Thomas Knudsen, the man who was temporarily put in charge of Philadelphia schools in January, was running late to last Monday's press conference.
He had been delivering the same presentation all day, and doomsday rumors had already leaked: The plan he was about to lay out would dismantle the central office and parcel out school management, at least in part, to private companies.
Knudsen, paid $150,000 to hold the newly created post of Chief Recovery Officer through June, made a point of shaking the hand of every single reporter in the room before beginning his presentation. "Philadelphia public schools is not the school district," he announced, laying out the five-year plan before the School Reform Commission (SRC). "There's a redefinition, and we'll get to that later."
He got to it, using terms like "portfolios," "modernization," "right-sizing," "entrepreneurialism" and "competition." In short, it was a plan to shutter 40 schools next year, and an additional six every year thereafter until 2017. The remaining schools would be herded into "achievement networks" of 20 to 30 schools; public and private groups would compete to manage the networks. And the central office would be reduced to a skeleton crew of about 200. (About 1,000-plus positions existed in 2010, and district HQ has already eliminated more than a third of those.) Charter schools, the plan projects, would teach an estimated 40 percent of students by 2017.
The plan is bold — after all, closing just eight schools this year prompted an uproar. It's also terrifying, says former Philadelphia School District superintendent David Hornbeck, considering the poor academic records and corruption at many charter schools. "What is being proposed, in effect, is 'charterizing' the whole district, when there is a lot of evidence that at best [charters] have no positive effect on student achievement, and there is a lot of evidence they cost more," he tells City Paper. And "charters in many instances, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, have served private interests — sometimes of public officials."
What's even more startling than the drastic overhaul proposal is who engineered it. The plan was prepared with the assistance of Boston Consulting Group, a major global-business consultancy and school "right-sizing" mastermind. Boston's previous accomplishments include recommending that New Orleans, which has decimated its teachers' union and put most schools under charter control, create the exact same species of achievement networks in 2006. Last year, Boston also recommended that Australian education leaders close schools and cut spending. Indeed, Boston recommendations seem like a forgone conclusion: Their website touts "reform" hallmarks like evaluating student achievement through standardized tests and undermining traditional teacher certification.
It's unclear what Boston Consulting Group actually did with the $1.5 million contract paid for by the William Penn Foundation, given their apparent cut-and-paste approach to tackling Philly's school problems. Indeed, a former Boston employee has publicly described the company's approach as merely "force-fit[ting] analysis to a conclusion" — in this case, the dismantling of the school system.
Another goal of Boston could be enriching its allies, or scoring them political victories. Former Boston executives and consultants now hold senior posts at charter-school networks like KIPP — which could well apply to manage a Philly achievement network — and Broad Center, an urban schools executive recruiter and trainer and a leading proponent of corporate-inspired reform.
Boston Consulting may describe itself as an innovator, with its private-sector-inspired experiments. But to longtime Philly public school watchers, this just looks like the latest attack on the city's public education. Since 2001 — when the commonwealth swooped in and took over, but did not fix, the district — Philly schools have suffered the blatant mismanagement of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the corruption of charter operators, the unchecked greed of for-profit education companies and, in recent years, debilitating state budget cuts and a leadership vacuum from the district and the city. Each of these players has done damage; none has come close to addressing the district's core problems of insufficient funding and widespread poverty among students and families. If Philly's public school system does eventually crumble, all of these culprits will share a portion of the blame.
"Executive skills and experience." That was what Knudsen was supposed to bring to the table as chief recovery officer, according to SRC chairman Pedro Ramos. After all, he had turned around a financially troubled Philadelphia Gas Works. But "executive skills" might not be enough to heal the school district. Setting aside academic problems — only about 60 percent of students graduate; less than 60 percent score proficient in reading and math; and 80 percent are "economically disadvantaged," a key indicator of poor performance — the district's financial woes appear almost insurmountable. Philadelphia already raised property taxes 3.85 percent last year, to direct an estimated $53 million to city schools. Ultimately, Knudsen and his team will need to close a $218 million deficit for the coming year, part of a $1.1 billion cumulative deficit by 2017.
But even Boston's plan, to butcher and sell off the district for its parts, is predicated upon a reluctant City Council forking over $91 million in additional property-tax revenue. A separate ruling by the State Tax Equalization Board, which found the city's valuation methods to be illegal, could cost the district tens of millions more.
Mayor Michael Nutter has called on Council to approve the additional funding — and announced his support for Knudsen's plan. It is "stark but realistic," he said, suggesting that critics "grow up and deal with" it.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, however, called it "a cynical, right-wing and market-driven plan to privatize public education." And New York University education historian Diane Ravitch said Knudsen's plan has no basis in research, and criticized Nutter for giving up on schools. "I think he should be advocating for public education," she told CP.
The plan cuts $156 million from personnel costs and $149 million from payments to charters. And Knudsen threatened to outsource all custodial, maintenance and transportation work to private companies unless union workers could underbid them. "There are other people out there who do these things, if not better, then at least less expensively," he said.
This seems to now be the mantra governing public education in cities like Philadelphia: Other people do these things maybe not better, but cheaper.
Last summer's $629 million shortfall, fueled by $1 billion in statewide budget cuts to education delivered by Republican legislators and Gov. Tom Corbett, led to the elimination of 3,800 teacher and staff positions, including 1,300 layoffs. Layoffs have continued this school year: About 100 nurses got pink slips, along with 90 school police officers and 43 bilingual counseling assistants. Advocates say the counselors are crucial to preventing violence at schools like South Philly High, where the district pledged big changes after attacks on Asian-American students in 2009. South Philly lost more than $1.5 million in funding this year.
Cuts have also forced districts statewide to depend evermore on property taxes, exacerbating the inequity between rich and poor municipalities.
CP asked Knudsen if the five-year plan would address the district's central problems: too few teachers, too few school police, too few extracurriculars, too few libraries.
"The things that other networks do in other parts of the country," said Knudsen, "is that these networks attract resources." It was a startling admission: Like high-end charters, Philly schools would panhandle for donations from rich people. On prodding, Knudsen conceded, philanthropy wasn't the only hope. The economy could also get better.
But by then Boston's decentralization plan will have irreparably transformed the district.
"There just isn't the political will to give the resources to people who aren't perceived as having political power," says Nijmie Dzurinko, former head of the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU). That has been true for decades. But this Sunday at Mother Bethel AME Church, a gathering of about 150 teachers, parents and community members — organized by the church-based advocacy group POWER — pledged a fight. "The mayor, the governor and the SRC are not making the right decisions for our children," Rev. Kevin Johnson of Bright Hope Baptist Church preached to the energized pews.
On Aug. 18, 2011, just four days before she would resign, Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman sauntered into an auditorium to the tune of Sade's "Is It a Crime?" and delivered a provocative defense of her controversial tenure to a group of district principals. "Is it a crime to stand up for children instead of stooping down into the political sandbox and selling our children for a politician's campaign victory?" She dared the SRC to fire her — knowing that her departure was already being arranged.
It was the capstone of a melodramatic, and traumatic, three-year tenure. CP would soon reveal that Ackerman spent taxpayer money on pro-Ackerman propaganda, including protest signs and a farewell tribute video produced by three communications staffers who collectively took home $440,000 in salaries.
Ackerman liked to pay administrators generously, but she said it paid off. That summer, Philadelphia schools celebrated their ninth straight year of test-score gains.