Distrust of School “Reform” Surfaces in Tuesday’s Election

Tuesday’s election brought some positive reversals in support of public schools in places where, at the local level, “corporatized school reform” has, until now, been making headway.

Most notable is the election of Jim Kenney as the new mayor of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Helen Gym, a dogged public school advocate to the city council.  Neither of these people will have direct control over the public schools, which are managed today by a School Reform Commission (SRC) of the state of Pennsylvania and a superintendent who reports to the SRC.  But their voices will add support for the dogged effort of Pennsylvania’s new governor, Tom Wolf, who is locked in a battle for adequate and equitably distributed school funding with the anti-tax state legislature.  A budget that is months’ overdue has created a cash-flow crisis for all state-funded entities, including school districts across the state.  On Monday,  the School District of Philadelphia was forced to borrow $250 million  just to stay open.

For several years now with support from Mayor Michael Nutter and Superintendent William Hite, the School Reform Commission has been implementing a “Portfolio School Plan” originally designed by the Boston Consulting Group.  Kenney’s philosophy of education is a sharp and refreshing contrast. The Philadelphia Public School Notebook reports: “Kenney has promised to work toward universal preschool and has thrown his support behind community schools (that wrap community services into school buildings) as the primary reform strategy for the District.  That is a departure from Mayor Nutter’s approach.  Throughout his administration Nutter supported the strategy that relied heavily on closing low-performing schools and expanding charters with the goal of having “a great school” in every neighborhood.”  This is the language of the pro-privatization, Center on Reinventing Public Education, which actively promotes school choice and the expansion of charters as the centerpiece of urban education policy.  It is becoming increasingly apparent in Philadelphia that, with the school population flat and rapid growth of charter schools that draw money and students from traditional public schools, the expansion of charters is undermining the school district’s capacity to serve the most vulnerable children.

The other huge reversal in Tuesday’s election was in the school board election in a Denver area suburban school district, Jefferson County, Colorado, where three libertarian members of the school board were soundly defeated in a parent-led referendum to recall them.  Here is Lyndsey Layton’s description for the Washington Post: “In a striking upset, voters in suburban Denver on Tuesday recalled three conservative members of a school board who had worked to weaken the local teachers union while boosting funding for charter schools and pushing through other market-driven policy changes for public schools.  By a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent, voters opted to replace Julie Williams, Ken Witt and John Newkirk, who had been elected in 2013 to form a majority power bloc on the five-member Jefferson County school board.  About 40 percent of registered voters turned out… Both sides saw the contentious election as a stand-in for a larger national debate about public education.  Spending on the race was estimated to top $1 million, with the recall targets getting help from a libertarian think tank and Americans for Prosperity, the political organization created by the Koch Brothers, while the challengers received backing from teachers unions.”  These are the school board members who demanded changes in the Advanced Placement program’s U.S. History curriculum last fall because, they said, it failed to promote patriotism.  Unable to work with a five-member school board dominated by the now-ousted members, the school district’s superintendent had resigned.

Nearby, in Douglas County, Colorado, voters are also reported to have defeated three school board members who had promoted school vouchers.

John Aguilar and Yesenia Robles comment on these two school districts’ education-related election results in the Denver Post: “After years of discontent from teachers and parents, voters this year rejected conservative board members who were elected in years when less attention was paid to school board politics. In their years in control, conservative board members tied teacher pay to new evaluations, which many don’t yet trust, advocated for more conservative spending and in turn strained relations with unions in both districts.”

2 thoughts on “Distrust of School “Reform” Surfaces in Tuesday’s Election

  1. In Colorado where the conservatives took a whippin’, they’re licking their wounds by saying this was a battle between teachers’ unions and school reformers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The citizens of Jefferson and Douglas Counties have become informed by groups of hard-working citizens as to the real goals of these so-called reformers–turn the children over to free-market enterprise. The results of these elections refuel my hope that public education may be down but it’s not out. Thanks to these grass-roots parents and citizens in support of public schools, and thanks to people like you, Diane Ravitch, and others who have helped inform this nation of the dangers privatizing our educational system will be to our children and our future.

  2. It’s interesting that Helen Gym won despite Jim Kenney & a lack of the Inquirer endorsement. She won with the endorsement(s) of almost every teacher union known, anyway. She got the greatest plurality of votes to lead all seven (7) “at large” candidates by a decisive margin. Now her focus must be to keep public schools in the political consciousness & not get lost in council needs or activities otherwise. Universal Pre-K and anti-poverty as ONLY being solved by a strong education for all were the issues that sold this election. Of the 10 largest U.S. Cities, Philadelphia leads all in its poverty rate/problem, especially as it is the strongest factor affecting student progress & retention. Philadelphia also has the worst “deep poverty” rate as well, which translates to almost zero parental participation in a child’s school needs like homework help & support {parental undereducation is the factor here]. With over 5,000 teachers/support staff having been fired in the recent past, just having a teacher in an overcrowded classroom with increased class size has been a factor thus far, and an outside firm that promised to have 75% of substitutes in classrooms has failed miserably at a 25% level, at best. Gov. Tom Wolf cannot deliver funding without GOP legislative support, so where in Mayor Kinney’s money going to come from for “universal Pre-K?” His understanding, nevertheless, that you MUST start even earlier for children from deep-poverty deficient homes is correct, but how far will he have to compromise given the push-pull of other needs of the city & government? Surely it will take not only this first term but a second as well to have success with his ideas and their implementation.
    This still seems like a breath of fresh air: money cannot be allowed to be its ruination!

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