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Corporations Advise School Closings, While Private Charters Suck Public Schools Away

As charter proponents aim to cash in on major investment returns, Philly braces for a massive schools shakeup.

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This article has been updated.

On Dec. 13, 2012, Philadelphia became the latest major American city to recommend sweeping school closures for the next academic year. Under this new proposal, a total of 37, or about 16 percent, of the district’s 237 public schools will be shuttered this June. That’s down from the 40 schools the city designated for closure back in May, but still represents an unprecedented move in Philadelphia’s history. The School Commission Reform, an outside body appointed to govern Philadelphia schools, has scheduled its final vote for March 7.

Overall, 44 schools will be affected by the shakeup: Of the 37 to be closed, three will relocate by merging with other Philadelphia schools. Beyond this, seven other schools will face major restructuring – i.e., though these school programs will remain intact, the schools themselves will be uprooted and moved to other buildings, merged with other schools, and/or forced to add or subtract grade levels. About 15,000 students will be affected by the proposed changes. And though official numbers have not been released, hundreds of teacher and staff layoffs are also expected.

There is nothing democratic about how this happened to the City of Brotherly Love. Though officials gave lip service to the idea of “parental empowerment” through “ school choice,” in the end, parents had no role in deciding what policies would be enforced. Everything was outsourced. As a Pew study reports, the city consulted with “URS Corp., a California-based engineering design firm, and DeJong-Richter, an Ohio-based company that specializes in school-closing issues” to come to its final consensus. Though town hall meetings were organized between 2010 and 2012 to hear citizen concerns, the closures, relocations and reconfigurations  were ultimately decided by the consulting firms, with no serious input from locals.

This is how DeJong describes its contributions to the situation in Philadelphia on its Web site:

DeJong-Richter is assisting the District in creating a plan for more efficient use of facilities that better align demographics and curriculum. The School District of Philadelphia, like many urban districts across the country has experienced loss of enrollment in some regions and experienced tremendous growth in others. The long-range facilities planning process will review current and future enrollment/population trends and align this with programmatic and facility data that will lead to more efficient use of educational facilities in the District. This process will potentially engage thousands of community members in the City of Philadelphia.

Minus the jargon: The citizens of Philadelphia paid DeJong-Richter to provide consultants who studied Philadelphia school enrollment patterns, took note of low-enrollment and low test scores, and informed Philadelphia officials which school closures could save the city the most money. According to Education Week, “Officials project that the moves would save the district roughly $28 million in personnel and maintenance costs next year, with those savings recurring in future years.”

What Education Week and DeJong-Richter fail to mention is that enrollment in Philadelphia’s public schools is not low by happenstance. Yes, enrollment is low --about 70,000 students under capacity, by some estimates. But this is not an accidental occurrence. So where have all the children gone? Simply put, to (largely unproven) charter schools. And as more traditional public schools are closed, expect even more charters to take their place.

As is happening in virtually every major urban area in the United States, non-union charter schools are popping up across Philadelphia, and in the name of “school choice,” enticing parents to pull their children from under-funded traditional schools and place them in charters instead. Though there is no evidence that charter schools are the panacea they promise to be, they continue to sprout up -- helped along by investments from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among other education reform funders. For example, in early December, just days before the proposed school closures were announced, the Gates Foundation announced new plans to award Philadelphia about $2.5 million in charter school funding – specifically targeted to help the city replace closing schools, and ostensibly, save money.