Philadelphia's public school system is on the edge of a precipice, hammered by budget cuts from Harrisburg and an influx of market-based "reform" agendas. This disturbing investigative piece by Daniel Denvir of Philly City Paper shines a light on the often shadowy forces and political process at work — and should be a wake-up call for education advocates in every community: if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.
Thomas Knudsen, the man who was temporarily put in charge of Philadelphia schools in January, was running late to last Monday's press conference.
He had been delivering the same presentation all day, and doomsday rumors had already leaked: The plan he was about to lay out would dismantle the central office and parcel out school management, at least in part, to private companies.
Knudsen, paid $150,000 to hold the newly created post of Chief Recovery Officer through June, made a point of shaking the hand of every single reporter in the room before beginning his presentation. "Philadelphia public schools is not the school district," he announced, laying out the five-year plan before the School Reform Commission (SRC). "There's a redefinition, and we'll get to that later."
He got to it, using terms like "portfolios," "modernization," "right-sizing," "entrepreneurialism" and "competition." In short, it was a plan to shutter 40 schools next year, and an additional six every year thereafter until 2017. The remaining schools would be herded into "achievement networks" of 20 to 30 schools; public and private groups would compete to manage the networks. And the central office would be reduced to a skeleton crew of about 200. (About 1,000-plus positions existed in 2010, and district HQ has already eliminated more than a third of those.) Charter schools, the plan projects, would teach an estimated 40 percent of students by 2017.
The plan is bold — after all, closing just eight schools this year prompted an uproar. It's also terrifying, says former Philadelphia School District superintendent David Hornbeck, considering the poor academic records and corruption at many charter schools. "What is being proposed, in effect, is 'charterizing' the whole district, when there is a lot of evidence that at best [charters] have no positive effect on student achievement, and there is a lot of evidence they cost more," he tells City Paper. And "charters in many instances, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, have served private interests — sometimes of public officials."
What's even more startling than the drastic overhaul proposal is who engineered it. The plan was prepared with the assistance of Boston Consulting Group, a major global-business consultancy and school "right-sizing" mastermind. Boston's previous accomplishments include recommending that New Orleans, which has decimated its teachers' union and put most schools under charter control, create the exact same species of achievement networks in 2006. Last year, Boston also recommended that Australian education leaders close schools and cut spending. Indeed, Boston recommendations seem like a forgone conclusion: Their website touts "reform" hallmarks like evaluating student achievement through standardized tests and undermining traditional teacher certification.
It's unclear what Boston Consulting Group actually did with the $1.5 million contract paid for by the William Penn Foundation, given their apparent cut-and-paste approach to tackling Philly's school problems. Indeed, a former Boston employee has publicly described the company's approach as merely "force-fit[ting] analysis to a conclusion" — in this case, the dismantling of the school system.
UPDATE: Renown education historian Diane Ravitch has weighed in on the dire situation in Philadelphia's public schools on her Education Week blog. Click here to read her piece!