Thursday, August 15, 2013

The "Crisis" in Philadelphia Schools... or not

On Friday August 9th Philadelphia schools superintendent Dr. William Hite held a press conference proclaiming that unless the district receives $50 million to alleviate the budget crisis by August 15thschools may not be able to open safely on September 9th. With this announcement it became official: Philadelphia schools are in crisis.

Except calling this a crisis - whether educational, budget, or something else - ignores the bigger picture and completely misses the point. 

A crisis is a sudden, unexpected, or rare moment of devastation or struggle. Hurricane Katrina was a crisis. As was the tragic collapse of the Salvation Army thrift store at 21st  & Market a few months ago.  Wildfires ravaging California or Colorado could also be called a crisis. Though in hindsight there may have been warning signs, these events were relatively sudden, unexpected, and rare.

The current state of affairs in the School District of Philadelphia, while devastating, hardly meets the definition of a crisis.  It was not sudden - it is the culmination of recent funding cuts at the state and federal levels, attempts at short-term solutions and reforms, and decades of poor financial management. It was not unexpected - anyone who didn’t see this financial “crisis” coming was either naive or blissfully ignorant. It is hardly rare - large urban districts across the country are experiencing their own versions of this same “crisis” (look to Chicago, New York, Detroit, LA to name a few).   

So if not a crisis, then what? 
 - A call to action?
 - Business as usual?
 - An opportunity to break unions?
 - An open door for corporate reform?
 - A supreme injustice?
Perhaps all of the above…

The new normal?
In their text The Art of Critical Pedagogy (2008), Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell argue that even though they have alarmingly high dropout rates, excessive teacher attrition, and low test scores, it is inaccurate to say that urban schools are failing. In the face of concentrated poverty, under-funding, and under-resourceing, urban public schools are doing exactly what they are designed to do - fail. 

It’s possible that what’s happening before our very eyes is the next step in the already existing, to borrow Kozel’s term, system of Apartheid schooling. Cities will have two classes of schools. Those who are willing and able will migrate toward private, charter, and magnet schools, while under-resourced public schools will remain warehouses for an underclass of students, those who couldn’t get in or couldn’t make it in the “real” schools.  In this way, we can still claim to have a democratic education system, though that is hardly the case. 

An open door for reform?
Philadelphia has 84 charter schools, the new face of school reform.  One of the hallmarks of these silver bullets, is the absence of unionized employees (Note: Teachers at 4 Philadelphia charters are unionized, the remainder are not).  Charter operators claim that operating outside of the union allows for more innovation and flexibility among teachers. It also affords administration the ability to hire and fire at-will.

It’s easy to see why charter operators (whether they’re non-profits or for-profits) wouldn’t want a unionized workforce.  For better or worse, it gives them more control and flexibility.  That doesn’t mean that it’s all-bad - after speaking with teachers at several different non-union charters I am the first to admit that there are some great perks.  However, as someone who is not a union member (my school is managed by a non-profit and we are not unionized) the lack of a clear contract or collective bargaining power can easily result in a high degree of uncertainty and bullying, particularly around time and job responsibilities. 

…Or union busting?
The most recent developments in this so-called “crisis” have underscored the goal here is not to create strong schools, but rather to push a particular brand of school reform. The benevolent Governor Corbett, no friend to organized workers, said he’d give Philadelphia schools $45 million, but later attached the caveat that in order to get the money unions must make concessions. 
Initially Dr. Hite supported the PFT and rejected Corbett’s demand, encouraging the masses that perhaps we finally had a superintendent who actually supported educators.  Last night, however, Hite reminded us that he was a product of the corporate reform-y Broad Leadership Academy when he called on the SRC to suspend the state school code and eliminate seniority in rehire decisions. This crucial step, which may or may not be taken later this afternoon, would effectively negate union contracts and render them powerless.

But just like in the movies, the conditions and public opinion have to be right to take such a step… and perhaps that’s where we are.  People are frustrated with the schools and have bought in to the rhetoric of lazy, greedy, overpaid teachers. In the face of schools not opening, they’re anxious of any action - unjust or not.

But it’s a “crisis”, what can you do?
 - Eliminate property-tax based school funding.
 - Reinstate local control over schools.
 - Collect delinquent taxes and revisit city tax codes re: non-profits and corporations.
 - Create leadership opportunities for teachers
 - Address overhead/ administrative costs within the district.
 - Create small schools (see upcoming post on this concept)
 - Sell vacant schools.
 - Relocate central office into “under-utilized” schools and sell 440 N. Broad… school staff should be in schools!
 - Work with the PFT to create contract and pension plan that allows for long-term success (realize this is not the same as “demand concessions from”).
 - Stop quitting on “failing” schools and contracting them out to charters. 

These are just a few quick thoughts… but of course, these would all require rational discussion, long-term planning, and the desire to maintain a strong, equitable public education system.


  1. Great overview of the situation. Also great to see some viable and reasonable solutions. There is no magic bullet for this problem, and it's going to take the whole village, not just the PFT to fix this. I'm all for selling 440. It's pretty much empty anyway. I'm hoping that this manufactured crisis will create a real shift on how we fund and do education in Philadelphia.

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