Defending Public Education in Philadelphia

Against the Current, No. 165, July/August 2013

Ron Whitehorne

PHILADELPHIA HAS BECOME ground zero in the application of “shock and awe” tactics to public education. Faced with a manufactured fiscal crisis, an appointed board dominated by the state government has rapidly moved to close an unprecedented number of schools, slash instructional programs and support services, impose draconian cuts on school employees, gut collective bargaining, and institute privatization in the form of contracting out and unfettered charter school expansion.

In response, a broad-based movement of students, parents, unions, civil rights, immigrant, and religious groups and neighborhood community organizations has come together to defend public schools and put forward progressive alternatives. The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), which includes all three school unions, as well as over a dozen community-based groups, is the most significant organizational expression of this fightback.

Like other urban school districts, Philadelphia for decades has had an apartheid-like educational system in which chronically underfunded, under-resourced schools serve poor and working-class families, particularly in predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods. Public magnet schools, private and parochial schools and, in the recent period, some charter schools offer a limited number of opportunities for those who have access or money.

The current crisis has its roots in the state takeover of the Philadelphia School District in 2001. A reforming school superintendent, David Hornbeck, challenged the underfunding of the District by Harrisburg and threatened to close schools early rather than make drastic cuts in the budget.

Hornbeck was forced out and the state, using its powers under a state takeover law passed in 1998, took over the District. A five-person School Reform Commission was created with the governor getting three slots and the Mayor two. Like the School Board before it, the SRC has no power to raise revenue and depends on the state and city government for funding.

The Privatization Plague

The newly created Commission embarked on an ambitious privatization project. Initially the plan was to turn over the District to the for-profit company Edison Schools. Following a massive outpouring of community opposition, the plan was scaled back with Edison and other Education Management Organizations (EMOs) getting contracts to run a limited number of schools, but with the District’s unionized work force.

The same state takeover law, Act 46, also aimed at pulling the teeth of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. It outlawed strikes, limited the scope of collective bargaining, and allowed the District to impose terms when the existing contract expired. Teachers who violated the no-strike law were subject to the loss of their certification.

A Manufactured Crisis

The 2001 privatization initiative was a dismal failure. The EMO-managed schools underperformed relative to comparable District managed schools, even with an extra subsidy from the state. More successful from the corporate school reformers’ point of view was the aggressive promotion of charter schools, which over the last decade have grown to the point where they represent a quarter of the students enrolled in the system, a figure expected to grow to 40% over the next period.

Accelerated charter school growth is one of the factors driving the current wave of school closures. Restrictive admission procedures and removing academically or behaviorally challenging students have helped charters sell themselves to frustrated parents as safer and more successful.

Privatization has also been fueled by the “race to the top” program of president Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan, which promotes closing schools with persistently low test scores and turning them over to charters, as has been done extensively in Philadelphia.

In 2011 the Philadelphia School District experienced a budgetary perfect storm that created the current crisis. Federal stimulus dollars, which had been used to make modest improvements like lower class sizes and more support services, dried up at the same time that governor Corbett, an aggressive rightwing Republican, made massive cuts to education and other human services, including scrapping a progressive funding formula that channeled more state dollars into poorer Districts.

The result is a projected budget deficit for the Philadelphia School District that will grow to over a billion dollars over the next five years. The SRC and the city’s corporate elites frame the whole conversation as reining in excess spending and “learning to live within our means,” ignoring the historical underfunding of the District and the gross inequities with affluent suburban communities that spend twice as much per capita as Philadelphia.

As the size of the budget deficit became clear, the SRC moved quickly to develop an austerity plan and to use the opportunities the crisis created to further privatize the District. Thomas Knudsen, formerly CEO of the city gas works who had “right sized” operations there at the expense of consumers and workers, was appointed Chief Recovery Officer with a mandate to slash spending. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a global management company that has played a role in privatizing and downsizing schools in New Orleans, Chicago and elsewhere, was brought in to develop a plan.

Local philanthropic interests, led by the William Penn foundation, picked up the $2.7 million price tag for BCG services. The foundation, which historically has funded much of the community based education organizing in the city, moved dramatically to the right with the hiring of Jeremy Nowack as Executive Director.

Nowack, an enthusiastic booster of charter schools and the whole corporate school reform agenda, quickly emerged as a behind the scenes player in charting the response to the budget crisis. While corporate elites decided the fate of the District, parents, students, educators and the broader community were denied a voice.

Transformative Change BCG Style

Released in April of 2012, the BCG plan, “A Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia Schools,” was an ambitious recipe for austerity and privatization. Highlights were:

• A five-year bare bones instructional budget that would cut full time nurses, security staff, librarians, art and music instruction, and lead to larger class sizes.

• Replacing central management with clusters called Achievement Network consisting of competitively bid, management teams.

• Creating an Independent Shared Services Organization that would sell school services to these networks.

• Replacing transportation and maintenance unionized workers by contracting out all this work.

• Going after all the elements of the teachers’ contract that would inhibit cost cutting and administrative flexibility, including seniority, prep time, and caps on class size.

• Draconian cuts in wages and benefits to school employees, the single biggest saving in the budget plan.

• Closing over 60 schools based on utilization, academic performance and anticipated charter school growth.

Notably absent from the BCG plan was any plan to seek more funding from either the city or state. The BCG accepted that until the District proved it could “live within its means” it could not ask Harrisburg or City Hall to pony up more money.

The SRC and the District initially characterized the BCG’s work as a blueprint, but as public opposition to both the plan and the way it was developed grew, they retreated. It wasn’t a blueprint, just a report with some recommendations.

By the time the new District CEO William Hite took the helm in June, the District had put some distance between itself and the BCG, notably dropping the Achievement Network scheme.

But the other elements of this blueprint clearly are being enacted.

• The District used the threat of contracting out to force SEIU 32BJ to agree to massive concessions, cuts that averaged $6,000 per worker, in a union that included many living at or below the poverty line.

• The District sought to close 37 schools this year and did close 23. It plans to close two more this year and an undisclosed number next year.

• Three more schools are targeted for charter conversion as Renaissance Charters, an expensive “turnaround” program in which staff is reconstituted.

• The teacher contract demands made by the District faithfully mirror the BCG recommendations.

• Finally, the District made no challenge to the massive cuts in state funding.

This agenda has the support of both the Republican Governor and legislature and the Democratic mayor, Michael Nutter. Nutter,  a corporate Democrat in the Rahm Emanuel mold, has drawn the ire of much of the African-American community and much of labor for his pro-business, anti-labor policies as well as for instituting racial profiling in the form of police “stop and frisk.”

The Fightback Movement

Philadelphia has a proud tradition of struggle around its schools dating back to the civil rights and Black Power movements. A militant labor history also exists, with two long strikes led by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers that were only settled with the threat of a general strike. Unfortunately these movements have not always been aligned and have sometimes been at odds.

The struggle against the Edison privatization scheme in 2001 did see the emergence of a broad-based coalition of unions, student, parent and community organizations. The African American churches also played a critical role. But this alliance proved short lived. While education organizing groups, advocacy organizations and, less frequently, unions have sought to work together on some campaigns, there has been no effort to develop a shared strategy and organizational vehicle for realizing it.

The crisis brought on by the budget deficit and the SRC’s response to it in the spring of 2012 pushed these forces toward a common response. In early May five organizations took the initiative to form the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS). These were the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, ACTION United (formerly ACORN), the Philadelphia Student Union, Youth United for Change and the Occupy Philly Labor Work Group. The American Federation of Teachers and the state affiliate early on lent support and provided some staffing.

In its first action PCAPS organized a militant protest at the May 31st SRC meeting that adopted an austerity budget, disrupting the meeting and attempting to prevent the vote from going forward. Students from PSU and YUC attempted to take the microphone and staged a walkout. Home and School Councils from 49 schools presented statements of No Confidence in the SRC. In speeches and signs hundreds made clear their opposition to budget cuts and their demand to fund the schools.

The core of the PCAPS message was opposition to the austerity and privatization program of the SRC and a demand that any plan for Philadelphia Schools had to include the voices of the community. The Coalition early on called for raising revenue by closing loopholes on corporations and the super rich and joined in the movement to stop prison expansion.

Another PCAPS focus was the disproportionate impact of these policies on communities of color. In May YUC and PSU participated in the Journey for Justice, a national action that brought students from inner cities in half a dozen cities to Washington to protest school closures as a violation of civil rights law. ACTION United successfully sought to get the Justice Department to investigate school closings in Philadelphia in 2011 on these grounds.

An Alternative Plan

While corporate education reformers charged PCAPS with being defenders of the status quo, the coalition went ahead to develop a bold alternative vision for Philly schools. A conference in September that drew 300 people launched this effort.

Several thousand people filled out surveys, attended listening sessions and town halls to make clear what they wanted in their schools. This was combined with research and best practices to produce the “Philadelphia Community Education Plan: Excellent Schools for All Children,” an ambitious 40-page document that called for fully resourced and student-centered schools, funded by closing corporate tax loopholes and shifting priorities to human needs.

The release of the PCAPS plan coincided with the long anticipated release of the school closings plan in December, setting off a storm of protest. Thirty-seven schools were targeted for closure, almost all of them in low-income communities of color. The District plan had students from closed schools being transferred to schools that were generally no better and in some cases worse. Long distances for travel, turf and gang conflicts and inflated claims of savings were all issues surrounding the closures.

PCAPS sought to organize the spontaneous anger over the closings of neighborhood schools. The challenge was to prevent the movement from fragmenting into isolated actions for saving particular schools, and to transform it into a united effort against mass closings. PCAPS did this by calling for a one-year moratorium on all closures to allow for a more democratic process and to find alternatives like community schools that could fill underutilized buildings.

PCAPS constantly pointed out that declining enrollment in neighborhood public schools is driven by under-resourcing these schools and by policies that advantage and promote charters. The coalition organized a series of mass actions, selectively targeting District community meetings, as well as staging city wide marches and rallies. PCAPS also sought to support school-based organizing, developing a tool kit and trainings for parent activists.

PCAPS experienced significant growth over its first six months. SEIU 32BJ and UNITE Here, the other major school employee unions, became active members as did a range of community, immigrant and labor-based organizations.

The demand for a moratorium was endorsed by over 40 groups and, as a result of intensive lobbying as well as mass actions, was endorsed by City Council with a 17-2 margin. Faith-based organizations, both independently and in conjunction with PCAPS, were also a major factor in the broadening opposition to school closings.

PCAPS was able to grow and deepen its unity at the same time. Its steering committee met weekly and worked together to coordinate a constant array of actions, a process that developed some trust and closer relationships between the leading organizations. This has enabled PCAPS to deal with the inevitable stresses that groups with different immediate interests and organizational cultures naturally experience in a coalition.


In February the District, responding to mass pressure, revised its closing list down to 27 but then added two more.  It canceled the remaining open community meetings in favor of invitation-only affairs at affected schools. Most people saw this as a divide and conquer tactic. Parents at some of the schools spared from closure vowed to continue the fight for a moratorium.

PCAPS responded by escalating pressure. Students led hundreds of people in blocking Broad St. in front of District headquarters. Smaller traffic blockages occurred across the city. Students also staged an imaginative “no education, no life” zombie action based on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Members of PCAPS, Parents United and the head of the NAACP sat in City Hall outside the Mayor’s office.

On March 7, the day of the vote, a huge rally went on outside while 19 people including AFT President Randi Weingarten attempted to block the doors and prevent the vote from going forward. Hundreds of students, their mouths taped shut to symbolize their lack of a voice, filled the auditorium, stood in silence as the vote was taken. The SRC voted to spare four and close 23. Sixteen of the people arrested are taking their case to trial and hope to use it as a platform to continue the fight.

Aside from limiting the scope of the closures, PCAPS leaders point to drawing hundreds of people into the struggle and changing the conversation about education reform in the city.

PCAPS will continue with campaigns planned around school funding, charter accountability and community schools. Its character as a coalition of organizations has given it stability and resources.

A weakness, however, has been the lack of opportunity for individuals outside the member organization’s leadership to get involved in the organizing. A new structure will create task forces around each campaign, open to all who are prepared to work but with coordinators appointed by the steering committee.

Beyond Occupy

Left forces that came together during the Occupy movement in the city have played a role in building a labor community alliance around schools. The Occupy Philadelphia Labor Work Group (OPLWG), a loose network of Left labor activists from varied backgrounds, has made the education fight a priority and was one of the groups that launched PCAPS.

Along with the Teacher Action Group (TAG), a social justice-minded group of teachers, they brought in three leaders from the Chicago Teachers Union for a speaking event that drew several hundred people, including many PFT teachers. OPLWG retired teachers along with left-leaning rank and filers have tried to promote the lessons of Chicago in the PFT.

The union leadership’s embracing PCAPS and a perspective of building alliances with the community represents a real step forward from its traditional narrow, business unionist posture. However, it has yet to demonstrate a willingness to build democratic, rank-and-file power that was so evident in Chicago. With an unprecedented contract fight coming to a head this September time is short.

Other Occupy veterans who have continued to organize around opposing mass incarceration, police abuse, and economic injustice have also contributed to the success of PCAPS, as have many independent leftists active in the participating organizations. There is significant unity around a broad populist, anti-racist politics as well as the importance of mass mobilization.

More problematic is how to approach the coming electoral contests that will be of critical importance for the future of education in the city. The schools depend on the state for 60% of the budget. Restoration of the cuts made two years ago and changing the charter school law is essential to reversing the fortunes of public education in the city.

Governor Tom Corbett and the Repub­lican majority in the legislature are looking vulnerable as draconian cuts in spending have impacted rural areas, inner ring suburbs and small cities that traditionally vote Republican. The problem will be to field a real alternative willing to take on the corporate interests in both parties.

Former governor Ed Rendell, while a centrist corporate liberal, did increase funding and endorsed a formula that benefitted impoverished Districts. Thus many education advocates will be prepared to jump on the bandwagon of any Democrat.

Others, including many from the Occupy ranks, will urge abstention from any electoral engagement in favor of staying in the street. Finding a way to navigate between these poles and retain the character of a broad coalition will be challenging.

Since the school closings the District has announced that without the infusion of over $300 million in new revenue the District would have to open in the fall with huge classes and without counselors, librarians, arts teachers, secretaries and nurses, characterized as a “doomsday” budget.

Reversing their earlier silence regarding funding, the administration, supported by the Mayor and the SRC, called for $60 million in local funding, $120 million from Harrisburg, and $133 million in concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Locally the Mayor has called for escalating taxes on single drinks in neighborhood tap rooms and cigarettes, while opposing new business taxes supported by PCAPS and others.

On May 17, the anniversary of the historic 1954 Brown school desegregation Supreme Court decision, thousands of students staged a citywide walkout demanding full funding for the schools.

PCAPS is not the first or the only labor-community coalition in Philadelphia. Its significance is that it represents an advance for working-class politics in the degree and character of the unity it has forged, the willingness to engage in militant direct action and in its class-based messaging.

In this sense it has had an impact well beyond those who are focused on education. Many hope that this example will further still broader alliances at both the city and the state level.

July/August 2013, ATC 165