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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.

Photo Credit: Vincent St. Thomas |


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Philadelphia’s public school system is on the brink of insolvency, and the city has no choice but to dismantle what’s left of its public education system and hand over schools to private operators, according to school district leaders. But it turns out the quickest way to bring the wrath of an outraged public raining down on a city is to propose the wholesale privatization of a school district, Philadelphia has found out in recent weeks.

The beleaguered school district’s proposed plan to dramatically overhaul the city’s school system by shutting down 64 schools in the next five years has sparked a continuous stream of bitter anger from parents, educators, students and activists since it was announced on April 24. The debate has forced the district to back off its compressed timeline. But for Philadelphia students, and education watchers around the country, the announcement from Philadelphia fit a yearslong trend decades in the making. In an era of public divestment in education and against a backdrop of a seemingly unending economic recession, more and more school districts are turning to privatization as a solution to their economic woes. While plenty of money is changing hands, students are not the ones reaping the benefits of these plans, community advocates argue.

Under the “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools” ( PDF), 40 schools will be set for closure in the coming year, and the city’s central office will be slashed in half. The remaining schools will be distributed among so-called “achievement networks,” which would be responsible for roughly 25 schools apiece. The system will bring efficiency to the struggling school district, said the district’s Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen, a former gas industry executive.

“What we do know through lots of history and evidence and practice is that the current reform structure doesn’t work, said Pedro Ramos, the chairman of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “It’s not fiscally sustainable and it doesn’t produce high quality schools for all kids.”

Indeed, the district is facing a $312 million budget shortfall for the next school year alone. The budget shortfall has been years in the making; the district has been struggling for years financially, and the situation was exacerbated by poor fiscal management from prior school administrations. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett slashed the state K-12 education budget by $550 million last year.

But dealing with the fiscal issue by dramatically remaking the school system is not the way to deal with the issue, say activists. The issue has reignited a longstanding debate in Philadelphia, a city well-accustomed with being the guinea pig for plenty of fads in school reform for the last 30 years. Families, lawmakers and reformers are grappling with the question: can the private sector save public education?

For some activists, the answer is a definitive no. “[Knudsen] has zero experience in public education,” said Helen Gym, a founder of the Philadelphia-based activist group Parents United for Public Education. “We were promised someone who was going to bring efficiency to Philadelphia schools but instead he decided to play God and exploit a crisis to completely restructure the schools.” To Gym, and many education activists, the financial crisis is too convenient an excuse to force the overhaul of the school system when the state should take more responsibility for the school district.

“This isn’t a financial plan at all,” Gym said.

Others put it more gently. “No one would debate that there are financial problems in the district, said Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, the pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church, which has joined together with a coalition of faith-based groups to voice concerns about the plan. “But is it so bad that the only answer is to shutter 64 schools and remove the remaining 20 percent to charter schools?”

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