Thursday, December 25, 2014

Community group: closings unnecessary, $ crisis misstated

A coalition of community and student groups and the city’s teachers’ union said it has figured out a way to avoid school closings, continued painful budget cuts and what it says is the suppression of public will in the public education process.

Community group: closings unnecessary, $ crisis misstated

Protesters, including school nurse and PCAPS member Eileen Duffey (left) rallied against school closings this weekend.  A community group said Thursday that their plan would "create the school system the city deserves."  They called for a moratorium on school closings. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
Protesters, including school nurse and PCAPS member Eileen Duffey (left) rallied against school closings this weekend. A community group said Thursday that their plan would "create the school system the city deserves." They called for a moratorium on school closings. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)

A coalition of community and student groups and the city’s teachers’ union said it has figured out a way to avoid school closings, continued painful budget cuts and what it says is the suppression of public will in the public education process.

The solution? Focus on improving instruction. Ditch the School Reform Commission. Shift the way schools think about safety and discipline. Halt charter school growth. And, perhaps most importantly, force Harrisburg to fund the Philadelphia School District equitably, making up billions in aid that would fix a broken school system, the education advocates said.

The “Philadelphia Community Education Plan,” announced Thursday by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, is a 40-page document developed as an alternative to a set of recommendations issued by the Boston Consulting Group, consultants hired to study the district and recommend ways to radically overhaul its finances and operations.

Some kind of course correction is necessary, district officials say. The system is in dire financial straits, projecting a $1.1 billion deficit over the next five years.

It just borrowed $300 million to pay teachers and heat buildings through the end of this school year.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said that he regards BCG’s work as a guideline, not something he is bound to follow. He has publicly come out against some parts of the BCG analysis, including its recommendation to divide the district into “achievement networks,” groups of 25 schools run possibly by outside organizations.

Hite is expected to release his own report detailing priorities for the district in early 2013. He has said he will listen to any relevant information — including the community plan — as gathers information for his document.

But the community plan disputes one of the district’s central assumptions — that it is broke.

“The supposed fiscal ‘crisis’ is largely a fallacy. The real crisis we face is one of misplaced priorities: Philadelphia’s traditional public schools are being unnecessarily starved of resources, and our children and youth are suffering the consequences,” the report said.

Andi Perez, executive director of Youth United for Change, one of the organizations that produced the report, said she realized that the amount of funding allocated by state lawmakers was not directly controlled by the SRC.

“But as Philadelphians, we can’t lay down,” Perez said in an interview.  “We need to develop a unified, statewide strategy with folks from around the state to reinstate the funding strategy.”

The report suggests that the district and the SRC — three of the five members are gubernatorial appointments — have inappropriately surrendered without a fight, and with more effort could extract billions from Harrisburg.

The BCG plan, if enacted, would have “devastating” consequences for the already-weakened district, the group concluded.

In the past two years, the district has lost nearly 1,500 teachers; 86 percent of non-teaching assistant positions; 101 school nurses and more.

The community plan calls for several fixes: from “high-quality learning conditions” and “comprehensive student supports” to “support for struggling schools” and “truly safe schools.”

It also calls for a moratorium on school closings.  Last week, Hite recommended the district shut 37 schools and order program closures and changes and grade reconfigurations at dozens more.  

Another key tenet of the plan is ending the SRC, which replaced the old school board in 2001 when the state took over the distressed school system.  The plan does not specify whether the new school board should be locally elected or appointed by the mayor, as was the prior practice.

It also takes aim at city charter schools, which currently enroll nearly 50,000 students.  The proliferation of charters has unfairly sapped the traditional public school system, the report said.

The report estimated that an “oversized” charter sector and continued charter expansions would cost the district about $2 billion in the next five years.

The plan was developed after a series of community meetings and a survey of 1,594 parents, students and community members, organizers said.  

“Our research found that there was overwhelming opposition to the BCG plan throughout Philadelphia,” the report said.  For every Philadelphian that supports the plan, it said, seven oppose it.  

Those interviewed, the report said, generally believe that the BCG plan would worsen the quality of education, lower the quality of teaching, harm student safety, and lead to inequalities for students of color, poor students, special education students and students learning English.

The report said that community voice is remarkably lacking in both the BCG report and the current administration of the district, and that must be fixed.

About this blog

Inquirer reporter Kristen Graham writes the Philly School Files blog, where she covers education in Philadelphia, both in and out of the classroom.

During the school year, you’ll frequently find her hosting live chats about the district on Philly.com.

Please do pass along the scoop about what’s going on at your Philadelphia public school; Kristen welcomes tips, story ideas and witty banter.


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