Archives for category: Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, thanks to state law, the city’s public schools are in dire need of renovation, while charter schools build and acquire facilities they can’t afford. Here is one of the articles that revealed this scandalous situation. It is not sustainable to maintain two school systems in one city or state.

The editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes:

“Philadelphia’s regular public school buildings are so run down that the cost to repair them is estimated at $4 billion. Those buildings aren’t likely to get face-lifts with the School District limping from funding crisis to funding crisis. In contrast, the city’s charter schools have received $500 million in taxpayer-backed bonds for new or improved buildings….

“With no one saying no, some charters are in a frenzy to acquire or renovate buildings and finance the transactions with bond issues they can’t afford. The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. issues bonds for charters, but fees for lawyers, consultants, and others who profit from the deals aren’t fully disclosed.

“Bonds for charters cost more because the risks are higher, Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker told’s Alex Wigglesworth and Ryan Briggs. Those risks are passed on to taxpayers, who get stuck with even more costs when charters default, which has become common nationally.

“Consider the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School. It was the first Philadelphia charter to receive bond funding, and the first to default. The Northern Liberties school spent $11 million in bond funds in 2005, but closed abruptly in December. Taxpayers have paid $6 million in debt service, but the building will likely be sold to pay creditors.

“String Theory Charter School in Center City is paying $5.6 million a year in debt service on the $55 million it borrowed to purchase a swanky building. The charter’s debt service has helped put String Theory $500,000 in the red and forced it to cancel some classes and bus service.

“The $3,895 per student String Theory spends on debt service for the high-rise it bought far exceeds the average of $875 per student being spent on district schools such as Solis-Cohen Elementary in the Northeast, which was so run-down that its students had to be transferred for safety.”


Patrick Kerkstra writes that he was always skeptical when anyone suggested that charters (at least some of them) were seeking profits. Now, having read about what is happening in Philadelphia, he is not so sure. I remember the early days of the charter movement. My colleague Checker Finn Jr. used to say, again and again, that there was a deal: if the state gives us (charters) autonomy, we will be accountable. The charters have autonomy but they no longer want accountability.

Kerkstra sees three big issues:

  1. Charters are no more efficient about their use of money than district officials. People should get over the belief that private=smarter, better.
  2. Profit-minded businesses are destroying whatever moral authority the education reform movement had.
    I’ve long cringed when ed reform skeptics attacked the motives of charter advocates and others who’d like to see the public school system reinvented (or scrapped). With very rare exceptions, the individuals I’ve interviewed and spoken with in the ed reform movement over the years are True Believers: their fury and impatience with traditional public education is real and righteous. I haven’t always agreed with where they’re coming from, to say the least, but I’ve long dismissed accusations that reformers are in it for the money.

    Now I’m not so sure. There plainly is a large and growing group of interests within the education reform movement that stand to profit as traditional public education shrinks….

    Charters were supposed to be different. Traditional public schools were beholden: to teacher’s unions, to political masters, to a powerful class of consultants and attorneys. Charters were supposed to be the indies. But as the charter movement grows, a big corps of financial interests has grown up around it. Increasingly, charters look just as financially beholden to an array of interests, only it’s harder to tell exactly who and what those interests are.

    This is a really significant problem for ed reform advocates, and I’m not sure that it can be solved. The moral clarity of the early charter movement — nonprofit, about the kids, self-reliant — well, that’s gone. Increasingly, it seems not just fair to question the motives of ed reformers, but necessary.

  3.  The School District’s charter oversight office is still understaffed and under-resourced. And charter operators frequently bristle at the prospect of more accountability. But something’s got to give here. The charter movement can’t keep growing and eating up tax dollars while operating in the relative darkness.

What would you rather be? A mid-level bureaucrat monitoring fiscal matters in the school district or a millionaire?

Find the answer to this question in this article about Philadelphia.

“MANY OF the recent charter bond deals have been helped by Santilli & Thomson, a New Jersey-based firm that has made millions off consulting contracts and bond fees.

“The firm, run by ex-School District of Philadelphia finance officials Gerald Santilli and Michael Thomson, touts on its website “more than 50 years of combined experience in municipal school management.”

“There is no way to know exactly how much Santilli & Thomson has earned in taxpayer-funded contracts from charter schools, according to a district spokesman. The firm did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

“However, a analysis of financial documents for several charter schools that received municipal bonds found that Santilli & Thomson has billed at least $5 million since 2010….

“After working for 14 years as executive director of fiscal management for the school district, Santilli moved into charter consulting full time in 1999, shortly before String Theory was founded.

“Santilli personally helped found several other schools, like First Philadelphia Charter and its sister school, Tacony Academy, before starting his own consulting firm with Thomson.

“After a while, it appears [Santilli] realized that this could be a lucrative and growing business, and that he could make more money doing the work on his own,” said former school district chief financial officer Michael Masch.

“Santilli & Thomson was subpoenaed as part of a federal investigation into charter corruption in 2010, but no one there was ever charged with a crime and the firm’s contracts have continued to grow. The charters that Santilli helped found have become some of his biggest clients and secured some of the biggest bond deals in city history.

“What Santilli does to facilitate these arrangements is unclear. Consultants like Santilli & Thomson face little scrutiny from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.”

Other firms have also reaped the benefits of charter consulting. The best pay-off comes when the company that owns the charter owns the space used by the school and pays itself large leasing fees. Sweet.

“Reimbursements rose 79 percent – to $6.8 million annually – while the number of charter schools increased by just 20 percent, state records show. Only a fraction goes to schools that rent their buildings from unrelated owners.

“The issue isn’t limited to Philadelphia, according to state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who is conducting a statewide review of charter leases.

“About half the charter schools we’ve audited basically have this circular arrangement where there’s an entity that owns the building and an entity that leases the building, and they’re connected,” he said.”


An investigation in Philadelphia finds that some charters now spend more on paying down the debt of lavish facilities than they spend on instruction.

“THREE FRANKLIN Plaza, a bow-shaped eight-story building at 16th and Vine streets, once hummed with 1,700 GlaxoSmithKline white-collar workers.

“Today, it is empty more than three months out of the year, a lone security guard watching over the corporate art still hanging in the lobby.

“From September to June, a charter school called String Theory occupies half the floors. The school acquired and began renovating this premier office tower in 2013 as part of a $55 million tax-exempt bond deal, arranged with help from the city’s biggest economic-development agency. It was the largest bond deal of its kind in city history.

“It is also the most conspicuous example yet of a risky, expensive and fast-growing financial scheme underpinning the rapid expansion of Philadelphia charters – a bond market now worth nearly $500 million. But the bond financing behind the mountain of money gets little scrutiny as to whether the debt is a smart use of Pennsylvania’s limited education dollars.

“The lack of transparency can translate into deals that may be unsustainable. Shortly after moving into its flashy high-rise, String Theory posted its first operating deficit. After revealing it was $500,000 in the red from paying out millions annually to bondholders, administrators told parents that they were cutting certain classes and suspending bus service as cost-saving measures.

“On the plus side, if the String Theory board members who indirectly own the Center City high-rise sell it, there could be a big profit. But is this the way charters should operate?”

“Charter schools used to inhabit repurposed supermarkets or old storefronts, but a analysis of bond documents showed that an increasing number – one out of three charters today – have bought or constructed newer and larger school buildings with tax-exempt bonds, paying millions in debt and fees to consultants along the way.

“Bonds – school debt sold to investors who are gradually paid back with interest – have become popular among charters because they allow lower borrowing costs than standard commercial loans. Bonds are commonly floated by governments and school districts to get up-front money for infrastructure projects, but charters were long considered too risky an investment because they can be abruptly shut down.
As charter schools became more established, investment prospects improved. But the bonds that charter schools have tapped are still riskier and come with “junk” ratings, carrying high interest rates.

“They’re getting bond ratings that have an 8 or 8 1/2 percent interest rate, whereas a school district getting [government] bonds to finance a project can get much lower interest rates,” said Bruce Baker, a Rutgers education professor.

“This leaves charters spending more education dollars on interest payments – $78 million over 30 years on top of String Theory’s $55 million bond, for instance – at rates that are double or triple what the district pays.
The financing process and real-estate transactions themselves also entail millions in consulting and legal fees. Schools like String Theory can become enmeshed in complex and costly deals for marquee buildings that are difficult to sustain.

“There’s no real scrutiny of these deals, and charters end up saddled with big fixed costs,” said Michael Masch, former chief financial officer for the School District of Philadelphia. “They’re saying, ‘Look at this really prestigious building we have, that’ll attract people.’ But it’s a ridiculous amount of money to be spending on the facilities side.”

“Today, an increasing number of charters are spending more of their budgets paying down debt than on actual instruction. In the case of String Theory, which enrolls 1,400 students, the school now spends nearly one-third – $5.5 million – of its $16 million budget just to occupy the half-empty 228,000-square-foot high-rise, along with two older, smaller schools in South Philadelphia. That figure is more than String Theory spends on teachers’ wages – $5.3 million.”


The firm hired to fill 5,000 substitutes for Philadelphia public schools has managed to hire only 11% of the number needed. The firm was paid $34 million. The money might have been better spent raising teachers’ salaries instead if trying to fill jobs with subs.

Is that a reform strategy? It is certainly not in the interest of the students.

Philadelphia has hired a search service to hire 5,000 substitutes.

“Whether you’re a recent college graduate looking to work your way into a full-time teaching position, a retired teacher interested in getting back in the classroom, or someone looking to make a positive contribution to the development of children, Source4Teachers has a place for you. We offer health insurance and other benefits including a 401(k) plan and opportnities for various bonuses. Plus, working as a substitute is extremely flexible –how frequently, when and where you work is entirely up to you,” the website says.”

This could happen only in a district that doesn’t care about education or children. This could happen only in a district that serves poor Black and Hispanic children. It would never happen in a ritzy white suburb.

The superintendents of the Philadelphia public schools, William Hite, is a graduate of the unaccredited Broad Superintendents Academy. The BSA is a major proponent of charter schools, and a major critic of public schools, which it considers to be failing, failing, failing.


Superintendent Hite has filled up the top administrative jobs of the public school system with veterans of the charter school movement.


Guess that is what he learned as a Broadie.

This is a terrific interview with Helen Gym, a public school activist who just won a seat on the Philadelphia City Council.

The state took control Philadelphia public schools in 2001, and the Governor appoints a majority of the members of the School Reform Commission. A majority of voters endorsed a non-binding resolution to restore democratic control to the district. In addition, a pro-public schools candidate was elected Mayor, defeating a heavily funded corporate reformster candidate.

Helen Gym has been a tireless and fearless advocate for public schools. In this interview, she offers sound advice about fighting for your community’s schools.

She said:

“Philadelphia is a place where corporate education reform has done so much damage. No one is a bigger symbol of that damage than the hedge fund billionaires behind the Susquehanna Group. They poured nearly $7 million into a municipal election, dwarfing any amount of money coming from elsewhere. As I said in a press conference, these were three billionaires looking to destroy public education in a city they would never live in and hurting children they would never know. That about sums it up, and it’s why the public resoundingly rejected them and their narrow abusive agenda that had done so much harm not just to children but to entire neighborhoods and communities…..

“For years, we’ve been subjected to relentless rhetoric that people don’t want to invest in public institutions anymore, that their schools have failed and their teachers have failed, and that school choice was the only option people had – and they ought to be grateful to those who provided it. But as I campaigned around the city, I was amazed at how many communities had really soured on that idea. Especially in the neighborhoods that suffered from the most disinvestment, people really understand just how important their public institutions and their public spaces are. I mean, you can’t be electing officials who want to shut down our schools, take away services from communities and cut taxes on the wealthy and call that working in the public interest. We had gone so far to that extreme that none of this corporate education reform message was resonating any more. It felt hollow, empty and defeatist. I also think that a lot of people now really understand that the problem isn’t so much that our public institutions have failed, but that we’re competing with other interests that are sucking away our ability to invest in them….

“Gym: The biggest lesson is that this was work that was built up over years. There’s no short cut. It wasn’t like some amazing superstar suddenly burst onto the scene. We’re all just pretty ordinary people who’ve learned to work together, and figured out how to build a bigger, broader movement over time. I think that’s the lesson that other communities can learn from. That when your work has integrity over time, and you work collaboratively, the broader community can see it come to fruition. I think the other lesson here is about the difference between political power and a grassroots movement. Political power was not the first thing we sought. Instead, we were really trying to build a stronger base to highlight the voices of different communities across the city. That’s how you change things, when a collective movement builds and earns political power rather than just grasps for it…..

“This election sent a loud and clear message: the place to start is investment in public institutions, and real partnerships with community organizations and parents and educators. Reforming our institutions takes collaboration and solutions rooted in vision and possibility, not narratives of failure. It’s a lesson that hope always wins the day.”

Ken Derstine is a blogger in Philadelphia:

Divide and Conquer: The Philadelphia Story

By Ken Derstine

Everyone concerned about corporate education reform and the influence of various venture “philanthropists” in their drive to privatize public schools should be following the Democratic primary on May 19th for the next mayor of Philadelphia. Neoliberal and conservative financiers, in a drive to make Philadelphia public schools like the New Orleans school system, are investing millions of dollars in the mayoral race.

Most prominent is the Susquehanna Investment Group (SIG) that is funding state Senator Anthony Williams. SIG made an initial investment of $250,000 for television ads at the beginning of his campaign. In the final weeks of the campaign, they have boosted their funding to $800,000 per week.

The Susquehanna Investment Group makes no bones that their goal is the privatization of public schools in Philadelphia. For a full description of SIG see #Hedgepapers No. 11 – High Frequency Hucksters

The other major contender in the Philadelphia mayoral election is Democratic City Councilman James Kenney. Kenney has no problem with the expansion of charters as long as the state reimburses for their cost.

Williams backers, beside the outside financial interests investing millions in Williams campaign, include Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, and union leadership of sheet metal workers, laborers, operating engineers, and transit workers.

Kenney has been endorsed by much of the Democratic Party machine in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia local AFL-CIO leadership, including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and a carpenters union, State Representative Dwight Evans and a coalition of African American leaders.

The splintering of Philadelphia’s labor movement is in marked contrast to 1973, when the PFT was on strike for 7 ½ weeks, the teachers union leadership and dozens of PFT members were jailed for contempt of court without bail, but the strike ended with a victory for the teachers as the city labor movement was preparing a general strike in support of the teachers.

On April 30th, Philadelphia political activist Helen Gym who is running on the Democratic ticket for a City Council-at-Large seat, criticized the Susquehanna billionaires for trying to buy Philadelphia’s election. Gym was viciously attacked at an April 30th rally by Antony Williams for “duplicity” and a personal attack was made on some of her supporters. Williams was joined in the attack by School Reform Commission member Bill Green. Green is a former Democratic City Councilman who was appointed by former Governor Corbett to the SRC. Rather than administer the beleaguered School District, he is taking sides in the mayoral election to promote his privatization agenda and his attack on Philadelphia teachers. See Bill Green’s Education Agenda: Hidden in Plan Sight | Defend Public Education

On May 3rd, Williams was endorsed by the Editorial Board of the Philadelphia Inquirer. They said the deciding factor was Kenney’s union support. Critics of the endorsement pointed out that the Inquirer is owned by Gerry Lenfest who is strongly pro-charter, a supporter of Teach for America, and corporate education reform as a whole. Reports are that the endorsement caused a lot of dissension on the staff at the Inquirer. Asked if she was concerned, Williams campaign spokeswomen Barbara Grant said in a statement “that Kenney and his allies will learn that both the Inquirer editorial board and voters don’t think that Kenney’s union supporters “need a seat in the mayor’s office.”

Both State Senator Williams and State Representative Evans support the Education Improvement Tax Credit Program. This program is a form of voucher that gives businesses a tax credit for providing scholarships for students to attend private or parochial schools in lieu of paying state taxes that would be going to public schools. This method of circumventing the Pennsylvania Constitutional mandate which says government cannot fund sectarian schools was pioneered by Florida Governor Jeb Bush after vouchers were declared unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court. Funding for Florida’s Corporate Income Tax Credit Scholarships program has risen dramatically since its inceptions.

Both Williams and Evans are on the board of the Black Alliance for Education Options. Its founder, former civil rights activist Howard Fuller, has been a promoter of vouchers and charters in low-income communities since August 24, 2000. Among its funders are the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, and the Walton Family Foundation.

On February 5, 2015, Fuller participated on a panel at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute during which he said, “We (BAEO) wouldn’t exist without John Walton and this is one of the reasons I love that man.” Fuller is indifferent to the fact that the money given to BAEO by the Walton Foundation comes from the low-wage exploitation of Walmart workers!

The state takeover of the Philadelphia School District in 2001 grew out of a civil rights lawsuit in1998 in which the city of Philadelphia charged that Pennsylvania funding practices discriminated against non-white students. In retaliation, the legislature passed Act 46 that set up a School Reform Commission that eventually took over the School District in 2001. The city withdrew the lawsuit when it was given two of the five seats on the SRC. The architect of the Act 46 was Philadelphia Representative Dwight Evans who was chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Both PA Representative Dwight Evans and PA Senator Anthony Williams are on the board of the Black Alliance for Education Options. On the BAEO website it says:

“In Pennsylvania, the support and leadership of BAEO board members Representative Dwight Evans and Senator Anthony Williams were crucial to the creation, protection, and expansion of the tax credit and charter programs. They were also instrumental in passing the law that led to the state takeover of the School District of Philadelphia, which has led to an increase in quality educational options for poor families.”

Like Williams, Evans has tried to start charters schools while he voted on education legislation as a Philadelphia Representative in Harrisburg. In 2011 he came into conflict with Broad Foundation board member Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman over which charter company should take ownership of Martin Luther King High School. The clash led to a chain of events that lead to Ackerman’s resignation as Superintendent.

Early this year a pro-charter, anti-public school political organization descended on Philadelphia. Philly School Choice has appeared to counter-protest rallies of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and to organize parents with children in charter schools to speak at SRC meetings in support of charter expansion. It does not reveal its funding sources, but it’s leader, Bob Bowden, is well known in right-wing libertarian, corporate privatization circles.

On August 30, 2014 Bob Bowden interviewed Senator Anthony Williams about his agenda. State Senator Anthony Williams Discusses School Choice with Bob Bowden | Change the Game (video)

Many of the American civil rights leaders of the ‘60’s, like Howard Fuller, have followed in the footsteps of Booker T. Washington, and made their peace with the 1%. They promote a corporate education reform that undermines the civil rights gains of the ‘60’s. National leadership of groups like the National Urban League and NAACP have sold out for a price to the 1% and joined the promotion of the privatization of public schools. The Broad Foundation has trained urban superintendents, many from minority communities, to turn urban school districts over to private interests. (See “Who is Eli Broad and why is he trying to destroy public education?”)

The National Urban League has received $5,286,017 from Gates over the last few years.

Gates Foundation Awarded Grants

Put other organizations, like BAEO, NAACP, AFT, etc., in the search window to see what they have received from the Gates Foundation.

The infusion of corporate and hedge fund money into all levels of government for the purpose of privatizing public education is a grave danger to democratic rights in the United States. Recently twenty-five civil rights groups joined Arne Duncan and endorsed the continuation of standardized testing in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA). This is a direct response to the burgeoning Opt Out movement where parents are saying they do not want their children to be used in the national social experiment being undertaken by corporate education reform.

As part of her collaboration with corporate education reform, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers has endorsed the call for annual testing in ESEA. On a panel at the recent conference of the Network for Public Education, Weingarten said of standardized testing (47:04 in the video):

“We are fighting for a reset to get rid of high stakes. The civil rights community and the President of the United States of America is fighting very hard to have annual tests for one purpose. They have seen in states for years that if they didn’t have them that states would ignore children. They agree with us now that they have been misused, but they fought very hard in the last few months to actually have annual tests as opposed to grade span (in ESEA).”

A few days after the NPE conference, Weingarten spoke in support of Common Core at event sponsored by supporters of Common Core.

It is not necessary to torture children with standardized testing in order to see if a school needs funding. All you need to do is look at the income level of families in a school and you will know what funding is needed to meet the needs of students at that school. In addition to testing company profits, standardized testing is used by corporate education reformers to decide which public schoolsshould be “turned around” to charters to advance a privatization agenda.

Based on the experience of the oppressive conditions in many urban areas, the explosion in Baltimore against police repression to those fighting the oppression is causing many youth to reject the social and political forms that have been holding them down. The fragmentation of the Democratic Party in Philadelphia is a harbinger of great changes coming nationally. Nature abhors a vacuum. A political party with a program that meets the needs of the 99% needs to be built out of the struggles on which the youth have embarked so we do not descend into a social disaster.

The Network for Public Education is very pleased to endorse Helen Gym for City Council in Philadelphia. Helen is a fighter for public education and for social justice. Her passionate and eloquent voice will make a difference when decisions are made. Please send her whatever you can. She has been endorsed by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the city’s major newspaper.



The Network for Education is proud to join the growing list of organizations endorsing Helen Gym in the Primary Election for a City Council At-Large seat in the city of Philadelphia.


NPE President Diane Ravitch has lauded Helen as a hero of public education and an inspiration for us all. When asked about Helen’s candidacy, Diane said she is “a great advocate for children and education. Philadelphia needs her eloquent voice on the City Council.”


Helen is the mother of three Philadelphia public school students, a former public school teacher, and a fierce advocate for public education in Philadelphia and beyond. She has been a dedicated community activist for two decades; her work has touched on issues regarding taxation, civil rights, criminal justice, jobs, labor, and neighborhood development. She is a founding member of Parents Across America, and the co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, a nationally recognized group of public school parents advancing broad causes for social justice in the Philadelphia public schools. Helen also serves on the editorial board of Rethinking Schools, a social justice education journal.


Philadelphia principal Chris Lehmann, founder of the renowned Science Leadership Academy, said, “Helen Gym has been a champion for the children and the teachers of Philadelphia. She is a tireless advocate who will work to improve public education in our city, and therefore, help Philadelphia become the city we all know it can be.”


Not only has she been a fearless advocate for fair funding, bringing national attention to the dire underfunding situation in Philadelphia, she has developed a plan to ensure that going forward the city’s schools have the funds they need without over burdening homeowners. Please read more about her Fair-Share Plan, which will ensure that all Philadelphia students have access to the services such as nurses, counselors, libraries, music, and the arts.


Helen also supports less testing in our schools stating, “Tests should be one measure which informs practice. It should not be used as a major measure to evaluate teachers, determine pay, close schools or deny children a diploma or access to a quality education.”


And true to form, Helen has backed up her belief with action. When the city recently estimated that only 22% of students would graduate, Helen called for the end of the state’s Keystone exams, which are end of course exams used as a graduation requirement. Helen said, “The School District’s projection of a 22 percent graduation rate when the state and city have failed to adequately meet schools’ needs is an outrage and threatens the future of hundreds of thousands of students in this city.” She added, “No one wins with a testing system destined for failure.”


You can read more about Helen’s education policy positions here.


Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said, “For Philadelphia’s educators, the choice to endorse Helen Gym for City Council At Large was an easy one. No other candidate possesses Helen’s combination of passion for quality public schools and deep knowledge of education issues.”


We urge you to do what you can to ensure Helen is elected to be the champion the children and teachers of Philadelphia so desperately need. Please visit her websiteto donate to her campaign and help spread the word about her candidacy.




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