We must still hate our kids: Philadelphia and "education reformers" fight demented war on elementary schools

No nurses, few textbooks, closed libraries: Money to urban schools is being starved, intentionally. It's just wrong

Published November 1, 2014 10:30AM (EDT)

  (AP/Matt Rourke)
(AP/Matt Rourke)

Imagine sending your child to a school with a leaky roof, busted windows and a rodent infestation.

Or worrying whether the elementary school where you take your daughter every day is really a health hazard.

Or telling your teenager to feel good about attending a school with no sports or athletic programs of any kind in winter or summer and no instrumental music classes.

Imagine a school system where class sizes have gotten beyond ridiculous with one school so overcrowded that first, second and third graders are packed into a single classroom. In another school, classes overstuffed with 50 students or more are herded into the auditorium.

This is not made up, nor is this a third-world country. This is America. This is Philadelphia. And it is rapidly becoming the norm for schools in many more large, urban communities across the nation.

Yet this crime is being completely neglected by people leading education policy – from the Obama administration all the way down.

In fact, government leadership of the education system in Pennsylvania is so bad, parents have filed a lawsuit to direct attention to the plight of their children.

But the proper response would be from everyone, not just from one group of parents.

Yet, most glaringly absent from making an adequate response are the voices of those who claim they are architects of an education "reform movement" and claim to be the ones who care most about the lives of underserved black and brown school children.

Calling themselves servants in the "civil rights cause of our time," they avert their oh-so-enlightened gaze from the most glaring civil rights crime being perpetrated in America today.

The Philadelphia Story

Just how bad are conditions in Philadelphia schools?

Reporting from PBS, education correspondent John Tulenko recently went to the city to examine "a school budget crisis that’s been called the worst in the country." He found a high school where "the budget for extracurricular activities has dropped to zero, its budget for books zero, and for supplies to $14,000. That’s roughly $5 per student to last the entire year."

He found an elementary school of 578 students with no full-time school nurse; so the principal, who has no medical training, has to sub in that role three days a week.

The ninth grade biology class he visited was "packed wall to wall with 62 students." A student he spoke with said, "It makes me feel annoyed. It slows down the class and what we can learn. And it makes it harder to pay attention when you can’t even get a desk to sit in."

The teacher said, "I tried to do a lab with them, and it was extremely difficult because so many of them wanted help and they were not sure of what to do. And you can’t give your attention to 30 pairs of students."

A recent report from the education writer for The New York Times, Motoko Rich, portrayed an identical scene – "a sixth-grade math class of 33 students with only 11 textbooks to go around; the teacher rations paper used to print out homework equations."

The news from local sources is even grimmer. Last year The Daily News reported the "new normal" for the district's 137,000 students and their families.

"Class sizes are skyrocketing – even though the upper limit under the teachers union contract is 33 kids in each classroom. Already, teachers and parents have complained over social media about class sizes reaching 44 students, even 48 in one case."

Nurses … counselors … librarians … by and large are now things of the past in Philadelphia public schools.

Most kids with chronic health conditions may get attention from school staff who have no training whatsoever in delivering medications or handling emergency health care situations. According to a local news outlet, "Twice in the past year, Philadelphia elementary school students died in local hospitals after taking ill at school – one from asthma and one from a heart condition. Both incidents happened on days when the school nurse was not present."

Students who have been traumatized by a death in the family, homelessness, or bullying have virtually no trained counselors to talk to – neither do high school students needing help with applications for jobs or higher education.

Almost all school libraries have been shuttered – even one that was once hailed as a national model – despite growth in demand.

A Victim of 'Reform'

In explaining the causes for these declining conditions, reporters have noted the diminishing state funding, the vanishing federal stimulus dollars, and the declining student enrollments.

What they don't tell you is why the money dried up, where it went instead and why the students have fled.

Writing for The Nation, Philadelphia-based journalist Daniel Denvir fills in the backstory. It's familiar: white flight to the suburbs in the 1950s, a vanishing urban industrial base made up of minority families, and a city left with a rapidly declining middle class.

"Relatively affluent whites funded separate school districts," Denvir explains, "while poorer urbanites were left to fund the impoverished schools left behind." Instead of unifying the segregated schools into a single metropolitan school system, Philadelphia city schools were left to contend with diminishing resources from a state that has chronically been among the least fair in allocating funds to schools that are the most in need.

When local school authorities and the teachers' union bridled under their yolks, "furious legislators passed a law authorizing a state takeover."

From that time on, Denvir explains, those who have wanted to wage "education reform" against Philly schools have gotten everything they wanted – branding of public schools as "failing" based on the No Child Left Behind laws followed by mass school closures and lots of new charter schools, many funded by wealthy philanthropists and private foundations and run by private management companies.

"The basic structure of school financing in Philadelphia is rigged to benefit these privately managed companies," Denvir notes. "Public-school money follows students when they move to charter schools, but the public schools’ costs do not fall by the same amount … It has been estimated that partly because of these costs, each student who enrolls in a charter school costs the district as much as $7,000. There are outright subsidies too."

Indeed, as Philadelphia public schools are getting lambasted by budget cuts and staffing layoffs, a local news outlet cheerfully reported that a charter school in the district was getting "a fully-staffed health center." Further, the school was becoming "one of eight charter schools in the city" with such new facilities.

Officials for the charter school called it "the beginning of a holistic strategy to strengthen its neighborhoods." Good, for sure, but why isn't this something that public schools in the district have the funds to pay for too?

Charter schools, in fact, are laying claims to new funding for Philadelphia schools coming from a recently state-approved plan to increase local taxes on cigarettes. As independent news outlet The Notebook reported, the new tax bill came with a controversial provision that required the district to start accepting applications for new charter schools.

Where Do Reformers Stand?

Given the situation in Philadelphia, you'd expect folks claiming to represent the interests of schoolchildren to sound the alarm and man the ramparts in defense of these students.

For years, we've been hearing that the whole purpose of the so-called education reform movement was to put the interests of students first. So you'd think they'd have something to say when students have their art classes yanked, their school buildings left in horrid states of disrepair, and their classrooms made untenable with overcrowding.

But while Philadelphia schoolchildren get pushed over the brink, prominent voices in the education reform movement have mostly been content to stay on the sidelines, offer ineffective gestures, or take up the cause of the budget cutters.

The Obama administration has been conspicuously ineffective in casting a lifeline. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last addressed the situation in Philadelphia over a year ago, when news of Philadelphia's declining state first seeped into the consciousness of Beltway policy leaders.

As yours truly explained at the time, more than 3,800 district personnel, including hundreds of classroom teachers, had just been fired due to a "Doomsday Budget," and schoolchildren faced a massive round of cutbacks. The alarming nature of the cuts prompted education historian Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, to write a letter to Duncan beseeching him to “publicly intervene.”

In his statement to the Pennsylvania officials overseeing the Philadelphia mess, Duncan urged, “We must invest in public education, not abandon it.” But he proceeded to do essentially nothing to help ensure that.

Eventually, the Obama administration came up with a competitive grant contest ostensibly aimed at inequity but offering no direct help to besieged students. An education journalist at The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss, noted incredulously after the grant competition was announced, "They still don’t get it. The Obama administration still apparently thinks – despite evidence to the contrary – that it can achieve 'educational equity' by holding a contest with winners and losers."

Strauss recalled, "No real dent was made in 'educational equity' with a series of Race to the Top contests over the past several years. So now we have a new one … a $300 million proposed 'Race to the Top-Equity and Opportunity.' After billions of dollars failed to achieve equity, a $300 million contest along the same lines – but with a targeted title – is the administration’s answer to the festering problem."

Beltway organizations who have influenced education policy have also been generally silent about the fate of Philadelphia students. One of those organizations,  Education Trust, proclaims to "close the gaps in opportunity and achievement" that afflict far too many young people, especially those from low-income families or who are black, Latino or American Indian. Yet a Google search on the organization's Internet address and Philadelphia students or schools produces nothing recent about the plight of the students in that city.

An influential D.C. think tank from a right-wing perspective, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, would have us believe the crisis in Philadelphia schools is simply a product of the state pension system that greedy teachers refuse to "reform." But extensive research by Matt Taibbi and David Sirota has revealed that the main problems with pension finances can be traced to dishonest public officials and investment firms who gouge the public with excessive management fees.

Another reform group, the blog site Education Post – started with $12 million in donations from wealthy foundations and anonymous individuals – has been noticeably mute on the Philadelphia travesty. In fact, this site claims to be "dedicated to building support for student-focused improvements in public education," yet doesn’t even list funding and resources as an issue it cares about.

Another reform star, the Pennsylvania chapter of StudentsFirst, the organization Michelle Rhee created and once led, actually came out in support of the hammering that Philadelphia schoolchildren are taking. In a feat of logical somersaults, the organization stubbornly insisted that funding a full curriculum and smaller classes would be really bad for students. "Continuing to invest in a broken education system only hurts the very people it serves: our kids," the organization's statement read. Really? You have to wonder how a parent with a child in a Philadelphia school would respond to hearing a spokesperson from a wealthy public relations effort backed by billionaires like the Walton family speaking for "our kids."

Philadelphia Is Part of a National Campaign

Maybe education reform advocates are not that upset with what is transpiring in Philadelphia because the situation is exactly what they want.

That's the conclusion reached by a joint report authored by grassroots activists actually from Philadelphia and other urban communities experiencing similar onslaughts. These activists from across the country – Chicago, Newark, Detroit, Minneapolis, Baltimore, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and elsewhere – combined their voices in a project under the banner of a Journey for Justice alliance.

Their report "Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage," published earlier this year, concluded, "The public education systems in our communities are dying. More accurately, they are being killed by an alliance of misguided, paternalistic 'reformers,' education profiteers, and those who seek to dismantle the institution of public education."

The report documents that staggering budget austerity being inflicted on school systems like Philadelphia's is occurring in urban communities around the country. While "predominantly Black and Latino communities are experiencing an epidemic of public school closures," the report contends, "there has been a massive shift in resources from public entities to private organizations, especially within low-income communities of color."

The authors note that "a small number of community-based charter schools offering high-quality, innovative services that cannot be provided by our local public schools" has morphed into a policy for charter schools to "replace our public schools."

Their research finds that the disruption of this massive reshaping of urban schools undermines education quality, limits access (and choice) to good schools, wastes resources and diminishes teacher effectiveness, among other results.

The authors pin the blame for these policies on an alignment among right-wing conservatives who want to eliminate public education, billionaire philanthropists, large corporations that realize there is profit in outsourcing education, and Democratic policymakers, including the Obama administration, who "bought into (or were at least willing to promote) the unproven assertion that privatization and 'school choice' would create improved educational opportunities for students."

But the report aims its most withering criticism on "'reformers,' claiming the mantle of the civil rights movement."

The authors decry any attempt to "equate the billionaire-funded destruction of our most treasured public institutions with the grassroots-led struggles for racial equality."

They state, "We simply cannot tolerate anyone telling us these policies are for our own good. Because we are the students they claim to be doing this for. We are the parents and family members that they claim to be helping. The communities they’re changing so rapidly are our communities, and our experience with school closures and charter school expansion confirms what an abundance of research has made quite clear: These policies have not produced higher-quality educational opportunities for our children and youth, but they have been hugely destructive."

Attacking Teachers Is Not the Answer

How anyone can expect genuine "improvement" in the nation's schools while the sort of systematic abuse of schoolchildren is allowed to fester in Philadelphia and beyond is just bizarre.

Certainly, teachers aren't buying the argument.

Unionized teachers – one of the few organized victims capable of resistance – have long spoken out against the conditions in Philadelphia schools and the blatant theft that privatization represents, which is why they've been relentlessly attacked by reformers.

Most recently, the non-elected state commission that oversees Philly schools summarily scrapped the teachers' contract and conscripted their healthcare benefits to help balance the school budget. Instead of having their insurance premiums covered by the terms of their current contract, teachers will have to shell out monthly fees of as much as $500 or more and will say goodbye to coverage for prescriptions, dental and vision care, and other benefits.

As Daniel Denvir writes, in a different venue, "Philadelphia teachers are already paid less than their suburban counterparts to teach under far more difficult conditions – conditions that have only gotten worse amid the severe budget crises and deep staffing cuts."

Further, teachers have already sacrificed, working under a pay freeze for over a year that has denied them "across-the-board hikes typical in past years … annual raises … or raises for obtaining advanced degrees."

Teachers are determined to fight back and have filed a legal response. They aren't acting alone. Shortly after the contract cancellation, school activists and parents staged a public demonstration at the district headquarters with the message that "Philadelphia teachers deserve better."

An outpouring of parents and teachers at a public meeting of the state commission delivered three hours of "harsh and bitter criticism" of the contract cancellation.

And prior to the meeting hundreds of protestors poured into the streets in support of teachers and to call for adequate funding and an end to "reform" measures.

Students are involved in the effort to fight back too. Immediately after the announcement of the contract cancellation, students across the district walked out of classes in protest. When a state official tried to stage a "parent engagement" event that featured a showing of the anti-union film "Won't Back Down," students shut the meeting down with chants of "Philly is a union town … Full funding now … Save our schools."

One of the leaders of the student protests is the Philadelphia Student Union. Education blogger Jennifer Berkshire, who operates the Edushyster site, recently interviewed one of PSU's members, Ruby Anderson. Berkshire asked her about "the students’ vision for public education in Philadelphia and what she would say to reform advocates if given the chance."

"Do we really want our teachers to spend all of their time worrying about putting food on the table or how they’re going to pay for their child’s college education?" Anderson explained.

"Stop treating education as a business instead of a system that is held up by human beings," Anderson insisted. "Every time they talk about cuts or austerity, it’s not just funds that are being cut but students. Every time a school loses a counselor, it means fewer kids get the resources they need to apply to college. Every time a school loses a nurse, that means more students who have to go to the hospital, and their parents have to pay that bill, rather than having a nurse who can treat them there. There’s a human cost to all of this."

Let's be clear: Regarding the issue of funding Philadelphia schools, there's no longer a middle ground. All evidence points to a funding plan that basically constitutes a human rights crime. Measured discourse is simply not what's in order. Outrage is the only justifiable response.

Anyone who cares about real improvement for our schools should back the students, parents and teachers who live in Philadelphia and all the other communities currently under the privatization assault. That's a reform we could truly believe in.

By Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

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