Reflections: Then and Now
Submitted by Frank Murphy, April 28, 2011
The current controversy that surrounds the School District’s plan to convert Martin Luther King High School into a charter school is raising questions about the ethics of school reform. For many years, the media message has been that our public schools are failing us and they need to be overhauled. The solution most often offered for this stated problem is to privatize public schools and services. In so doing, the advocates of this strategy claim, the competitive nature of free market forces will compel schools to either improve or close.
What the corporate reformers don’t mention as they pitch their school makeover plans, is the profits they stand to make. Suave entrepreneurs and corporations who manage to gain control of public school funds guarantee for themselves a lucrative and reliable income stream. The potential profits that successful bidders for public schools stand to make can be significant. In the case of Martin Luther King High School, the designated charter school operator will garnish sixty million dollars over a five-year period. And this is just for one school.
When such sums of money are there for the taking, the lobbying of public officials by these entrepreneurs becomes intense. Elected officials who are conscious of their continuous need to raise funds for re-election are prone to respond to the requests of donors in need of assistance. In this light, it is easy to see how public officials can allow themselves to become entangled in a scandal such as the one that is unfolding around the awarding of the charter contract for the King School.
Currently, citizens of our city are asking what will be the response of our mayor and governor in dealing with the King/Charter School debacle. This is a fair question but it isn’t the most important question. Ultimately, it is about time that we ask whether it really is a good idea to hand over public institutions and services to private operators.
In these times when we are struggling to balance our local and state budgets, we should be wisely utilizing every tax dollar. When we award contracts to private organizations and corporations to manage our public schools, we are not getting the best use for our public money. Providing new profit opportunities for vendors reduces the amount of money we have left to provide direct services to our children. Additionally, when we transfer public monies to private interests, we lose the ability to maintain careful oversight of how those public resources are being utilized. Shouldn’t every public tax dollar earmarked for the education our children be used for just that purpose? When as a society we cede to private interest our responsibility to provide for the public good, we place democracy at risk.
This is an issue that I earlier raised in Confessions of an Urban Principal. In Installment Seven of the April chapter, I mentioned a newspaper article that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 26, 2005. This piece took a look at the accomplishments up until that point, of Paul Vallas, the then CEO of the Philadelphia School District.
In the article, former Pennsylvania House Speaker John Perzel was quoted as saying, “Vallas’ embrace of private enterprise goes beyond what we could have expected or hoped for.” Perzel, at the time was one of the leading architects of the state takeover plan for the Philadelphia School District. In the same article, Perzel later remarked, “Philadelphia’s experience has validated privatization, showing that companies can solve problems beyond the scope of the educational bureaucracy.”
What Perzel had to say then, bluntly acknowledged the true intention behind the state’s takeover of Philadelphia’s public schools. His comments place him as a member of the group of corporate school reformers who are intent on gaining a stronghold on the public treasury. Their goal is to create new “for profit” educational markets. They are determined to undermine the public’s confidence in the public school system in order to achieve their objective. In doing so, they pave the way for the creation of charter schools and the use of vouchers.
Yet others, like Jolley Bruce Christman of Research for Action, questioned the wisdom of these free market reform efforts as these translate to real results for school children. In the same newspaper article, she commented, “It is still an open question whether these groups actually bring the expertise, knowledge and best practices that will make a difference.”…
Interestingly, the only real difference between our school district today as compared to 2005 is that the embrace of private enterprise has grown even more pronounced. Under the administration of Arlene Ackerman, the dismantling of the Philadelphia School District continues to take place. Ackerman has aggressively moved forward the privatization agenda of the corporate reformers. As part of her “school turn-around” strategy, public schools are being given over to charter schools at an accelerating rate. It won’t be long before there are more privately managed schools in our city than publically administered schools.
As this trend continues, more scandals like the one at King will emerge in the clash between the objectives of private enterprise and public service.
Meanwhile, an increasingly vocal public is calling for a change in the leadership of the School District. The governance style of Superintendent Ackerman and the effectiveness of the School Reform Commission have become topics of great debate. It certainly remains an open question as to whether or not the interests of the Philadelphia community are being well served by either the Superintendent or the School Reform Commission.
But changing these leaders will serve little purpose if we fail to reexamine our priorities concerning how we will manage our public schools. We need to decide once and for all whether the public good is best served by private means. If we don’t act on this decision, we will end up with another city’s failed superintendent and new political appointees who will continue to push forward their unproven school reform “strategies of the moment”. And in the end, it will be the children of our city who bear the fallout.