Volume 81 No. 11 December 2002
A Philadelphia Story
Philadelphia school teachers, students and parents
lead the fight against handing over the city’s public schools to a failing corporation.
By the Philadelphia School Workers Club
The Republican right has been working overtime in Philadelphia to raid public coffers and eliminate unions. The people have been working just as hard to stop them. The battleground has been public education, one of the last institutions we can hold on to in this era of corporate-sponsored privatization.
Privatization has focused mainly on schools with majority African American and Latino students. The National Center for Education Statistics show that the 100 largest school districts enroll more than 40 percent of the nation’s minority students. In 19 districts more than half the students are African Americans and in six districts the majority were Latino. Nearly 80 percent of those enrolled in the Philadelphia school district are students of color.
Poor performance on standardized tests was the excuse given for the privatization bid. However, the right used deliberate underfunding of Philadelphia’s public schools to engineer a financial crisis, which in turn generated an educational crisis. These twin crises reached their peak as test scores dropped and schools deteriorated. Teachers came to their wit’s end as parents and students scrambled to find better schools.
®Conservatives offered a quick-fix solution, proposing to turn the schools over to a private company to eliminate “waste” and “bureaucracy” that they said caused the crisis.
The stage for a fight was set in the early 1990s when a long-standing desegregation suit came under review by the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission. The city had implemented a number of voluntary desegregation plans, and the review would determine what was or was not working. Judge Doris Smith was appointed to conduct the review and make recommendations for future action. To the delight of many of the city’s education activists, Judge Smith took her job very seriously. She organized a panel of knowledgeable and experienced individuals from all over the country. They spent months visiting schools, talking with parents, teachers, administrators and students, receiving testimony and collecting data. Judge Smith’s report was released with great fanfare. It detailed the sad state of education, particularly for African American children, calling on the city to immediately upgrade all programs. Most notably, it pointed out the serious problem of underfunding and called on the state immediately to release additional hundreds of millions of dollars. The report recommended revising the state funding formula so that the city’s school district could get a fair share to cover its needs. It called for immediately lowering class size and instituting early childhood and other comprehensive programs. Needless to say, this report did not please the right-dominated state legislature. The legislature, long bent on blaming Philadelphia for draining the state of public education dollars, hadn’t the political will to take on Judge Smith’s recommendations. She was removed from the case, and her report was buried.
With the election of Republican Governor Tom Ridge in 1994, the battleground shifted from finding ways to make advances to trying to prevent further retreats. Every year, Ridge would pressure lawmakers to pass voucher bills. However, in spite of the support he found in the Catholic Church, as well as a few lawmakers from Philadelphia, voucher legislation never passed. Many small and rural districts with scarce resources simply could not use vouchers, because poor themselves, they had no system of private schools.
This did not stop the right, who seized the initiative when two things came together to create a funding crisis: the state capped Philadelphia’s allotment from its budget, and local property taxes plummeted as the city’s population declined. Not surprisingly, low test scores and budget problems were cited as the reasons for a state takeover. In an undemocratic, late-night vote with no hearings, the right, led by Tom Ridge, pushed through legislation handing the school system over. Little opposition could be mobilized, as the right encouraged division among urban and rural school districts.
In addition to the schools, the state threatened to take over the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), if they didn’t make big contract concessions. While no one was quite sure what the take-over threat meant (would the union be recognized, who would teachers bargain with?), it forced on teachers a longer school day, elimination of faculty meeting time and salary cuts. Teachers learned quickly that offering concessions to a company threatening to shut down their workplace usually doesn’t prevent it. In spite of contractual concessions, the state chose to take over the school system within the year because of its “financial difficulties” and “low test scores.”
In these circumstances, Edison Schools, Inc., in August 2001 was given a no-bid contract of $2.7 million to do an assessment and make recommendations. Teachers, parents, students and community groups were horrified. Why Edison? Why so much money? Why were Judge Smith’s recommendations ignored in favor of this for-profit company? It didn’t seem to matter. Edison clearly had a friend in Governor Ridge and Secretary of Education Charles Zogby.
It was clear, new tactics were in order. Those opposed to Edison’s participation in Philadelphia’s schools called a demonstration to “greet” them on their opening day. Over 100 demonstrators charged past security guards to the new Edison offices in the state office building. In spite of the fact that wallboard was still being put up and electricity was still being wired, the demonstrators stayed until Edison agreed to meet in the near future. The irony of remodeling Edison’s plush new offices, while a spending freeze in the schools prevented any needed repairs from taking place, was not missed.
With the issuing of the Edison report, friends of public education came together in new coalitions. Child advocacy organizations, parent groups, student organizations, community groups, and teacher activists met to fight back. It didn’t seem to matter that Edison, running about 150 schools across the country, could not prove any great successes, had no experience in dealing with a large system, and actually owed more money than the Philadelphia school district.
The fall of 2001 became a period of great turmoil and protest with students among the most vocal participants. The Philadelphia Student Union and Students United for Change led a number of walkouts and demonstrations under banners calling for real solutions, increased funding, smaller class sizes, and no corporate deals. The new Philadelphians United for Public Schools coalition sponsored downtown rallies, blocked streets, organized meetings in neighborhoods and schools, held petition drives and speak-outs, and developed literature for distribution. Their message was privatization is not an answer and equitable, adequate funding is essential.
During this time the proposal that Edison be given a contract to run the entire district was made public. They moved quickly: the school board was replaced with the School Reform Commission (SRC) amid continuing protests, including a student-led sit-in at the school district’s offices. A minor victory was won when an agreement was made that the governor would only appoint three of the five members of SRC, with the mayor of Philadelphia appointing two.
By the end of December, as the schools were getting ready for the end-of-the-year holidays, protesters once more rallied at the school district’s headquarters, demanding that Edison, by now ready to declare bankruptcy, be kicked out of Philadelphia.
As the new SRC met, its agenda became clear. Governor Ridge and then his replacement, Mark Schwieker, (Ridge departed to become head of “Homeland Security”) wanted the takeover to move quickly. But the objections of the citizens of the city gave strength to those on the SRC who represented them. Over time, Edison’s role diminished. In spite of the governor’s protests, Edison was not given the contract to run the school district’s central offices. In the end, Edison was not given any consultative contracts. Edison was, however, given control of 20 schools, along with two other for-profit companies that took control of five schools each. As a result of these setbacks, Edison’s stock plummeted and its financial ground grew shakier.
A new direction was taken as Paul Vallas, former superintendent of Chicago’s schools, was hired to run the district. Vallas claimed no special affinity with Edison or any company running the schools. When the contracts were finally signed in July 2002, numerous conditions were placed on them, allowing the school district the right to cancel at any time if agreed-on conditions were not met or if finances were not adequate.
During the summer, Edison boldly stated that it would need an additional $1500 per pupil to run the schools well. The right-dominated state legislature was prepared to meet their demand. Angry parents, students and teachers had been saying for years that all the schools in Philadelphia needed more funding. In the end, a compromise that gave $500 to $800 per pupil to 82 schools on an “under-performing” list (based on a bogus formula that gave the most to Edison schools) was reached. Nevertheless, Governor Schweiker and Education Secretary Zogby were forced to back down as Vallas and the majority of Philadelphians said very simply, “There’s no reason why Edison should get that much more money.” The Edison-run schools had to send back truckloads of supplies, because they couldn’t afford to pay for them without the money expected from their backroom deals in Harrisburg.
This fall schools opened with 155 teacher vacancies. Over 400 teachers retired or resigned because of the turmoil. 110 support personnel were terminated with one week’s notice as a cost-cutting measure – mostly in Edison-run schools. Teachers in schools still being run by the school district are feeling the pressure to “bring up those test scores or we’ll be taken over by Edison.” In spite of significant victories preventing a complete take-over, the “marketplace” is now set to operate in Philadelphia. It will be watched and studied by the nation.
Looking over the national scene it’s clear, privatization has not worked anywhere. In 1992 Education Alternatives Incorporated (EAI) won a contract to manage nine schools in Baltimore, Maryland for five years. But even with 11 percent more money than the other schools in the district, EAI failed. Its students performed worse than students in the public schools, and its contract was terminated. The same thing happened in Hartford, Connecticut, where EAI managed 32 schools. In order to make a profit EAI had to fire 300 teachers. Hartford had to fire EAI. Edison Schools Inc., has done no better.
The final wrinkle in this Philadelphia story is the role charter schools have played in the city and the over-all effect on unionization. Philadelphia has over 40 charter schools in operation. They have been yet another serious drain on school budgets, as 85 percent of the cost of the charter schools comes from local budgets. The legislation that created charter schools in was also a victory for the right in that it mandated that charter school teachers could not join the bargaining unit of the surrounding district. This means that charter schools are non-union initially. If teachers want to organize unions, they have to do so separately from the school district’s AFT Local 3. This fact, combined with the question of what will happen in two years when the current citywide contract expires, brings into sharp focus the on-going effort to rid public schools of a unionized work force. Will the privately managed schools have to negotiate with the PFT? Will they insist on their own contracts? Will they ignore the union altogether?
Today, there are still many uncertainties. Morale among school workers is low, a result of the turmoil of the previous year. However, those active around the defense of public schools have seen the positive effect of their work. The organized coalitions have spurred lawmakers and other leaders into action. The strange deal that gave Edison its initial contract is now under federal investigation, sponsored by Congressman Chaka Fattah. We know, however, that defeating the corporate-sponsored ultra-right means the mobilization of the full strength of the labor movement as well as other forces. The PFT continues to defend the current contract, meeting the first hints that Edison and other privatizers would not honor it with stiff and quick resistance.
The defense of public education is a national issue. We live in a country where decent paying jobs with benefits are being eliminated by the thousands. Quality education is being reserved for those who can afford it or who attend special schools. Denying education to the working class, particularly Black and Brown students, has become routine in most of our large cities, putting them on a fast track to poverty and prison. The battle to defend and improve public schools will require more than just “holding our own.” It will require a healthier, more trusted, alliance between organized labor, parents, students and community allies.
© Political Affairs, 2002