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The Remaking of Philadelphia Public Schools: Privatization or Bust

Plans to dismantle Philadelphia's public education system have met with sharp criticism from parents, educators and education watchers nationwide.

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“We’ve already privatized the prison system, and now it seems we’re going to turn over to corporations the responsibility of educating America’s children,” Tyler said.

“Is this the dissolution of urban public schools? Is this treating schools as a commodity?” said James Lytle, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. “Are we essentially saying that if you’re poor and of color, you’re out of luck?”

Treating Schools Like Stocks

Philadelphia is not alone in its aggressive shift toward privatization. Cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans and Cleveland have experimented with different iterations of what, in school reform parlance, is called a “portfolio management” model. The model envisions schools and teachers as either effective or ineffective, and calls for schools to be treated like stocks in an investment portfolio whereby low-performing schools get jettisoned and effective schools get expanded and replicated. While portfolio management looks different from city to city, it generally calls for the decentralization of a school district and the deregulation of public education more broadly so that outside operators can take over the lowest-performing schools. Theoretically, students in schools that are slated for closure can move to better ones, and the competition between networks and schools is supposed to foster positive growth among everyone.

But it turns out that schools do not behave quite like stocks, experts say. “It’s a pretty shaky analogy, because it’s not always so easy in real life,” said Katrina Bulkley, a professor of educational leadership at Montclair State University.

School closures cause a great deal of upheaval into students’ lives, said Alycia Duncan, a tenth grader at West Philadelphia High School. Duncan’s active with the Philadelphia Student Union, a youth organizing group that’s fought back against the proposed plan. Asking students to leave a school, even a low-performing one, and go to one across town, where there may be territorial conflict, and where students are unfamiliar with a new school, distracts students from their schoolwork, she said. “It takes time to get used to staff members if you need help or you need recommendations. You need to know who you can go to,” Duncan said. “Especially if you have problems at home, you need someone you can trust and talk to so you can focus on your schooling.”

Under the proposed plan, Philadelphia would shut down 40 of its underutilized or low-performing school sites, and another six schools would close every year until 2017, when 40 percent of the district’s current 146,000 students would be enrolled in charter schools.

Not only is shutting down low-performing schools a disruptive and politically fraught task, Bulkley said, but figuring out how to replicate the successes of one school in another site remains a stubborn challenge to education reformers. “From a research perspective we don’t have a clear sense that you can take a school that is doing well and duplicate it with the same results and sustain that over time,” she said, noting that in the last decade some groups in Philadelphia had had successes with transferring strong structures to other schools. Yet every school has its own unique quirks and educational culture.

“Nobody has figured out how to clone the principal,” said Bulkley.

Does Privatization Work?

Experts say the jury’s still out on whether portfolio management models actually lead to any academic gains for students. Indeed, researchers from Education for Action, a Philadelphia-based educational research group, say that based on the available research, there’s no conclusive evidence that portfolio management models lead to measurable academic gains. Philadelphia has already tried the model, in fact. Ten years ago the state took control of Philadelphia schools, dismantling the publicly elected nine-member school board and creating a five-person School Reform Commission which first hired a CEO, then handed over dozens of schools to private corporations, non-profits and local universities for management. It was the largest experiment with private management of public schools. That push toward privatization did not lead to any measurable improvements in academic performance for Philadelphia students, Research for Action found.

 
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