schoolchildren whose lives are being affected by the cuts. “My daughter loves sports. This year she loses her guidance counselor, potentially her music teacher, her cross-country coach and her dean. She’s aware of the enormous impact this is going to have on her.”
Gym added that parents are worried about the potential dangers of Philadelphia’s new reality. “Next year the biggest question on everybody’s mind is going to be, ‘Is my child safe being in that school building?’ It doesn’t matter if you’re at a persistently dangerous school or a wonderful school, you’ve got hundreds of children and too few adults,” she said.
WalkSafePHL, a program of volunteers, is devoted to ensuring safe passage of students on their route to and from school. But that hasn’t eased concerns about potential threats during the school day at a time when support staff and school safety workers have been all but eliminated.
Philadelphia police are particularly worried about potential violence that may result from sending displaced students to rival high schools. Most students from Germantown High School, which closed in June, will be attending their former rival, Martin Luther King High School. The two schools have a tense history marked by rival gang and neighborhood affiliations that could spill into the schoolyard.
Rabiyatu Jalloh, a 17-year-old rising senior at Northeast High School, loves being president of the Muslim Student Organization and captain of the lacrosse team, both of which may not exist this year. “I worked so hard to be captain of that team,” she told me.
“The high schools that they’re closing, our grandparents went there,” Jalloh said. “They’re closing down pieces of history.”
She also worries about even larger class sizes. “When I was a freshman, one class had almost 40 students. One time my friend had 60 people in one homeroom. Sometimes there wouldn’t be a chair to sit in; you would have to sit in the back of the class.”
Most of all, Jalloh is concerned about her friends. “Northeast is not like Central, not everybody that goes here wants to go to college,” she said. Jalloh was accepted into a competitive program called Philadelphia Futures that helps rising seniors apply to college, so she isn’t concerned about herself. But for her friends who might want to go to college, she said that without a counselor, it will be impossible to navigate the application process.
Other students who spoke with Truthout expressed similar sentiments. “I’m going to need a counselor to help me with college,” said Sharron Snyder, a rising senior at Benjamin Franklin High School, adding, “We don’t know how to apply for financial aid.”
Larissa Pahomov, an English teacher at Science Leadership Academy and a member of Teacher Action Group Philadelphia (TAGP), is worried about how her students will fare without counselors.
“Counselors are the first people we go to for preserving the social and emotional health of our students,” she told Truthout. “Schools cannot function without them.”
At the end of the school year, Pahomov says students were “anxious” about the layoffs, budget cuts and closures. “They rely on adults in the building for stability. It’s difficult for us to reassure them that, yes, when you come back, everything will be the same,” she said.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Pahomov’s students have had to deal with cuts. “In the last few years, we’ve already lost a science teacher; we have no librarian, and the nurse is only here two days a week, down from three. We used to talk about figuring out a way to bring back the librarian. We don’t have the luxury of having that conversation anymore because we’re worried about bringing back counselors.”
“Planned and Purposeful”
PSD’s economic straits are not new and have been part of a process of defunding public education since the state took over more than a decade ago. Yet both state and city leaders consistently point to PSD’s ongoing deficit as proof that the public school system is a failure to justify defunding it even further, creating a never-ending cycle.
“Very little of it has anything to do with educating children in the classroom. This is an extremely radical effort to dismantle public education,” PUFPE’s Gym said. “They’re using disaster capitalism and crisis management to do it. This is planned and purposeful.”
“A highly moneyed group of private individuals are doing everything in their power to unmake public education in this city, and they’re using the backdrop of financial crisis to do it,” Gym said.
Christopher Randolph, a graduate of Philadelphia’s Northeast High School, went even further in a scathing op-ed at NewsWorks, calling the dismantling of the PSD at the hands of liberals and conservatives a racist and “systematic murder of Philadelphia’s public schools and the destruction of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.”
There is no doubt that elites are profiting from the destruction of public education in Philadelphia.According to a report by Research for Action, a nonpartisan Philadelphia-based educational research and policy organization, Philadelphia public schools saw an 18 percent drop in student enrollment from 2005 to 2012. In the same period, charter school attendance jumped from 12 percent to 23 percent, nearly a quarter of the district’s public schoolchildren.
Much of that is the result of charter school and privatization profiteers being allowed to craft education policy.
In February 2012, the School Reform Commission hired the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) – described by the City Paper as “a major global-business consultancy and school ‘right-sizing’ mastermind” – to help the district come up with a cost-cutting plan to overhaul the its education budget. The BCG contract, which totaled $2.7 million, was paid for with private donations solicited by the William Penn Foundation. Media investigations have since revealed that large donation sums came from the highly influential pro-charter school and pro-voucher Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP).
The “Blueprint for Transformation,” released two months later, called for shutting 60 public schools and massive charter school expansion.
An investigation by the City Paper uncovered a campaign coordinated by William Penn, the SRC and PSP to sell the BCG Blueprint to a skeptical public. Furthermore, the Notebook reported that William Penn spent $160,000 hiring two communications firms to promote the Blueprint. When public education advocates filed an ethics complaint against William Penn, the foundation suspended all of its funding to city agencies until the complaint was resolved.
Won’t Back Down
Parents, teachers and students are well aware that they’re fighting against a well-financed undemocratic privatization machine, but they refuse to be deterred.
Konneh even managed to find a silver lining. “I’m glad that this is opening our eyes to injustices and making us question our government. It’s a learning experience,” she told Truthout.
Snyder says the reason behind failing schools is obvious, “We already don’t have a lot, and they keep taking from us.”
But, she added, “Public schools deserve better. That’s why I’m going to keep fighting until we win.”
And Jalloh offered a pointed warning to the adults behind the closings and budget cuts. “We’re the ones that are going to be running the country when they’re old. This is going to come back to bite them in the butt,” she said.