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?”

“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 Research 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.

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?”

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