Archives for category: Philadelphia

Will Bunch,  a journalist in Philadelphia, foresees disaster for his city’s public schools, which have been under siege by privatizers for a decade and are barely scraping by.


“Betsy DeVos, the right-wing billionaire school choice advocate tapped today by President-elect Donald Trump to run the U.S. Education Department, is definitely good at some things. Arguably, she’s displayed great skill in practicing the dark arts of big-money politics, using her family’s vast Amway forture to woo state legislatures through lobbying and obscure political-action committees and impose a vast empire of charter schools from Michigan to Louisiana.


“Her biggest failure, though, is a pretty huge one: Failing to do a damn thing to educate America’s children, especially in the nation’s poorest zip codes.


“Take a look at Detroit — Ground Zero for education reform in DeVos’ home state of Michigan, where the heiress has pumped millions into the political system to boost what advocates call “school choice.” The result is a broken urban school system where charter-school privateers have made big profits — aided by the failure of an charter oversight bill that the DeVos family spent $1.45 million to fight — and low student achievement has been locked in. Federal auditors discovered last year that an “unreasonably high” number of charters were among Michigan’s worst 5 percent of schools.
“Now. as Trump’s pick for Education Secretary, DeVos — with no governmental experience unless you count running the Michigan Republican Party — will be in a position to push her unregulated brand of the charter-school grift with the full force of the federal government. And public school advocates in Philadelphia are horrified.”


Read on.


Be sure to watch this excerpt from Backpack Full of Cash, narrated by Matt Damon.

It is a powerful presentation about the corporate reform movement and the damage it has done in one of America’s greatest cities: Philadelphia, where public schools starve while charter schools are awash in cash.

Tonight is the second showing of Backful of Cash in Philadelphia.

The producers have launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the continued showing of the film in other cities and for post-production work.

Backpack Full of Cash is a highly professional film whose producers’ previous four-part series called “School” was shown on PBS a decade ago. As you can understand, it is much harder to raise money for a film that exposes the corporate reform movement than to raise money for a series called “School.”

Please give whatever you can. The Stone Lantern team has raised 25% of their goal. They need our help.

Lisa Haver, retired teacher in Philadelphia, points out that that families in Philadelphia have experienced closures of their local public schools, leaving them no choice but charter schools.

“Two years ago, Superintendent William Hite allowed parents at two North Philadelphia schools to vote on whether to allow a charter company of the district’s choosing to take control of the schools. Parents at both schools voted overwhelmingly to remain public. Thus, in 2015, parents and students at three more district schools were given no vote, but simply informed that their schools were to be placed in the Renaissance program. The choice had been made for them.”

The goal of “choice” is to give parents no choice at all.

This is a powerful, deeply moving article by Kristina Riga about the loss of black teachers in the school districts that have embraced “reform.” It appears in Mother Jones, where Rizga has been a staff writer for many years.

Rizga focuses on the story of one teacher, Darlene Lomax. But the story she tells is about the widespread shedding of black teachers, women and men who were the backbones of their communities. In Philadelphia, almost 20% of black teachers are gone; in New Orleans, 62%; in Chicago, 40%; in Cleveland, 34%. School closings have been concentrated in historically black communities. Black teachers have been disproportionately displaced by “reform.”

She begins:

One spring morning this year, Darlene Lomax was driving to her father’s house in northwest Philadelphia. She took a right onto Germantown Avenue, one of the city’s oldest streets, and pulled up to Germantown High School, a stately brick-and-stone building. Empty whiskey bottles and candy cartons were piled around the benches in the school’s front yard. Posters of the mascot, a green and white bear, had browned and curled. In what was once the teachers’ parking lot, spindly weeds shot up through the concrete. Across the street, above the front door of the also-shuttered Robert Fulton Elementary School, a banner read, “Welcome, President Barack Obama, October 10, 2010.”

It had been almost three years since the Philadelphia school district closed Germantown High, and 35 years since Lomax was a student there. But the sight of the dead building, stretching over an entire city block, still pained her. She looked at her old classroom windows, tinted in greasy brown dust, and thought about Dr. Grabert, the philosophy teacher who pushed her to think critically and consider becoming the first in her family to go to college. She thought of Ms. Stoeckle, the English teacher, whose red-pen corrections and encouraging comments convinced her to enroll in a program for gifted students. Lomax remembers the predominantly black school—she had only one white and one Asian American classmate—as a rigorous place, with college preparatory honors courses and arts and sports programs. Ten years after taking Ms. Stoeckle’s class, Lomax had dropped by Germantown High to tell her that she was planning to become a teacher herself.

A historic Georgian Revival building, Germantown High opened its doors in 1915 as a vocational training ground for the industrial era, with the children of blue-collar European immigrants populating its classrooms. In the late 1950s, the district added a wing to provide capacity for the growing population of a rapidly integrating neighborhood.

By 1972, Lomax’s father, a factory worker, had saved up enough to move his family of eight from a two-bedroom apartment in one of the poorest parts of Philadelphia into a four-bedroom brick house in Germantown. Each month, Darlene and her younger sister would walk 15 blocks to the mortgage company’s gray stucco building, climb up to the second floor, and press a big envelope with money orders into the receptionist’s hand. The new house had a dining room and a living room, sparkling glass doorknobs, French doors that opened into a large sunroom, an herb garden, and a backyard with soft grass and big trees. Darlene and her father planted tomatoes and made salads with the sweet, juicy fruit every Friday, all summer long.

To the Lomax children, the fenceless backyard was ripe for exploration, and it funneled them right to the yards of their neighbors. One yard belonged to two sisters who worked as special-education teachers—the first black people Darlene had met who had college degrees. As Lomax got to know these sisters, she began to think that perhaps her philosophy teacher was right: She, too, could go to college and someday buy a house of her own with glass doorknobs and a garden. She graduated from Rosemont College in 1985, and after a stint as a social worker, she enrolled at Temple University and got her teaching credential.

On February 19, 2013, Lomax was in the weekly faculty leadership meeting at Fairhill Elementary, a 126-year-old school in a historic Puerto Rican neighborhood of Philadelphia where she served as principal. A counselor was giving his report, but Lomax couldn’t hear what he said. She just stared at her computer screen, frozen, as she read a letter from the school superintendent. She read it again and again to make sure she understood what it said.

Then, slowly, she turned to Robert Harris, Fairhill’s special-education teacher for 20 years, and his wife, the counselor and gym teacher. “They are closing our school,” she said quietly. They all broke down weeping. Then they walked to the front of the building in silence and unlocked the doors to open the school for the day.

Five miles away, as Germantown High School prepared for its 100th anniversary, its principal was digesting the same letter. In all, 24 Philadelphia schools would be closed that year. These days, when Lomax visits her father in the house with the glass doorknobs, she drives by four shuttered school buildings, each with a “Property Available for Sale” sign.

Back when Lomax was a student in Philadelphia in the 1970s, local, state, and federal governments poured extra resources into these racially isolated schools—grand, elegant buildings that might look like palaces or city halls—to compensate for a long history of segregation. And they invested in the staff inside those schools, pushing to expand the teaching workforce and bring in more black and Latino teachers with roots in the community. Teaching was an essential path into the middle class, especially for African American women; it was also a nexus of organizing. During the civil rights movement, black educators were leaders in fighting for increased opportunity, including more equitable school funding and a greater voice for communities in running schools and districts.

Dora Taylor, parent activist in Seattle, describes that city’s battle to prevent the mayor from taking control of the public schools. She notes that the reason for mayoral control is to avoid the messy business of democracy, where parents and ordinary citizens get the opportunity to influence decisions about their schools and their children. Mayoral control and the establishment of state or local “emergency managers” are flimsy but powerful means of eliminating democracy and allowing politicians and elites to exert total control of decisions. Mayoral control and emergency managers clear the way for school closings and privatization. Parents don’t like school closings, but under mayoral control, schools are easily closed and replaced by charter schools.

Philadelphia, under the autocratic School Reform Commission, is constantly teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and collapse, as the SRC closes schools, fires teachers, cuts costs, and opens charters. Its attempt to void the union contract was recently tossed out by the state supreme court. Philadelphia’s public schools have been stripped bare, while its charters are thriving (except the ones led by people who have been indicted).

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made history in an invidious way by closing 50 public schools in one day, claiming they were under enrolled, at the same time that he continued to open new charter schools.

One of the worst examples of the autocratic seizure of control occurred in Michigan under Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm. She led the way to the establishment of an emergency financial manager for Detroit, under whose watch the district’s deficit tripled and charter schools proliferated. Detroit is now a worst case scenario, where there is plenty of choice, but none of them are good choices. The recent New York Times article about Detroit schools was titled, “A Sea of Charter Schools in Detroit Leaves Students Adrift.”

Dora Taylor writes in The Progressive:

The most egregious example of a politician’s undemocratic control of public schools can be seen in the state of Michigan with the decision by former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm to hire Emergency Financial Managers. The emergency managers have the power to take control of a city’s government, reduce pay, outsource work, reorganize departments and modify employee contracts. Emergency managers can also deem school districts “failing,” close public schools and convert them into charter schools.

The first appointed emergency manager, Robert Bobb, took over the Detroit Public School system in 2009. The County Circuit Court in 2011 found this takeover illegal but soon after, emergency managers were appointed in mostly minority communities around the state, including the city of Flint. In several of these towns, such as Highland Park, Michigan the public schools were closed and taken over by charter operators.

Darnell Earley, the unelected manager of Flint, presided over the devastating decision to switch the city’s water supply to the Detroit River resulting in lead poisoning of residents throughout the city. After the water disaster, Mr. Earley was appointed by Governor Rick Snyder to become the CEO of Detroit Public Schools.

Now the Emergency Managers are being named CEOs, as in Chicago, and given tremendous powers. These CEOs can:

Assume the financial and academic authority over multiple schools;

Assume the role of the locally elected school board for those schools they have been assigned;

Control school funds without the consent of the locally elected board;

Permanently close a school without the consent of the locally elected board;

Sell closed school buildings without the consent of the locally elected board; and

Convert schools into charter schools without the consent of the locally elected board.

The people have no voice or control over how their children are educated or by whom. The same holds true for mayoral control. That’s why, in Seattle, people are fighting back.

This is the kind of nondemocratic governance that organizations like ALEC love. Governor Rick Snyder loved it too, since it gave him control of so many districts. The emergency manager gambit blew up in his face when his own appointee, Darnell Early, was responsible for the decision to switch the water in Flint from a safe source to one that was not safe.

All of this matters because the fight for democracy is being waged in state after state. Georgia, for example, will decide in November, whether to allow a state commission to open charter schools against the wishes of the local community.

Let’s hope that former Governor Granholm recognizes that her decision to allow the appointment of emergency financial managers was a disaster. She is a member of Hillary Clinton’s transition team.

In a major victory for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the state Supreme Court ruled that the city’s School Reform Commision may not unilaterally cancel the teachers’ contract, as it sought to do in 2014.

“This is a total and complete repudiation of the position taken by the SRC when it surreptitiously met on Oct. 6, 2014, and passed a resolution to cancel the terms and conditions of the PFT contract,” said PFT president Jerry Jordan. “It means that the SRC has to honor the contract, and it’s my hope the SRC will return to the bargaining table and negotiate a contract with the PFT.”

“At that meeting, when the District said it was facing a funding shortfall of $71 million the following year despite closing dozens of schools and eliminating thousands of jobs, the commission announced that it was restructuring teachers’ health benefits to save $44 million. Commissioners said they would use the money to restore counselors, teacher aides, language classes and other services that had been drastically cut back.”

Joseph Batory, former superintendent of public schools in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, says it is time to abolish the School Reform Commission that has governed Philadelphia’s public schools since 2001. It has presided over the destruction of public education. Having failed, it is time to replace it with an elected board. At least, it will be accountable to the public. It can’t be worse than the SRC!


Batory writes:


“It is clearly time for Philadelphia to rid itself of the State-imposed School Reform Commission (SRC) overseeing the city’s public schools. This politically appointed board, with three members appointed by the Governor and two by the Mayor, has been a colossal failure. The SRC has presided over an educational disaster in Philadelphia.


“Given the priority goal of establishing better fiscal oversight for the schools in 2001, the SRC’s legacy has been perpetual budget deficits in spite of the fact that Philadelphia’s public schools have been stripped of many teachers, nurses, librarians, counselors as well as basic supplies. Incredibly, a 12-year-old child died because she dared to have an asthma attack on a day when the school did not have a nurse. In terms of services to and opportunities for students, Philadelphia schools are running far behind their suburban counterparts. What sort of formula for public school success is this?


“The SRC has regularly has demonized the teachers union, limited parent, student and community voices, and promoted the expansion of the charter school sector, despite the fact that these actions have only worsened the District’s fiscal problems.


“On top of all of this, the Boston Consulting Group was paid more than $2 million by the William Penn Foundation via an incestuous relationship with the SRC to create a biased “Blueprint for Reform.” This plan laid out a five year course of privatization which would close one-fourth of Philadelphia’s schools, placing 40% of students into charters, and dividing up the remaining schools into NYC-inspired “achievement networks” run by third party operators (editor’s note: they were unsuccessful in NYC).


“The SRC’s two most famous CEO/Superintendent appointments were little more than “top down” dictators rather than “enablers” who demeaned principals and teachers, robotized teaching, and produced minimal school improvements at best. Yet each of them was well rewarded with generous salaries, including a $65,000.00 bonus in just one year to one of them on top of her annual salary.


“The SRC’s policies have provoked broad and sustained opposition from the public over the last two years. On numerous occasions, parents, students, and educators have taken to the streets and to City Council and SRC meetings to register their dissent.


“Thankfully, at least one State Senator is trying to do something. Senator Mike Stack (D-Northeast), is now calling for Philadelphians to elect school-board members. His proposed Senate Bill would return a locally elected school board to Philadelphia.

“Stack told the Philadelphia City Council Committee on Education recently. “The SRC fails the accountability and transparency test because it is not elected by the taxpayers. Therefore, it is not accountable to parents, students, and certainly not the taxpayers. It is only accountable to the Governor or Mayor who have appointed them.”


“Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education agrees. The SRC is “a body that has refused to commit to transparency,” she said. “SRC policy denies people an adequate opportunity to speak to the issues. It is a serious imposition on the public.”

“Make no mistake about it. An elected school board is no panacea. However, the School Reform Commission has had its opportunity to create positive change for Philadelphia’s schools and failed miserably. Tragically, Philadelphia’s public school children have been and continue to be victims of this political abuse and neglect. The School Reform Commission needs to be abolished.”



Three law professors studied the discipline codes at Philadelphia charter schools and concluded that these punitive codes are used to push out students who are “non-compliant or challenging.”


The article, which will be published in “The Urban Lawyer,” was written by Susan DeJarnatt,  Temple University – James E. Beasley School of Law; Kerrin C. Wolf, Stockton University; and Mary Kate Kalinich, Temple University – James E. Beasley School of Law.


The authors found that: 38% of the Philadelphia charter school codes use the phrase “zero tolerance,” 74% specify offenses for which suspension is mandatory, and 38% of the charter codes mandate expulsion for certain offenses. Approximately three-quarters of charter schools have no-excuses policies in their codes. They learned that a student may be expelled “for repeated failures to recite the school pledge on demand in English by November of the 9th grade year and in Latin by the end of the 10th grade year, for having missing homework, and for failure to upgrade a failed test.” (p. 41) They found that students may be expelled for “failure to disclose on the application that a student is a currently enrolled special education student” (p. 41). One code permits expulsion for “inappropriate facial gestures” (p. 42)


You can read the article in full. Here is the abstract.
Exclusionary school discipline can steer students away from educational opportunities and towards the juvenile and criminal justice systems. As many public school systems have turned to exclusionary school discipline practices over the past two decades, they have also increasingly adopted charter schools as alternatives to traditional public schools. This research is examines the student codes of conduct for the charter schools in the School District of Philadelphia to consider the role of their disciplinary practices and the potential effects on charter students.


We analyzed every disciplinary code provided to the Philadelphia School District by charter schools within Philadelphia during the 2014-2015 school year. Our goal was to examine the provisions relating to detention, suspension, and expulsion, along with other disciplinary responses, to determine what conduct can result in disciplinary consequences, what responses are available for various types of misbehavior, and whether the code language is clear or ambiguous or even accessible to students or potential students and their parents or caregivers. We conclude that too many of the codes are not well drafted, and too many follow models of punitive discipline that can be used to push out non-compliant or challenging students. Some codes grant almost complete discretion to school administrators to impose punitive discipline for any behavior the administrator deems problematic.


We hope that this work will spur future research on implementation of charter school discipline policies to illustrate how charter schools are using their codes. Further, we hope to see the charter sector develop model disciplinary codes that move away from a zero tolerance punitive model towards disciplinary systems based on restorative principles.


The question it implicitly poses for the reader is why it makes sense to run two public-funded school systems: one that accepts all students, the other with the power to exclude or expel those it doesn’t want. This question has strong pertinence in Philadelphia where the public school system has been stripped of funding and resources over the past decade, so that the two systems are separate and unequal.



Sarah Garland writes in the Hechinger Report about a change of direction for the Mastery Charter chain in Philadelphia. The CEO of Mastery, Scott Gordon, has decided to ease up on the strict rules of “no-excuses.” Garland believes that what Mastery does and how it works out might affect no-excuses charters across the nation.


I am not convinced that what happens in the Simon Gratz High School, a charter school in Philadelphia, will change the direction of no-excuses charters nationally, but it is an interesting story anyway.


Garland acknowledges that critics blame charters for the near-collapse of the Philadelphia public school system, but she leaves unresolved whether Mastery is the solution or the problem.


Garland writes:



More than 40 percent of the high school’s 280 freshmen show up reading below a fifth-grade level. Several city special-education programs are located at the school, so about a third of students also have special needs, ranging from cognitive disabilities to emotional disorders. In 2011, the year before Mastery took over, the graduation rate was 58 percent.

Administrators started out by instituting the no-excuses playbook, as Mastery had done at several of its other institutions. Under this approach, students are held to high expectations no matter what circumstances they come from – or what happens at home at the end of the school day. The strategies typically include strict discipline, extra time in school, drilling in math and English, and accountability for teachers and principals, usually based on testing. Administrators adopt a rigid set of rules and punishments. A top-down lecturing style is followed in the classroom.

At Simon Gratz, students began raising their hands in class, tucking in their shirts, and racking up demerits and detentions for the smallest infractions.

The new administrators also dismantled the metal detectors guarding the entrance of the building. The idea was to make it seem more like a scholarly institution and less like a prison. But in this case students and parents balked. They didn’t feel safe without the detectors, security guards, and bag checks. The school, nevertheless, came off the state’s “persistently dangerous” list as the hallways calmed down and fewer fights broke out.

Teachers drilled students in note-taking strategies and the standards they had to master. Test scores rose at first. But then they stalled. Gratz still wasn’t the friendly, dynamic place Mastery administrators had imagined.

The high expectations and rigid rules weren’t enough to erase the trauma that has scarred many kids. In the years after Mastery took over Gratz, one student witnessed her father shoot and kill her mother. Another saw his uncle shot in the head and had to drag his best friend’s body to a police car after he was gunned down in the street. An honors student was hit by a stray bullet and died. Another student accidentally shot himself.
Related: How to educate traumatized students

Gordon worried that Mastery was in danger of confirming what many critics often charge about charter schools: That while many of them may do a good job of preparing kids to do well on standardized tests and get into college, their students founder once they arrive on campus. That the mostly white leaders of urban charter networks are, at best, out of touch with the mostly black and Hispanic communities they serve, or, at worst, guilty of a paternalistic racism that undermines their mission of uplift.

“A mistake that we made was the assumption that schools were not successful because they weren’t well run, or they weren’t well organized, or that teachers weren’t trained and supported.”

Gordon was ready to make a change. “We were frustrated that we couldn’t break through,” he says. “We got feedback from our graduates that the … support structure that we had created for students – ‘kids will not fail’ – was not serving them once they got into the real world. The real world was not as supportive. They had to really develop the independence to manage themselves.”

Gordon tinkered with parts of the model, but after struggling to get it right, he decided to start over.

Mastery administrators introduced a new curriculum, new teaching methods, and a new disciplinary system. They hired more social workers and brought in more assistance from community organizations that help kids deal with trauma. They made training in racism and “cultural context” mandatory for all of Mastery’s teachers and administrators, across every school in the city.

“Often you see people who are really bold as those who might not listen,” says Kathy Hamel, a partner at the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit that supports Mastery. “But [Gordon] is a very good listener, and he’s learned to listen and adapt.”

Mastery administrators decided that to serve their students best, they should make sure all had the option to go to college, but not insist on it. They began developing programs to support students headed into the military or to technical programs and immediate jobs. Even the charter network’s motto – “Excellence. No Excuses.” – is under review.

“We still believe there are no excuses for this country not to be able to provide a great education for every kid,” Gordon says. “There is no excuse; every child can learn and be successful. But I’m not sure it speaks to the soul of Mastery right now. That’s part of our job: to prepare our kids for the real world, and to recognize that there’s great promise in the world. It’s also a broken world.”


What do you think?