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.
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.”