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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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And yet, school reformers and politicians around the country continue to turn to the model as a way to better their schools. Public frustration and fatigue with traditionally managed public schools and seemingly recalcitrant public institutions has created the political space for a surge of privately managed schools. Indeed, in 2008 just eight cities were using a version of the portfolio management model. As of last year, it was up to two dozen, according to Research for Action.

The model has been aggressively pushed by venture philanthropists like the Gates Foundation, which fund pilot programs and research, and are also involved in policymaking and talent development from the district level all the way up the the federal Department of Education. “Part of what’s changed is the amount of high profile support for privatization and the charterization led by the Gates foundation and the Walton Family Foundation,” said Lytle. “Particularly with Gates, there is the symbolic notion that if Gates supports it it must be good.”

Portfolio management has become a popular tactic for states with big cities which, like Philadelphia, have high concentrations of poor kids and families of color. Philadelphia has 249 public schools, and 198 of them serve free lunch to the entire school—the rates of those who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are used as a proxy for poverty measures. Of Philadelphia’s 146,000 students, a full 56 percent of them are black. And as it is, 25 percent of the city’s schoolkids are enrolled in charter schools.

“For [portfolio management] to work, in this theoretical perfect world, everyone needs complete access to what their choices are and there need to be strong accountability systems in place,” said Stephanie Levin, Research for Action’s associate director. “Even if you’ve got all that it presumes that kids will get into schools they think are best match for them, and that hasn’t happened in Philadelphia in recent history.”

The mandate for communities is clear, advocates and researchers alike said. People need to organize themselves to speak up about the proposed plan, and keep up the public pressure to demand the changes they want to see in the plan. At hastily planned town hall meetings organized by faith and education groups and at community forums hosted by the school district, community members have been turning out in droves to protest the plan.

Duncan, the high school student, plans on taking part in upcoming community forums to voice her concerns. “My main question is: What if this all fails? What are they going to do then?”



Julianne Hing is a reporter and blogger for covering immigration, education, criminal justice, and occasionally fashion and pop culture.

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