Major Education Victory in Philadelphia as Parents, Teachers and Activists Reclaim Control of Schools

We look at a major education victory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where parents, teachers and activists mounted a successful campaign to reclaim control of their local public school system after then-Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker declared it financially distressed in 2001. Under the plan, dozens of Philadelphia public schools closed, and the city saw a spike in charter schools. Community groups responded by forming a coalition to pressure Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney to return control over the School District to local voters. Last month, Mayor Kenney heeded organizers’ demands and called for the dissolution of the commission. This came as the city also elected civil rights attorney Larry Krasner as district attorney, who campaigned in part on ending the school-to-prison pipeline. We speak with Helen Gym, a longtime community activist and now a Philadelphia city councilmember, and Kendra Brooks of the “Our City, Our Schools” coalition as well as Parents United. She is the parent of two children who attend Philadelphia district schools.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today by looking at a major education victory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where parents, teachers and activists mounted a successful campaign to reclaim control of their local public school system.

Last summer, organizers decided to challenge the School Reform Commission, a five-person, state-backed body implemented in 2001 by then-Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker after he declared the city’s education system financially distressed. Under the commission, dozens of Philadelphia public schools closed, and the city saw a spike in charter schools.

Community groups responded by forming a coalition called Our City Our Schools to pressure Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney to return control over the School District to local voters. Last month, Philadelphia Mayor Kenney heeded organizers’ demands and called for the dissolution of the commission. This is Kenney addressing the Philadelphia City Council.

MAYOR JIM KENNEY: If we do not have quality schools in every neighborhood, the people who have helped to reverse the city’s decades of population loss will not stay. The children whose families cannot afford to leave will be unprepared to compete in the 21st century economy. Businesses will not come to Philadelphia, and those that are here won’t have the local talent pool to grow. The city’s poverty and crime rates will remain stagnant, or they will worsen.

So, today, after nearly two years of careful consideration and research, 98 school visits and conversations with 158 principals and countless parents, teachers and business leaders, I’m officially calling on the members of the School Reform Commission to vote to dissolve at their next scheduled meeting.

AMY GOODMAN: So, with the end of the School Reform Commission, Philadelphia School District returns to city control after 16 years of state management.

For more, we go to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where we’re joined by two guests: Helen Gym, longtime community activist, now Philadelphia city councilmember, who helped lead the fight to take back the schools, and Kendra Brooks, part of the Our City Our Schools coalition as well as Parents United, has been organizing in her North Philadelphia neighborhood for a decade. She’s the parent of two children who attend Philadelphia district schools.

Let’s begin with City Councilmember Helen Gym. Talk about why you got involved with this struggle and its national significance now that Philadelphia public schools are back in the hands of Philadelphians.

COUNCILMEMBER HELEN GYM: Sure. First of all, good morning, Amy and Juan. It’s really great to join you here. And this is a really great moment for Philadelphia and for education observers all across the country.

Sixteen years ago, the city of Philadelphia was probably the largest city to be taken over by the state of Pennsylvania. At the time, it was sold to us as a massive effort to privatize whole chunks of the city school system, to turn it over to one for-profit entity in particular, Edison Schools Incorporated, which no longer exists, as the school manager, and, you know, to become what would eventually be a 16-year experiment on black, brown and immigrant children, that was not guided by education research, that included things like high-stakes testing, mass school closings, reckless charter expansion and the like.

And in response, over the 16 years, the thing that became the most encouraging aspect of Philadelphia’s fight back was that all of us pulled together, parents in particular. I was a new mom at the time and was sending a child into kindergarten, became very active. I was a former public school teacher. And we were very active. Community members came together, educators, parents came together, to push back against an agenda that was not fundamentally centering the needs of young people, that was promoting ideas that were not backed by research and were hurting far too many children, especially children of color, in Philadelphia, and that we needed to chart a different path. And the way to do that was to form a broad-based coalition amongst folks and to use all of our resources to invest in one another and to invest into a big fight. And that was mirrored nationally. And 16 years later, we stand together. And we watched the state takeover go down. And we will build a new people representative school board out of it. And we’ll keep fighting.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Kendra Brooks, could you talk about what the state control has meant to the public schools, your direct experience with your children over the failure of state management of your schools?

KENDRA BROOKS: I think, for me — once again, thank you for this opportunity.

I, through this process — so I — earlier they mentioned that I have two children that are currently in public school, but I have four children. My oldest is actually 27, and my youngest is nine. So I’ve been through this process from the beginning, educating children in this public school system and understanding what this takeover meant, when we began to see the loss of resources, the loss of teachers, the increase of class sizes. Our local public school went from a K-to-5 to a K-to-8, and we still lost 27 teachers. Those are the things that directly affected me and my community, when I think about what this takeover, state takeover, meant to schools here in Philadelphia.

At the time, I was only concerned about my public school, you know, the one that was relevant to me and my children. But as I began asking around and connecting with organizations and began doing more advocacy work, I realized that it was affecting schools throughout North and Northwest Philadelphia, and throughout the city, as well, and it wasn’t beneficial. So, a part of it was that the state was supposed to come help turn around the financial situation of the school, and we still continued to see schools starving of resources, teachers, nurses. Building conditions are poor. Resources for children with special needs, resources to help immigrant families — all those things continually to be depleted under this state takeover. So I don’t understand what the purpose of the experiment was, when it really didn’t work. And it really didn’t benefit the children in Philadelphia at all, in any kind of way.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how were you able to build a grassroots movement that eventually pressured the mayor and the state to return to local control?

KENDRA BROOKS: As you begin to talk to families in communities, like going to school communities, talking to parents in the schoolyard, begin talking about the loss in education, from what their expense was in education to the children’s experience in education, and start sharing facts about actually what’s happening in schools around the city, and allowing parents to understand it’s not just your school, that this is a citywide effort and we all need to get involved, people are willing to stand up and fight for their schools, for other schools, for schools in their communities, and connect with other parents around the city to make sure that we have a quality education system for all kids, because we should be able to move around the city, and you shouldn’t go — every neighborhood school should be a quality neighborhood school. And I think once we began having that conversation with parents and really showing them what’s missing, I think a lot of times parents not inside the building don’t realize that there wasn’t a nurse or that there wasn’t a counselor, until you need it. So, if you don’t need it, you don’t know it’s not there. So, once we started saying that this is happening district-wide, like all schools are suffering and we need you to join in the fight, a lot of parents was like, “I’m willing.”

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Gym, this is a big day after election — that’s Alabama election. But there were major significant results out of November election, Larry Krasner becoming the district attorney. And I was wondering if you can talk — you were just recently at an event speaking about education not incarceration — how this take back of the Philadelphia schools fits in to this picture?

COUNCILMEMBER HELEN GYM: You know, one of the best things about the pushback around the public education, you know, the state takeover of public education, the privatization of public education, is that eventually, over a period of time, because so many of us were coming together from different places — we were unifying around a broad-based movement around our public schools — we were really talking about our children, our neighborhoods, our families and the city. So, it became much bigger than an education fight. It actually became very much a unifying force that pulled together grassroots activists that were involved with youth justice work, that had been involved with the criminal justice system, that were looking at questions about politics and integrity, that were educators, of course, but were fundamentally engaged with a lot of deep-seated, deep-rooted issues in our city, including immigrants, sanctuary cities, the fight for — you know, the pushback against cutting efforts at anti-poverty programs. So, all of these forces came together and became this really broad-based movement.

In particular, the education movement and the criminal justice movement so closely align together, because so many of our young people are involved in dysfunctional systems. So, we’ve got one out of five high school students who are either involved in the criminal justice or DHS, our Department of Human Services, and that requires us to think very differently. So when we’re talking about our public schools, and if people come in and give us solutions that only talk about increasing test scores or cutting away extraneous services, like counselors and nurses or after-school programs or support services, because they’re not focused in on the basics that would allow them to better pass, you know, a test score that’s crafted out of Princeton Review or out of K12 or one of these other types of multinational companies, then parents are going to push back. We’re going to talk about the realities of what our young people live with, are living with today. We’re going to talk about the reality of access to services and support services in our city that make a huge difference in changing young people’s lives. So this, fundamentally, became much bigger than an education movement —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Helen —

COUNCILMEMBER HELEN GYM: — and aligned very closely with — yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Helen Gym, we just have about 30 seconds, but I wanted to ask you, in terms of the impact — there’s a Senate bill in Pennsylvania that would make the use of private vouchers and charters — and the growth of charter schools even greater. Could you talk about that and your efforts on that?

COUNCILMEMBER HELEN GYM: Sure. The voucher issue has come up multiple times in Pennsylvania. It’s been also defeated multiple times. But the difference that we’ve got right now is that the movement in Philadelphia is spread across the state. The movement that took down the state takeover also took down a sitting governor in 2014. It took on the politics of moneyed ed reformers in 2015 municipal race. And we’re following closely to make it clear that education is a political issue for us. It’s going to be involving Kendra, myself. This is not just an isolated political fight in Harrisburg. This is speaking directly to communities all across the state of Pennsylvania. And those legislators who want to —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

COUNCILMEMBER HELEN GYM: — try to pretend that — you know, that vouchers are going to solve the day are going to find out that it’s a losing battle.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Helen Gym, Philadelphia city councilmember, and Kendra Brooks, with Parents United and Our Cities Our Schools.