U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, in town to help open a new Philadelphia school, said Tuesday that the partnership that made Vaux Big Picture High School possible ought to be replicated across the country.
The school represents an unusual partnership between the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the Philadelphia School District, and Big Picture Philadelphia, a nonprofit education provider hired to run Vaux.
Carson said the Vaux concept — with its public-private partnerships — was the way to go, rather than the old model of the government coming in “with a big bucket of money,” building a project, then letting it languish. When community partners rely on projects for part of their income, that’s a game changer, Carson said.
“You’re pretty much guaranteed that it’s going to be successful,” said Carson, who also stressed the importance of education in his own rise to prominence. He implored Vaux’s 126 current students — enrollment will eventually grow to 500 — to take advantage of the opportunities in front of them.
“People who are well-educated are very difficult to manipulate and to control,” said Carson, a retired surgeon and former presidential candidate.
Vaux is a public school, with Philadelphia School District students and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers educators. But it operates in a former district building purchased by the Philadelphia Housing Authority after the school system closed the old Vaux in 2013. PHA, as part of its $500 million plan to remake the Sharswood neighborhood, is giving the school system a $500-per-student annual subsidy, and Big Picture is raising additional funds to support its model — small classes, project-based learning, intense supports.
“We will meet students where they are, ask them where they want to be, and give them the tools to get there,” said Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.
Mayor Kenney thanked Carson for the “invaluable federal funding that is making the revitalization of Sharswood possible,” but also underscored the need for “continuing support from our federal partners.” The Trump administration has proposed billions in cuts to the federal housing authority’s budget.
Philadelphia police had a heavy presence at the school, keeping a small group of protesters two blocks away from the HUD secretary.
Protesters said they were concerned about proposed cuts to HUD here in the poorest big city in the country, and called for more affordable housing and responsible development.
“Ben Carson, don’t be a puppet for Donald Trump!” yelled Barry Thompson, vice president of the Philadelphia Tenants Union. He was advocating for a city law that, like HUD’s own rules, would require landlords to evict tenants only with just cause. The proposed cuts, he said, would do “a lot of harm to the city.”
“We have to let Carson know how important affordable housing is,” said Constance Morrow, a board member at the affordable development group Women’s Community Revitalization Project. “The people he’s talking to are the people who run the PHA. He should be talking to real people.”
After a tour of Vaux, Carson traveled to a veterans’ multiservice facility in Center City. Asked in a brief interview there what programs he found most effective in Philadelphia, Carson said he had been particularly struck by the fact that Philadelphia has essentially ended veteran homelessness — and by the efforts at the high school.
“I was very impressed with Vaux, and the educational concepts — the practical education they can use on the streets,” he said. “PHA is in the process of revitalizing a neighborhood.”
In March, Trump alarmed city officials when he announced $6 billion in cuts to HUD funding; the PHA gets 94 percent of its funding from the federal agency, and the city has used funding from the Community Development Block Grants program, which Trump proposed be cut entirely, to fund small business loans in low-income areas and programs that help residents avoid foreclosure.
Asked how those cuts could affect Philadelphia, Carson said that the final budget is up to Congress, and that he wants to use what funds he gets in “the most effective and efficient way.” He said the department is evaluating its programs for effectiveness and wants to “make sure we continue” particularly successful programs. On Trump’s decision to slash his agency’s budget, Carson said he agreed “we need to be fiscally responsible.”
“Some of the programs have been a little careless,” he said, and needed, if not cuts, a “reexamination and tightening up.”