Resisting the war on Philadelphia schools

June 7, 2012

Matt Pillischer and Lilian Wehbe report on a show of defiance against plans for cuts, cuts and more cuts in the Philadelphia public schools.

SOME 500 people rallied in Philadelphia outside a May 31 meeting of the unelected, state-appointed School Reform Commission (SRC) that oversees the city's public education system to protest harsh cutbacks and more privatization.

The SRC has been given the task of dismantling public education as we know it in Philadelphia. It voted on Thursday to approve a barebones $2.5 billion operating budget after the state manufactured a fiscal crisis for the school district by cutting funding. The vote symbolizes the first step on a road to cutting thousands of union jobs, closing dozens of schools and moving towards more private, charter schools.

A group Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (P-CAPS) has been organizing to fight the plan developed by outside "experts" at the Boston Consulting Group, a multinational firm that was paid $1.4 million to work five weeks to come up with the "Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia's Public Schools."

That plan recommends a move away from public schools and towards a patchwork of private and public institutions where students and parents would have to scramble to get kids into a top-tier schools or risk poor education at one of the underfunded city schools. At the same time, those same kids' families would lose out on their decent union jobs in the school district of Philadelphia. It's a crushing blow to the concept of living wage jobs, and a democratic education for all, all in the name of "school choice."

Teachers and community members protest the SRC plan
Teachers and community members protest the SRC plan

GATHERED OUTSIDE the school district building on Broad Street were members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other unions, as well as Decarcerate-PA, Fight for Philadelphia and others groups. They held signs reading "Students Are Not Commodities" and "Education is a Right."

Speakers explained what was about to go on inside the SRC meeting. "They want to blame you, the workers, for all the woes and ills that go on inside the school district of Philadelphia," said a representative from SEIU Local 32BJ District 1201. "We say shame on you, shame on you." The crowd broke into chants along with him.

Representing parents throughout the city, Rosemary Hatcher said, "We are fighting for your jobs, our children's education--nurses, maintenance, every single adult that has something to do with our children. We need to show the SRC we do not tolerate this."

Similarly, Stephanie, representing the PFT, called on people to take to the streets in protest: "Come out and fight for the PFT, fight for your children's rights, fight for public education not charter, not privatization, but public education--because it's been around for years, and now they're trying to take it away from us."

In addition to the other community and activist organizations present at the rally was Decarcerate-PA, making the vital connections between cuts in education and the rise in prison expansion and incarceration--the state is currently spending $685 million in new funds on prison expansion in Pennsylvania. As Dana from Decarcerate-PA said:

This building more prisons and spending more money on prisons and no money on education, tearing apart education and the social fabric, and opportunities for people to get jobs, to have health care, makes all of us less safe. It makes all of us less healthy as a society...Or families, our friends--we're all affected by this.

Ron Whitehorn from the Occupy Philadelphia Labor Working Group put the attacks into a broader context:

We're here today because our public education system is being hijacked by an elite, unaccountable, unelected group of people who are represented by corporations and who care nothing about the working people and families in this city...They play on the inequalities among us: they pit Black against white, they pit men against women, they pit gay against straight, they pit native-born against immigrants. They keep us all divided, and meanwhile, they laugh all the way to the bank.

So what we have to do, and this is a positive start in the right direction, is we have to build a united movement across the state. We have to reach out to all our brothers and sisters in other school districts and build a united movement that recognizes that an injury to one is an injury to all.

Inside the building, the SRC meeting was held in a rather small auditorium, so the rowdy crowd was divided into two spaces: some inside, and the rest in a televised area outside and on another floor. Police officers searched attendees of the public meeting as we went in, and dozens were throughout the building to keep the crowd divided and stop the overflow from getting up into the auditorium.

The two-hour meeting started with fiery chanting from the crowd and was continually interrupted with demands that the SRC halt its budget vote in order to ask for more funding from the state and stop the plan to privatize schools. Ultimately, the SRC voted to approve the budget, even after they were presented a "no confidence" petition signed by 54 parent organizations representing 49 schools across the city, coordinated by Parents United for Public Education and the Philadelphia Home and School Council.

Thomas Knudsen, the so-called Chief Recovery Officer for the school system, responded: "My answer to those who would say that somehow this is no confidence: I don't know what else to do. I don't know where else to go."

But the crowd of protesters knew what to do. They told Knudsen repeatedly to go to his boss, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, and tell him that Philadelphia won't stand for this. Corbett has refused to halt plans for new prison construction and prison expansion--in fact, he's finding this money through cutting funding for public school and higher education.

WHAT AUTHOR Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow couldn't be plainer--the governor is cutting services and opportunities that disproportionately affect low-income neighborhoods and people of color, the cops are sweeping in with stops-and-frisks, Mayor Michael Nutter wants to criminalize youth through archaic curfew laws aimed at youth of color--all while the money is found to construct new human cages, branding more Pennsylvanians with second-class status for the rest of their lives.

The shortfall in education funding could easily be raised through progressive taxation, such as ending city tax abatements for corporate giants like Comcast that don't pay their fair share. Instead, they're asking working people and students to pay for their crisis. Nutter's plan is to raise money through the "Actual Value Initiative," by raising residential property taxes in an already difficult economic climate for working people.

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos added a familiar ruling class argument for why the working class must pay for the education crisis: "You can't say it's just about kids when adults all refuse to do more or give something up...At some point, labor will realize that there is no silver bullet, no magic out there, and we have to work together to increase revenues over the long term."

This in the context of the greatest single seizure of wealth we've ever seen from taxpayers funneled into banks--but they couldn't find any money when it was needed. Why are our banks too big to fail, but our schools not? They just don't want the silver bullet pointed at them.

After students were dismissed from the SRC meeting, they gathered outside and broke into lively chants and dancing. This energy and fight-back from students--primarily students of color--is inspiring others to take a stand against a war waged on teachers and public education at large.

These young people are not only hoping for change, they're consciously aware of the injustices this system breeds, and are ardently envisioning a different society.

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