School Closures Rock Philadelphia

By Helen Gym

This spring, the School District of Philadelphia voted to close down 24 schools, about one in 10 public schools, affecting nearly 10,000 students across the district. The vote followed months of protest and community opposition, and was backed by Democratic party leadership in the city, primarily Mayor Michael Nutter—co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors—and by newly sprouted nonprofit organizations focused on school “transformation” models.

The district’s push to close schools, in classic “shock doctrine” style, is playing out in the context of Philly’s third massive fiscal crisis and its 12th year under state receivership. A late spring school budget stripped Philly schools of all non-legally mandated personnel, resulting in zero secretaries, assistant principals, counselors, librarians, and classroom assistants. Also zeroed out were all sports, extracurricular and gifted programs, and book and supplies money. Summer negotiations over teachers’ contracts are underway, with the district demanding more than $131 million in givebacks and eliminating most teacher protection.

Philadelphia’s school closings plan is a massive disinvestment, not only in public education, but also in vulnerable communities. Swaths of Philadelphia are now “education deserts” where no public neighborhood school option exists. Nine of the 24 schools closed are high schools, disrupting young people during their most critical years toward graduation. Parents have raised concerns that the school closings are the tipping point of a disinvestment spiral that threatens every school in every neighborhood of the city.

Philadelphia’s plan follows patterns well documented in other cities where mass school closures have occurred:

• Role of private “philanthropy”: A local foundation solicited millions of dollars from private donors to contract directly with a private outfit, the Boston Consulting Group, to develop a mutually agreed upon plan to restructure Philadelphia schools. Two parent groups and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP have filed a complaint with the city ethics board that the foundation, its private donors, and the Boston Consulting Group engaged in lobbying rather than philanthropy. The foundation’s head suddenly resigned after receiving preliminary notice of the intent to file the ethics complaint.

• Concurrent mass charter expansion: Philadelphia’s school closures were accompanied by mass charter school expansion, a specified “contract deliverable” in the agreement between the Boston Consulting Group and its private donors. The same year it closed 24 public schools, the district expanded charters by more than 5,000 seats and closed only one of 26 charters up for renewal. Charters with school performance index figures that ranked them among the worst in the district received five-year renewals and expansions. Charter expansion is estimated to add more than $139 million to the district’s costs over a five-year period.

• No achievement gains: Local researchers found that there was no significant difference in academic quality between closing schools and receiving schools. More than 80 percent of the dislocated students will transfer to a school no better than the one they currently attend, according to Research for Action. Moreover, the district’s unprecedented cuts to local school budgets—25 percent across the board—make already fragile receiving schools even more vulnerable amidst a massive effort to merge student populations.

• Disparate impact: School closures overwhelmingly targeted low-income black neighborhoods. Although the district has a 55 percent African American student population, schools targeted for closure were more than 80 percent African American. Philadelphia’s Action United was among a group of organizations across the country that signed onto a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education around disparate racial impact of school closures. The Department of Education has said it will investigate. In addition, many of the schools targeted for closure had high percentages of special needs students. One closing high school had a 30 percent special ed population and was merging with a school with a 33 percent special ed population. The district average is 14 percent.

• Fast-tracked process: The district suspended the traditional process for closing schools and instead put schools on an accelerated timeline, limiting time and opportunities for public discussion and debate. One elementary school, M. H. Stanton, had fewer than 60 days notice between the announcement of its closure and the formal vote to close the school. Stanton was the subject of a 1994 Oscar-winning documentary, I Am a Promise, about its success in serving a low-income, predominantly black community.

• Questionable monetary savings: District officials have not disclosed a full account of transition costs and other expenses associated with closing schools. A 2012 Pew study of six school districts found that school officials frequently overestimate cost savings. In early May, Chicago officials admitted they may have overestimated savings from school closures by at least $122 million. Washington, D.C., reported that 23 school closings had not only failed to reap any savings, but also had actually cost the district nearly $40 million in expenses.

Although these elements have a familiar ring, the opposition to school closings in Philadelphia has generated encouraging signs. A large community-labor coalition formed with significant support and engagement from the American Federation of Teachers. This group, the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), organized town halls and has focused on a “community schools” vision. Student walkouts and rallies have started to take center stage. A broad coalition of community advocates highlighted the inconsistency of mass school closures with mass charter expansion. As a result, the district announced no charter expansions for the following year. And a strong protest movement from parents and communities across the city seems likely to result in some level of increased funding for schools.

In addition, Philadelphia has benefited from a vibrant, independent education media, including the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a citywide education newspaper, and the Media Mobilizing Project, which has created videos and other storytelling vehicles to document the resistance.

In this critical moment, school closures in Philadelphia should not be seen simply as an end in itself but as a means to an end that has yet to be determined. Where the final endpoint lies will be decided in the struggle between grassroots community activists and the moneyed and political interests seemingly bent on dismantling public education across the country.  

Helen Gym is a parent activist and board member of Asian Americans United, a board member of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, and an editor of Rethinking Schools.