Defending Public Education in Philadelphia
Publisher: Against the Current
Date Written: 01/08/2013
Year Published: 2013
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX19870
Philadelphia has a proud tradition of struggle around its schools dating back to the civil rights and Black Power movements. The African American churches also played a critical role. But this alliance proved short lived. While education organizing groups, advocacy organizations and, less frequently, unions have sought to work together on some campaigns, there has been no effort to develop a shared strategy and organizational vehicle for realizing it.
Philadelphia has become ground zero in the application of shock and awe tactics to public education. Faced with a manufactured fiscal crisis, an appointed board dominated by the state government has rapidly moved to close an unprecedented number of schools, slash instructional programs and support services, impose draconian cuts on school employees, gut collective bargaining, and institute privatization in the form of contracting out and unfettered charter school expansion.
In response, a broad-based movement of students, parents, unions, civil rights, immigrant, and religious groups and neighborhood community organizations has come together to defend public schools and put forward progressive alternatives. The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), which includes all three school unions, as well as over a dozen community-based groups, is the most significant organizational expression of this fightback.
Like other urban school districts, Philadelphia for decades has had an apartheid-like educational system in which chronically underfunded, under-resourced schools serve poor and working-class families, particularly in predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods. Public magnet schools, private and parochial schools and, in the recent period, some charter schools offer a limited number of opportunities for those who have access or money.
The current crisis has its roots in the state takeover of the Philadelphia School District in 2001. A reforming school superintendent, David Hornbeck, challenged the underfunding of the District by Harrisburg and threatened to close schools early rather than make drastic cuts in the budget.
Hornbeck was forced out and the state, using its powers under a state takeover law passed in 1998, took over the District. A five-person School Reform Commission was created with the governor getting three slots and the Mayor two. Like the School Board before it, the SRC has no power to raise revenue and depends on the state and city government for funding.