If New Orleans public schools were dropped directly into the depths of reformster-built torture by the assault of Hurricane Katrina, Philadelphia schools have experienced a decades long descent, sliding slowly down the on ramp of the highway to public school hell. And as instructive as the mess in New Orleans can be, we should be paying close attention to Philadelphia. Unlike NOLA's meteorological catastrophe, Philly's mess is man-made. If they come for the public schools in your city, it's likely to look a lot more like the assault on Philly's school system.
I live in Western PA, and if you know Pennsylvania politics, you know that nobody dislikes Philadelphia more than everybody else in every other place in Pennsylvania. But I take no joy in following their struggle. Teachers are on the beachhead of one more reformster assault against schools, caught between a history of financial humbuggery, city level mismanagery, and a first term governor desperate to prop up his hopes for a second term.
Setting the Stage
Pennsylvania funds schools by collecting local property taxes, throwing them in a big pot, and sending them back out according to various arcane formula. It is a system that pretty much nobody likes, but fixing it has been-- well, here's the thing. PA has the fourth highest senior citizen population. That means we're right up front in the battle to decide whether we should tax people who make money or people who own stuff. So we all agree we need to fix taxes, particular Grampa McFixedincome doesn't want to pay for schools because he owns a house.
It's also a contentious issue because Philly is a giant money pit, and people all across the state end up paying taxes so Philly can have mass transit and functioning infrastructure and schools that work.
By the 1990's, Philly was severely underfunded and not exactly setting the educational world on fire. Then-superintendent David Hornbeck decided to play chicken with the state legislature. "Give me enough money to open the schools, or I won't," he said.
"Fine," said the legislature. "You can have the money, but we're taking over your district." And so Pennsylvania became a pioneer in how to take the "public" out of public schools.
Not-so-public Education and Starving the Beast
As the millennium opened, Philadelphia schools were no longer run by an elected board, but by a group appointed by the state (3/5) and the city (2/5). This is the School Reform Commission (SRC), and they have not exactly accomplished great things in Philly.
One of the things they could not do was grow money on trees. Pennsylvania has been starving its schools for a while now, and although it's fashionable to blame it all on Tom Corbett, his predecessor Democrat Ed Rendell was no friend of public education, and his predecessor Tom Ridge was reportedly ready to hand Philly schools over to Edison way back before such privateering wasn't even fashionable yet. State funding of schools has dropped steadily down to a current low of 36%.
At the same time, local districts have had a cap slapped on raising local taxes. The state has effectively stripped funding from districts and made it impossible for them to replace those funds from local sources. As in, "Junior, I'm cutting your lunch money allowance in half, but you may only ask your grandmother for fifteen cents."
So Pennsylvania has been systematically starving its schools. It used stimulus funds to hide the starving, and Corbett is currently trying to sell the idea that pension spending counts as education spending to further obscure the picture (Pennsylvania pension funds were hammered by the financial collapse and Harrisburg dealt with it through advanced down-road can kicking).
The Charter Claws Come Out
Nobody got starved worse than Philly schools. Each year has brought another massive deficit, along with the unsurprising revelation that teachers working in underfunded, understaffed, decrepit surroundings with the children of poverty and deprivation-- those teachers do not get top "achievement" results. You could argue that Philly teachers have been struggling against huge odds, and that like salmon trying to spawn up mountains through onrushing alpine avalanches, every inch of progress they've made is nothing short of epically heroic.
You could argue that, but of course nobody in power in PA has been trying to. Instead, reformsters have unleashed the usual cries of, "OMGZ!! We must haz rescue students from these failing schools!! Bring in the charters! They shall save us!"
And so charters have been chip chip chipping away at Philly schools. Thanks to Pennsylvania's logic-defying funding formula for charters, charter schools can quickly become a massive drain on a school district's finances. It's being felt all across the state, but again, with its huge ongoing financial issues, Philly gets to feel it the worst.
As is typical with these charter gold rushes, there has been a steady parade of malfeasance and misbehavior. It has gotten bad enough that even the SRC has pushed back against charters, but even victory is messy. They won a battle to make one charter follow its enrollment cap rules, and now this week students at Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School will hold a lottery to determine which couple of hundred students will be looking for a school next week.
What Fresh Hell Is This
Over a year ago, Aaron Kase at Salon described Philly schools as "a public school system from hell." Kase was writing in August of 2013, the same month that the Philly teacher contract expired. As you might imagine, negotiations have not run smoothly.
The SRC has been asking for various rule suspensions because of their massive poorness. In August of 2013, they decided to go ahead and suspend seniority rules, hiring back laid-off teachers based on cost rather than seniority. This went hand-in-hand with the continuing series of cockamamie deals made with Harrisburg in an attempt to cobble together enough money to open the schools each fall, plus gigantic cuts in staff and schools.
But while the SRC and Harrisburg were practicing political posturing over the question of how to keep Philly schools open and functioning, the teachers of Philly were actually doing it. Buying supplies. Taking on extra duties. And working without contracts, even as the SRC didn't even pretend to be trying to negotiate. The teachers were seen as the heroes, the ones holding schools together, while the politicians were passing "doomsday budgets" and making convoluted deals to get a cigarette tax to help finance yet more shortfalls. The PA Supreme Court ordered the SRC to get to the negotiating table and the SRC... just didn't.
Meanwhile, Tom Corbett is on track to become the first one-term PA governor in half of forever, hugely down in the polls (anywhere between 17% and 33% depending on whose poll you ask) and he needed something, anything. Philadelphia City Papers had said in the summer of 2013 that Corbett's possible Hail Mary was to take on the Philly teachers' union.
Can It Get Uglier
Three weeks before the election, the SRC announced that they would no longer honor the old contract under which the teachers had been working since it expired. They might honor some pieces, but nobody was getting a raise, and they were taking the teachers' health care. And when I say "announced," I mean snuck in and out of an un-publicized meeting at an odd hour with no public input.
Harrisburg tried to get involved, but accomplished nothing, thanks to Harrisburg. Are you surprised to learn that the SRC can only be dissolved by action of.... the SRC.
Students walked out of schools to strike on behalf of their teachers. The school district celebrated parent appreciation night with a screening of "Won't Back Down" and got a student protest instead. Gratifying, perhaps, but tiny compared to what's lined up against the teachers.
The superintendent went on NPR to say that teachers needed to be willing to sacrifice. A right-wing thinky tank, the Commonwealth Foundation, has a website set up to smear the Philadelphia Federation for Teachers, and hired people to attend today's teacher protest and counter-protest (though they dispute that verb, it sure seems about right).
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Tonight, that protest blocked the street in front of the district offices, as prelude to this evening's SRC meeting. That meeting, which allows some public comment, is likely to run a bit late. Probably a bit heated as well.
The game plan in Philly seems pretty straightforward-- starve the district until it fails, then send in the charters to scarf up the pieces. The big challenge is that Philly schools really are, by all accounts, in bad shape. That's the result of a systematic assault, not some inherent failure. But the end result is a district on the ropes, and bringing it back to health will not be as simple as taking the reformster boot off its neck.
Nor do I think the election will resolve this. Tom Wolfe may not be Tom Corbett, but I'm not so sure he's bent on rescuing public schools either. Wolf has since distanced himself from the point of view, but the man who led the drive to charterize York schools is an old Wolf friend.
So this isn't going to be quick or easy or pretty. But Philly teachers are up against the same wall that teachers are being backed up to all across this country, and they need and deserve the support of all of the rest of us. Their fight really is our fight. We need to watch and help and learn. These are men and women who are trying to do hard, important work in the middle of a storm that just keeps hammering away at their work, their livelihoods, and their professional futures. Everything I see tonight on line says that they are hanging tough and standing tall. But if you have a thought or prayer or dollar or word of support that you can send toward Philadelphia, now is the time to send it.