Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Photo  © Gebbe at Flickr

Public Education for all, versus “my babies”: Shocking Ethics and Inequity in Pennsylvania


By Mack Sennett Studios-Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
By Mack Sennett Studios-Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
New episodes of Keystone Cops just keep coming from the “School Reform Commission” (SRC), Pennsylvania’s legislative concoction to take over the School District of Philadelphia(SDP).
The episodes all have the same story line and the same ending, but the characters take turns embarrassing us.  Public Education actually suffers, charter schools expand. “Local control” is gone.  State government integrity is rated 45th in the nation.  Misfeasance is rampant.

Sylvia Simms is the new lead character, the ‘starlet, Keystone Cop’ with self-focused loose lips.   In a recent episode, during after-dark hours, when many school kids were already in bed sleeping, and in a direct slapstick move on the quiet ‘leading man’, CEO William Hite, Simms railroaded a motion to eliminate another Public School for yet another charter: Mastery Charter.   Her own, recently released email contains divisive, racial overtones, illuminating possible motive:

Simms’ alarming email asks people to “have [her] back”, while she worksespecially for [her] babies, the people [she] represents and look like [her].”  Full email text here(page 87).

Public Document: Right to Know
Public Document: Right to Know

Simms is much more tight-lipped when folks ask to understand her family connection to the very same Mastery Charter business.  Simms’ philosophies and loose lips headlined a different episode a year-ago when school children interrupted another of her pro-charter efforts.  She responded by shaming the children, squawking  “You must attend failing schools”, “belong in jail”.  Of course, Commissioner Simms is responsible for those Public Schools in her ‘professional’ role.

Bill Green: former ‘head cop’ demoted by  the show’s producer, new Governor Tom Wolf.   Even in a side role, Green remains in the midst of the approvals of more and more charters.  In fact he couldn’t wait to ‘second’ Simms’ motion to add the Mastery charter mentioned above.  Note that Green is a graduate of a private school in Philadelphia.

Lately, Green has been heard claiming that state law “prohibits considering financial impact of additional charters on the public district when deciding whether to approve [charters]”.  Never mind that funding a charter opportunity for a few select kids takes funds from all the other kids in Public Schools.  Never mind that the whole purpose for the ‘Reform’ Commission is to alleviate financial ‘distress’ in the Public Schools: financial impacts of his decisions “can’t be considered” (in Green’s opinion).
You have to watch closely for the next ‘Cop’:  Farah Jimenez.  Commissioner Jimenez often “recuses” herself from ‘Reform’ decisions, especially about Mastery Charters, because of family conflicts of interest.  She can ‘duck and dart’ with the best of slapstickers….

Context:  “School Reform” in Philadelphia

Fifteen years ago, the state created the SRC to take away local control from Philadelphia in order to “alleviate financial distress” (PA Acts 46 and 83).  In the interim, politicians’ record includes stunningly consistent academic starvation with simultaneous fiscal disaster.  The previous Governor cut a billion dollars from state funding of education operating budgets.

Since 2001, the State has appointed the majority of SRC members.  The SRC has hired multiple “outsider” CEOs.  The School District operating budget has been described as a “Doomsday” budget (for the past 3 years).  Teachers have been working without a contract since 2013. Thousands of children are without regular teachers.     “Equal access” funding is missing, given overwhelming incidence of childhood trauma and its shocking neurobiology detailed here and hereTeaching staff is at all-time lows.  Vacant positions remain unfilled.    Substitute teachers decline to work here.   Class sizes increase.  Course offerings only decrease. Building conditions are atrocious,  even  dangerous.  Philadelphia  charter school approvals mushroomed to one-third of total students, draining public funds without public consent.
Those same charters  exclude (or expel) students with higher costs-to-serve,   which must then be served in public schools.  School District bonds are now junk.  Pennsylvania’s system of “base funding” for schools ranks worst in the nation for equity or ‘fairnessPoliticians’ persistent, precise underfunding of Public Education, in Philadelphia in particular, is a prime cause of our condition.  A contrived disaster.

Public Education, a Constitutional mandate in Pennsylvania, is being systematically bled.

Public Service becomes Private Business

The education “marketplace”, if commercialized, is measured in hundreds of Billions of dollars, attracting Walmart, Bill Gates, the Koch Brothers, the Broad family and many others in favor of privatizing education.  They’re often involved  for “their babies” too (for a different motive):  for profit for “their babies”.

In fact, a leading initial plan in Pennsylvania during the state takeover, was to begin contracting out public education services to Edison Schools, Inc., a private, for-profit business.

Privatizers promote “standardized testing” as the way to measure ‘results’, in other words to proclaim ‘failure’.  Standardized test results are deceptive and blind to large variations in personal situations, which radically change results.  This sort of ‘bubble’ testing has been shown to be an accurate way to measure socioeconomic status, no more.  Yet the tests can easily be misused to scream “failing” system, to the unsuspecting.  This contrived ‘failure strategy’ is in the playbook at Broad Academy, where CEO Hite trained and it has roots going back to Milton Freedman as outlined here (page 87).

State politicians pressing privatization agendas, threaten reduced revenues for schools or more withdrawal of support, if we don’t approve more charter businesses every year.

The moral vacancy in all this is that public, neighborhood schools are not collateral damage in this war, they are the very intentional bloodbath at ground zero.

Once privatized, the education pathway to the “American Dream” ultimately becomes a service we all need to buy, not something we all have a “right” to, in becoming an educated citizenry of a democracy.

This brings us back to Sylvia Simms.

Photo © Kenneth Flaxman
Photo © Kenneth Flaxman
Privatization may seem good to Simms right now while a Charter Company is buying “her babies” color – coordinated  T Shirts to wear and providing  free, convenient bus rides and buying  boxed lunches to eat so some of her neighbors and friends can be used as “PR” for the Company at SRC meetings.
Sadly, their “free lunches” aren’t free.
Simms herself is a microcosm of the destruction of Public Education in the name of ‘self’ and ‘get what I can for me and mine’.  A tiny, selfish “vision”, dividing children.  All children.

Clearly, SDP revenue is a zero-sum system (Commissioner Neff’s term).  Charter company funding to support Simms’ babies comes directly at the expense of all our other babies.  All other babies lose efficiency, straining under the load of 60,000 students selected by charters, which are taking hundreds of millions of dollars of public monies from public education.

Meanwhile, many charter businesses ‘skim’ students, a very different process than Public schools, for all.  Unlike neighborhood Public Schools, only a limited number may enter, fewer are retained and some are even ‘expelled’ back to Public Schools which carry the higher variable cost for all students, plus the ‘sticky’ fixed overhead burden for all students.

The Constitution of Pennsylvania

We can not privatize our way out of accountability for Public Education for all.

The Pennsylvania Constitution, Article III. B  Section 14, mandates a “thorough” and “efficient” system of Public education…  Maybe the two most important words come earlier:  provide for the “maintenance” and “support” of a thorough and efficient system of Public Education.

We can not “maintain” what doesn’t exist.  According to the state Secretary of Education, the SDP is “distressed.”  We can’t be legally distressed and simultaneously legally “thorough” and “efficient”, so we violate “maintaining” “thorough” and “efficient”, day-in, day-out.

Next, the state is not “supporting” a thorough and efficient system of Public Education.  Political pressuring to approve more charters  every year is not “support”, but actually a direct attack on Public Education efficiency in a ‘zero-sum game’.

Even further, the state’s concoction of the “School Reform Commission” itself is in direct conflict with both: “thorough” and “efficient”.  The SRC is an unelected body, outside local accountability:  inefficient for local citizens, by definition and by intent.  The original context of Act 46, (private management by Edison, Inc.) and the recent, divided focus of SRC on charter approvals take away from a “thorough” approach to Public Education.  We have certainly not exhausted a “thorough” set of efforts to “support” Public Education, efficiently.

We need to get outside ourselves somehow and understand the cumulative effect of what we are doing to each other in the name of working “especially for my babies.

Public Document: Right to Know

Like Simms, my wife and I have “babies” (and grandbabies).  We too live in north Philadelphia.  Some of our family look like Bill Green, some like Jimenez, some Simms. I am hurt and angry that Simms is working only for the part of my family that looks like her.

Yes, I can feel the frustration of Simms. I want Simms to feel that frustration for all children: a “universal” vision.  All 200,000 children in our city, not diminished to whatever thousand she thinks “look like her”.
Many like to talk about “universal”, “high-quality” Pre-K; why not “universal”, “high-quality” Pre-K to 12 ?  If that vision is too big for some, maybe it’s time for them to move on.

The list of groups who want change is long, broad and growing:   According to Dr. Flynn, President, PA State NAACP, the SRC “has clearly demonstrated an incapacity to facilitate a thorough and efficient public education for the children of Philadelphia, and has in fact, destabilized the entire system.”   Rodney Muhammad, of the Philadelphia Chapter called for ending the SRC: “They [want] to take over our children and put them back on the auction block”

There are multiple avenues back to supporting and maintaining Public Education for all.  Constitutional remedies beckon, as do Act 46, Sections 691, 696 (a), (b), (d), (d3), (j), (n), and maybe even federal oversight via violations of ‘equal access’ principles.

We can not be swayed by hand wringers like Sylvia Simms and Bill Green, who would lose power in a true grant of local control for Philadelphia.  We need a vision of true democracy for all, in the birthplace of democracy, along with taxing authority and with Constitutional “support” and “maintenance” of Public education from our great state.

The future of Public education hangs on this battle between “my babies” and “all children.”

Is City Council listening?  Mayor Kenney?  Anyone in the General Assembly?  Governor Wolf?  Someone in Washington DC?  Anyone?

Call your politicians.  Tell them that you support Public Education, with local control, as a key tenet of a healthy democracy.

City Council President  Darrell Clarke                                                                    .             .                                  (215) 686-3442,   (215) 686-3443

Mayor Jim Kenney  (215) 686-2181

Governor Tom Wolf,  (717) 787-2500

Speaker of the House Rep. Mike Turzai(717) 772-9943
House Majority Leader Rep. Dave Reed, (717) 705-7173
House Minority Leader Rep. Frank Dermody  (717) 787-3566
Senate President Pro Tempore Sen. Joe Scarnati, (717) 787-7084
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Jake Corman, (717) 787-1377                   Senate Minority Leader Sen. Jay Costa  (717) 787-7683

See this Op Ed as edited:  NewsWorks  WHYY.  Click  HERE.

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