Parents fight hostile Phila. school takeover

PHILADELPHIA – Adhering to the Bush educational policies, Pennsylvania Acting Gov. Mark Schweiker and the state legislature intend to force privatization on the School District of Philadelphia.

In August, Gov. Tom Ridge paid Edison Schools, Inc., $2.7 million to do an assessment of Philadelphia’s school system and present a plan for reform. For three months Edison met behind closed doors, making deals and promises with certain elected officials and groups to carve up the district.

There were no public hearings. The school board, city council, parents and the community were ignored as Edison went forth with its assessment and plan. The mayor and governor met from time to time for updates. They were congenial and spoke of city-state cooperation for the sake of the children.

The Philadelphia school district has a $216 million deficit, making it subject to state takeover under Act 46 passed in 1998. Late one night in mid-October the Pennsylvania Legislature amended Act 46 in order to abolish the Board of Education in a state takeover and replace it with a five-member School Reform Commission, four members to be appointed by Gov. Schweiker and one by Mayor John Street for terms of three to seven years. The commission will have the authority to hire independent contractors to run the district’s central administration, individual schools and support services.

Said Schweiker, “Edison Schools, Inc. will probably be hired to run the 60 worst-performing schools in partnership with community groups and institutions such as Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania.”

The plan says that 30-40 high-performing schools will continue to run as they do now but will be monitored. About 170 schools in the middle achievement category will get new textbooks and materials for a standard reading, math and science curriculum. All the schools will be painted.

This is touted as education reform and for this the state is willing to give Philadelphia schools more money, exactly how much is not clear. The city will have to raise $75 million for its schools or the state will impose its own tax on Philadelphians.

Mayor Street called Edison’s plan “unacceptable” and now wants a commitment from Gov. Schweiker that private management of the district is not a necessary condition in forming a city-state partnership to run the schools. The governor and the mayor have until Nov. 30 to negotiate a mutually acceptable reform plan. If they can’t, there will be a hostile state takeover and the Edison plan will then be imposed.

In a very shrewd move, Gov. Schweiker publicly praised Philadelphia teachers and promised that their union contract must be honored no matter who manages the schools. “My report does not demonize the teachers or their union,” said Schweiker. “I hope they will not demonize those who seek to improve the schools.”

Schweiker fears that a union-community coalition could close down the schools in a state takeover. But Schweiker does not care about union contracts. Non-teaching school employees have been notified of possible termination – 1,300 union custodial workers, bus drivers and attendants and mechanics will be replaced as a cost-cutting measure. Their jobs will be filled through outsourcing. Ironically, 96 percent of these workers have children and grandchildren in public schools.

Many are shocked and outraged by Edison’s reform plan. At an NAACP press conference on Nov. 1, J. Whyatt Mondesire, the local president, said “Edison will not get our children. We will resort to civil disobedience if necessary.”

A representative of the Pennsylvania Baptist Convention called the state takeover “a terrorist attack on our children.” At a public forum called by Philadelphians United to Support Public Schools later that night, many education advocates spoke out, including Helen Gym of Asian Americans United, who said that a key to winning was unity.

Henry Nicholas, 1199C president, called on the coalition to organize students and shut the schools down. “I represent the 38,000 students of my members,” said Nicholas.

The Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) put on a skit dramatizing the auctioning off of schools to the highest bidder. PSU will take busloads of students to the state capital on Nov. 14.

Representatives of ACORN shared the results of a recent survey of Philadelphia residents. They overwhelmingly oppose privatizing the schools and instead want full funding, smaller classes, proven reading programs and high standards for students to succeed.

Dr. Karen Bivens, NAACP Education Committee chairperson, said Edison Schools, Inc., will get $50 million off the top of school funding to manage Philadelphia schools. She referred to “Corporate Commandos coming in to take over our schools.”