The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2012

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JUNE 2012 Issue

A Philadelphia Story

Mayoral control has its critics, and “Report Card” is among them, believing that the public deserves much more control over education policy. But there’s a chilling possibility that for the elites and the profiteers, the present-day structures are too democratic. Our neighbor, Philadelphia, just an interminable-but-cheap New Jersey Transit ride away, is witnessing a complete meltdown of its public school system. It’s an awful harbinger of what could happen here—if we’re not careful.

The Philadelphia school system announced in late April that it was on the brink of insolvency and would be turned over to private operators, dissolving most remnants of democratic governance. Specifically, if the city’s leaders have their way, 64 of the city’s neighborhood public schools will close over the next five years, and by 2017, 40 percent of the city’s children will attend charter schools. Perhaps most disturbingly to anyone who values democracy and doubts the wisdom of the market, the city will have no oversight of its own school system. Schools instead will be governed by “networks,” the control of which will be auctioned off through a bidding process, and could be won by anyone—including a C.E.O. of a for-profit education company.

The situation in Philadelphia, which has received amazingly little attention from the national media, offers a window into what political and financial elites are planning for the rest of our public schools. Philadelphia’s experience has already demonstrated that turning a public education system over to private entities will ultimately lead to its destruction.

Philadelphia, in fact, already has the most privatized school system in the U.S. In 2001, the state of Pennsylvania took over the city’s school system and turned many of its schools over to private operators, even offering up 25 schools to for-profit companies. A study by Vaughn Byrnes of Johns Hopkins University showed that five years into this sweeping overhaul, the schools under private management were academically underperforming the public schools (which were hardly stellar).

Not surprisingly, the bad education delivered by the privatizers also comes with a heavy dose of corruption: At least six Philadelphia charter schools are under criminal investigation by the state attorney general’s office, after the Philadelphia Inquirer—and the city’s comptroller—reported rampant financial mismanagement and nepotism throughout the city’s charter system. As in other cities, charters have extensively abused public money in real estate profiteering schemes: Their operators used schools as tenants, paying money to themselves to rent their own property. In one particularly classy instance, a charter operator was running a private parking lot on school property. Exorbitant salaries were common for the charter school C.E.O.s, and some implausibly held fully salaried jobs in multiple schools, billing the city for more than 365 days in a year. Several Philadelphia charter school leaders are already in prison as a result of such shenanigans, and the Inquirer’s investigations may continue to lead to more prosecutions.

Austerity has been a crucial partner for would-be-privatizers. Schools are starved of resources, then the rich and their private entities are brought in as armored knights to “save”—or loot, whichever they prefer—the failing systems. We can see how austerity feeds the demand for privatization, even in some Brooklyn neighborhoods, where charter schools appeal to parents because they offer chess, social studies, or music, “luxuries” often out of reach at public schools, not because our principals or teachers lack vision to provide such programs—a common assumption—but because they don’t have the money. A neighbor with a child in one of Brooklyn’s best public schools said recently that she might transfer her son to a charter school because there would be two teachers in each classroom. As Brian Jones, an education justice activist and a teacher at Boerum Hill’s P.S. 261, pointed out late last year at a Panel on Educational Policy (PEP) meeting, speaking to officials who huddled behind a thick phalanx of armed cops, “Here’s an idea. Why not give every child those things? Then you wouldn’t have to have all these police officers at your meetings.” Without austerity—our pinched, stingy reluctance to demand full funding of our public goods—privatization would have no grass-roots constituency at all, and would not be dividing our communities.

In Philadelphia, the austerity forced upon the schools has been extreme. According to the alternative City Paper, “It has been a long time since Philly schools had close to adequate funding.” Indeed, for years the state of Pennsylvania fought a lawsuit, filed in 1999, by the city of Philadelphia, its school district, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), charging the state with racial discrimination: The city’s schools, attended largely by poor children of color, had been systematically under-funded compared to suburban and rural districts, which are predominantly white. (New York State faced similar lawsuits for nearly three decades, until the Campaign for Fiscal Equity finally prevailed in 2006, forcing the state to fund city schools proportionally.) A little more than a decade after the Pennsylvania case originated, those same children of color find that their futures are controlled by financiers and small-time crooks.

Horrifying, right? Yes, it is. But here in New York, our elites are planning a similar coup. Let’s not forget that although mayoral control—in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere—has meant the dissolution of democratically-elected school boards, often with disastrous results, we the people still do, at least, elect our mayors. In New York, we also elect the borough presidents who appoint the independent members of our school board. Looking ahead to a post-Bloomberg future, the hedge fund education reformers would probably prefer even less democracy—something more like Philadelphia’s model.

Indeed, that’s in the works. In April, a little-noticed meeting of the SUNY board overseeing charter schools ratified, with little discussion, a plan to allow operators of existing charter schools to open new schools with little oversight. This does not merely mean that charter entrepreneurs could clone existing schools, but that it will soon be possible to create entire charter networks with little oversight by any elected official or state office. Those could essentially become privatized districts, much like those proposed in Philadelphia.

New York City’s school system is fiscally more robust than Philadelphia’s. We’ve also got many more wonderful public schools, deservedly beloved by middle class families, which mobilize to defend those schools when they are threatened. And New York does not—yet—allow a for-profit company or its C.E.O. to completely take over a school or district, as Philadelphia does (although see April’s “Report Card: Education for Sale.”) Still, our elites will try to get away with selling off our children’s education like parts at a junkyard. We stand a better chance of fighting them than the Philadelphians do—but only if we pay attention.  


Liza Featherstone

LIZA FEATHERSTONE is a journalist and public school parent who lives in Clinton Hill.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2012

All Issues