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.”

Philly Parent Activist: How Portfolio School Reform Is Destroying the School District

Last week this blog reviewed the concept of “portfolio school reform” as it is being practiced in Chicago, New York City, and Newark.  It is a theory promoted actively by the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, which posts a map of the school districts identified formally as its network of portfolio school districts.

Last week’s post on this blog did not cover one school district prominent on the Center’s map, a district where controversy over portfolio school reform is roiling—Philadelphia.  The controversy spilled over this month into a panel discussion at the American Educational Research Association (AERA), which was holding its annual meeting in Philadelphia.  Local activists involved in the portfolio school reform debate had been invited to be part of AERA’s panel.

Last Friday in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss featured a guest column by Helen Gym, a Philadelphia parent activist who was part of that panel at AERA.  Gym describes portfolio school reform as it was defined on the panel by Mark Gleason, the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), Philadelphia’s primary cheerleader and fund raiser for portfolio school reform.

Gleason’s definition is blunt, honest, and very clear: “So that’s what portfolio is fundamentally…. you keep dumping the losers, and over time you create a higher bar for what we expect of our schools.”

Dumping the losers!   Here is Gym’s description of the response at the AERA conference: “The audience of researchers, according to attendees I spoke with, expressed visible dissent  A group confronted Gleason afterword about everything from the ‘losers’ framework to his dismissal of funding as a major source of the district’s struggles.  The crude phrasing even made Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite recoil, and Hite quickly distanced himself from Gleason’s remarks.  But no matter how uncomfortable Hite and others felt about Gleason’s words, they aptly characterize the portfolio model mentality.”

Gym continues by describing what she, a parent of children in the School District of Philadelphia, sees as the reality today in Philadelphia: “Since the 2001 state takeover, the portfolio model approach has had us pursuing all manner of negligent schemes from for-profit EMOs (education management organizations) to unfettered charter expansion and online cyber schools.  In the last few years—fueled in part by ‘philanthropic’ venture capitalists like PSP—this reckless experimentation has increased dramatically, with enormous consequences for district-managed public schools.  Since 2011, the district has closed down 30 public schools and seen its charter population increase by 50 percent.  Today, Philadelphia’s charter population (86 schools and 67,00-plus students) makes up 35 percent of the total student body at a cost of $700 million annually—and there’s no end in sight.”

Philadelphia’s imposition of portfolio school reform has been compounded by a financial crisis, covered in this blog, due to drastic funding cuts from the state of Pennsylvania.  While Gym does not detail the state funding cuts that have, along with the move to charterize, catastrophically undermined Philadelphia’s traditional public schools, she does accurately describe the consequences: huge classes, 100 split-grade classes in elementary school, closing school libraries, making nurses responsible for serving several schools, and slashing 4,220 district staff, many of them teachers and counselors.

Questioning Gleason’s definition of portfolio school reform, “dumping the losers,” Gym wonders, “Are our school being set up to look like ‘losers’?”  I urge you to read Gym’s column because it does such a good job of connecting the dots.

School Reform Information Controlled by Funders and Think Tanks? What about the Public’s Right to Know?

In Philadelphia, the state-appointed School Reform Commission got the William Penn Foundation, a philanthropy, to pay the Boston Consulting Group, a contractor, to design the “portfolio school reform plan” that recommended closing public schools and opening charter schools.

Twenty-four public schools were eventually closed last spring.  For the public, it has been hard to parse out which part of Philadelphia’s ongoing school catastrophe derives from Governor Corbett’s slashing $1 billion from the state’s public education budget and what part comes from an ideological, “portfolio” Philadelphia school reform plan that promotes privatization.  (For more on the crisis in the Philadelphia schools this year, check out the three part series earlier this week from National Public Radio, here, here and here.)

This morning in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss republishes a piece by Helen Gym, a parent activist in Philadelphia.  Gym writes about the struggles members of the public have experienced as they try to secure access to the list of 60 public schools the Boston Consulting Group recommended for closure.  Gym speculates that these days, while information may be available to the philanthropies funding reform plans and the consultants and contractors designing the plans and other big givers who are trying to influence school reform, the public cannot get access to the information that is shaping public institutions.

Gym writes: “The closing of 24 schools in Philadelphia remains the single most important issue of the year. The closings affected more than 9,000 students and transformed school communities. They also had an impact on political and real estate dealings, with tens of millions of dollars at stake. Last week, city leaders guaranteed a $61 million swap to fast-track real estate deals for shuttered school buildings. News reports indicate that several, mostly unnamed, buyers have shown interest in sweeping up all the properties for a single sum — in one case, an offer of $100 million.  Given the stakes, it is absolutely the public’s right to know what’s in the documents presented to the District.”