Set off without a Paddle: Unpacking the School District’s Disaster Capitalism

Photo by Louie U-A

Last night, a few more details (and scare tactics) from the School District’s radical plan for Philadelphia schools were released. If you didn’t believe that we were in the throes of disaster capitalism, you should now. Watch how the game is played:

The Philadelphia School District's financial situation is so dire that without a $94 million cash infusion from a proposed city property-reassessment plan, schools might not be able to open in the fall, leaders said Tuesday night.

At a district budget hearing, chief recovery officer Thomas Knudsen stressed that the district might fall off "the cliff on which we now stand so precariously" if swift action is not taken.

The district's money problems, coupled with a lack of academic progress and safety issues, have prompted Knudsen to propose a total overhaul of how schools are organized and run. More students would be shifted to charter schools, and the central office would be shrunk, with district schools managed by staff or outside organizations who bid to run them.

See the connections they make? We have a massive budget hole! Ergo, we need a total overhaul of schools!

There. Is. So. Much. Wrong. With. This. Shit. Where to start?

Yes, the School District has a massive budget hole. Let’s all acknowledge that reality, while also remembering that it seems pointless to totally trust the always shifting numbers that come from a School District that still employs the same financial wizards as during the reign of Arlene Ackerman.

The School District will attempt to fill this massive, mostly state-caused, budget hole through the following ways:

  • Slashing wages and benefits from teachers, cafeteria workers and janitors.
  • Forcing charter schools to take seven percent less money, per child.
  • Scaring City Council into coughing up 94 million dollars more.
  • And, in the end, borrowing. A lot. (They will do this by issuing bonds.)

All told, the ‘true’ deficit that they are making up with the above factors is hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Where does the restructuring of the School District, the closing of 40 schools and moving tens of thousands of kids to charter schools, fit into all of this? Surely, this radical change in the district is also a huge part of the savings?

Nope. Not really. Despite needing to plug this massive, hundreds of millions of dollars big hole, this radical reorganization will save something like 33 million dollars (according to the School District’s questionable numbers). Again, compared to all the rest, borrowing included, which stretch well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, these savings— if they are true— are almost a pittance.

As a parent put it eloquently last night:

Parent Rebecca Poyourow said the district was resorting to "crazy-making" rhetoric and unfairly connecting the reorganization plan with the budget.

"It is at best foolish - and at worst devious - for you to choose this moment of fiscal crisis to foist a poorly conceived and primarily ideological reorganization scheme on Philadelphia schools," Poyourow said. "This move smacks of manipulation."

Again, and again, and again, this needs to be stated: The massive overhaul of our schools and the massive budget deficit are not connected.

So, why are the Mayor and Knudsen connecting these two things?

I can think of at least two possible conclusions. First, the radical changes are simply a long-standing ideological push, led by people who believe markets should solve the puzzle that is urban education. (In this game, the Mayor is anywhere from the person behind the scenes, pushing this along, or, alternatively, someone who is also being taken for a ride.) Maybe it really is that simple.

Or second, maybe Knudsen and Nutter are overseeing a bankrupt district, and want to ‘look good’ for Wall Street. They know they need to borrow money to keep this crippled mess hobbling along, so they are going with what they think will appeal to creditors.

Neither, of course, has anything to do with how we properly educate our children. But, this is the shock doctrine, where logic and reason are but constructs to be shouted down.

So, please, ignore the screaming threats of nuclear Armageddon that Mayor Nutter and Knudsen are making on your porch. Because while they are doing so, your television, your dining room set, and your youngest child are all being carried out the back door.

School Destruction Video: "If we fail, we will have to console more families who have lost their children to crime and despair."

Last night, as reported by the Notebook, the Inquirer and others, I attended the first (I think) of what will be many mass meetings about the Nutter/Knudsen plan to radically alter public education in the city.

From the Notebook:

Several hundred people gathered at historic Mother Bethel AME Church on Lombard Street Sunday night to decry plans put forward by District staff and consultants to close dozens of schools, expand charters, and reorganize the School District into “achievement networks” primarily run by private entities.

A succession of preachers roused the gathering and put public officials on notice that their voices would be heard before any such radical restructuring would be allowed to take place.

“This system is being designed to fail, and fail our children,” said the Rev. Kevin Johnson of Bright Hope Baptist Church.

The meeting was organized by POWER Philadelphia, a faith-based organizing group doing work around several issues including education. Many of the speakers invoked the language of civil rights and called the plan the new Jim Crow, destined to consign Black and Latino children to permanent second-class educations.

“The most important civil rights issue of our time, that is public education,” said Johnson.

We will have plenty on the substance of this plan, but, for now, watch two preachers lead the crowd at Mother Bethel (video from Techbook Online). The first, Dr. Kevin Johnson, leads one of the more historic churches in our city, Bright Hope Baptist Church.

The second speaker is not, in fact, ordained, but, she is our preacher, and she should look pretty familiar:

Well said.

Should a Starving Child Live Within his Means? What about a Starving School District?

Would the Daily News tell a starving child to live within his means? Would the Mayor say that a child who was facing benefit cuts in already measly food stamps to ‘grow up,’ face reality, and get used to a regular dose of rice, beans, and malnutrition?

Of course not. In fact, in the face of growing attacks on nutrition assistance, politicians across the city are taking on the “Food Stamp Challenge.” The premise of the challenge is to illustrate just how difficult it is for a poor person to feed themselves on $35 a week, and how impossible it would be to function with even less.

Allotted just $35 for a week of food, participants will learn firsthand the anxiety-driven calculus of finding nutrition with nearly no money.

"The benefit is being cut in draconian ways, and we're hoping to make people aware of how limiting the benefit already is," said Carey Morgan, executive director of the Coalition.


Nationwide, about $14 billion will be taken out of the food-stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That translates into up to $15 a month being excised from an individual's monthly benefits. The average monthly benefit per person in Pennsylvania is $113. In New Jersey, it's around $133.


[Congressman Bob] Brady said it was "ludicrous" for people to have to eat on $35 a week, adding, "I'll see what I can get for that money. You can buy a lot of rice, but it's not the healthiest thing to eat. It's pretty difficult."

It is extremely hard to live with little money for food. It is commonsense then, that cutting those benefits, and simply stating that poor people should adjust, is a little inhumane. What if adjusting, while still being able to maintain reasonable nutrition, was simply impossible to do?

Bank Swap Deals Cost Philadelphia City, School District

Large financial institutions, including many that received financial bailouts in the wake of the financial crisis, are making hundreds of millions of dollars off interest rate swaps negotiated with the City and School District of Philadelphia.

That's the key finding in a new report from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. We found that swap deals negotiated with banks such as Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs have cost the city and school district $331 million in net interest payments and cancellation fees. If interest rates continue to remain low, still-active swaps could cost the city another $240 million in future net interest payments.

WHYY's NewsWorks was there and posted this brief video clip.

Our report recommends that banks refund a portion of the cancellation fees they received for terminating bad deals and renegotiate those deals which are currently active.

Financial institutions have returned to profitability after the financial crisis, yet some Philadelphia schools cannot afford to keep nurses on staff. Now the banks have an opportunity to step up and help prevent more damaging cuts to schools and public safety, just as taxpayers helped the banks avoid total collapse just a few years ago.

Some other news outlets covered our release of the report yesterday. Check out the coverage.

Jobs Down, College Tuition Up, School District Taxes Up and Policy Makers Are Focused On What?

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

Other recent Morning Must Reads from Third and State:

Monday: No Revenue for Public Transportation & Corporations Need Another Tax Loophole for their Jets

Tuesday: Mo Gas, Mo Problems

On Tuesday, the Keystone Research Center published a summary of the employment situation in Pennsylvania. With the release of September's jobs data, which included a loss of just over 15,000 jobs, a picture is emerging of a job market in Pennsylvania that is shrinking. The continued loss of public-sector jobs and relatively slow growth in private-sector jobs is the main source of weakness in the labor market. The bottom line is that although Pennsylvania ranked in the top 10 of states in terms of job growth early in this recovery, the Commonwealth has moved to the bottom 10 in the last five months.

Much of the public-sector job loss is driven by the fact that tax revenue has yet to fully recover from the recession, the end of federal Recovery Act funding, and state lawmakers' unwillingness to raise state revenues which has deepened state budget cuts.

School’s Open but There’s Less Funding for Kids

A blog post from Chris Lilienthal, originally published at Third and State.

Kids are back in school across Pennsylvania and the nation, but many of them are likely seeing the fallout from education funding cuts.

Pennsylvania ranked among the top 10 states to cut school funding this year, according to a recent analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Center found that 21 of 24 states for which data are available (including Pennsylvania) are providing less funding per student to elementary and high schools than last year (after adjusting for inflation). These states account for about two-thirds of the nation’s school-age population.

Pennsylvania ranked sixth among the 24 states, with an 8.8% cut in per-student, inflation adjusted spending. Only Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, California and Ohio cut school funding more.

Overall, Pennsylvania is doing better than many of the other states, where funding cuts this year come on top of other cuts in state K-12 funding since the recession hit. As the Center’s Phil Oliff wrote:

As a result, 17 of the 24 states studied are providing less funding per student than they did in 2008. (See second graph.) In ten of these states, funding is down more than 10 percent since 2008, and in South Carolina, Arizona, and California, it is down more than 20 percent.

These cuts have serious consequences for students and the broader economy. They slow the economic recovery, hurt education reform efforts, damage the nation’s long-term competitiveness and leave school districts with few choices for restoring the lost state aid.

It all comes down to a question of priorities, as Oliff wrote:

While the state funding cuts partly reflect the economic downturn, which has depressed state revenues and raised the demand for public services, they also reflect choices by state and federal policymakers.  Most states took a cuts-only approach to closing their budget shortfalls for the current fiscal year, rather than using a more balanced mix of cuts and additional revenues.  And the federal government has failed to extend the emergency education aid it gave states earlier in the downturn, which played a crucial role in limiting the funding cuts to schools across the country.

Ending the Celebrity CEO Role of Schools Chief

Good riddance to Arlene Ackerman. If there was one thing that was totally bizarre about Ackerman's last stand, it was that she kept making bizarre statements that she refused to "play politics," with bizarro quotes like:

Is it a crime to stand for children rather than stooping down into the political sandbox for a politician's campaign victory?


I've been criticized for not being a politician," Ackerman said. "I am unapologetic about [not] making deals that hurt our children.

Uh... Up down, black white, dogs cats. You get the picture.

On her way out, Ackerman lobbed a few bombs in the direction of Dwight Evans and Michael Nutter. As a result, both Nutter and Evans have serious questions to answer about Ackerman’s allegations. But, the idea that Ackerman would not “play politics” is one of those 21st century, cognitive dissonance moments, up there with death panels and the like.

Remember Heidi Ramirez? She was the former member of the School Reform Commission who actually asked real questions of Ackerman at SRC meetings, and actually listened to parents and community members as they testified. She was forced out, and it was an open secret that Ackerman had elected officials helping to do the deed, insinuating that Ramirez didn’t care or understand the problems of African-American kids, and that her oversight (you know, her job) was part of a personal attack against Ackerman. So, out went Ramirez, and any semblance of oversight.

David Simon could not have written a story line about Arlene Ackerman. It would have been seen as a little too cynical and unrealistic. How could someone actually make up this departure? It was like watching a car crash. In slow motion. For two months straight.

Again, it was an open secret that Ackerman was leaving- the only question was how much money that they would pay her to go away. And, so, what did the “unpolitical” Ackerman do? In what appeared to be a clear attempt to leverage a higher buyout, she watched as the city was again set aflame among our old racial lines. (And, OK, she might have done a lot more than just watch.) You cannot get more craven than a politician who knows that she is leaving, pretending otherwise and turning Philadelphians on each other, all for an extra plate of gold or two on her garish, over-sized parachute.

So, good riddance, Arlene Ackerman. Don’t spend all of our money in one place.

As we go forward, I strongly hope that we realize that we desperately need to step away from the celebrity CEO model of school governance. The celebrity CEO culture, an infection that spread from Wall Street to the classrooms of our city, has done nothing but enrich a couple of people, while we are left to pick up the pieces.

So, no thank you, Joel Klein. Rubert Murdoch needs you more than we do. And, Michelle Rhee, if you hear the phone ring, its not us. Actually, we would probably go straight to voicemail, given that USA Today keeps calling to ask those pesky questions that you refuse to answer about systemic cheating in DC.

One person is not going to fix our school system. We need a committed oversight board, elected or not, to do its job. And we need someone- anyone- to identify what is Philadelphia’s philosophy and vision with respect to our public schools. When we have oversight, and a vision of what we want, then we should hire a skilled educator and community leader to fill the role of Superintendent.

Helen said the following, in her post a few weeks ago (The fittingly titled "Ackerman’s Last Days"):

If there’s one lesson we should remember about education reform, it’s that it relies less on numbers, data and yes even money, than it does on the delicate fabric of community and social trust. These relationships determine the sustainability and engagement of a whole society’s efforts to educate our children.

The goes for more than firing Ackerman, of course. It should be front and center as we choose another leader of our schools.

It is time for a new era for education in Philadelphia

I am sitting here trying to think of how to write a clever email about what is happening in Philadelphia right now. But, I am a working mom, and with all the proposed cuts to educational programs here and across Pennsylvania, the end of school approaching, the field trips permission slips I have to find and sign and summer activities to sign up for… well – I am fresh out of clever today.

If you want to skip the narrative and just take action: Click here. We are asking our elected leaders to lead more and invest more to improve the quality of education in the City.

The Chamber of Commerce is A Collection of People Right? Then Why Isn't the Chamber Crying for Our Kids?

So the Chamber of Commerce-elected Governor and Legislature are bound and determined to kill all-day kindergarden in Philadelphia. Of course, the Chamber won't say it that way. But that's the effect of its actions in demonizing public spending, public employees, and, especially, public schools that have the temerity to . . . of all things . . .employ teachers. Its massive spending in the last cycle was all about electing Republicans everywhere whose overriding mission would be the destruction of the public sphere, except in those cases where the public sector could be given away . . . to members of the Chamber of Commerce.

COUNTDOWN...Historical, Unprecedented, Urgent! "Philadelphia Town Meeting: Our Budget, Our Economy"

AmericaSpeaks, "Our Budget Our Economy"

Philadelphia Town Meeting: Our Budget, Our Economy

Our national deficit is projected to grow at an unsustainable rate over the next 10 years. This threatens our ability to fund what’s most important to us. We remain deeply divided over what our national priorities are and what we, as a people, are prepared to do to support them. Clearly we need to do something and let our leaders know what we will support. It's time to come together as a country to make the tough choices that will ensure America's future.

Sign Up Online today! or call toll free at 866-755-6263

Join Americans at meeting halls across the country linked together by satellite and the Internet! This is a chance to:

-Learn About the Issues
-Find Common Ground
-Present priorities to leaders in Washington

Ogontz Area Neighbors Association Reaches 50th Anniversary

Woodrow Wilson famously said that America is not a country of people who get their names in the newspapers, and the founding of the founding of the Ogontz Area Neighbors Association in December of 1959 did not get any newspaper coverage at all.

At a house somewhere between Broad Street and Ogontz Avenue, between Olney and Chelten Avenues, an interracial group of African Americans who had arrived in the community relatively recently and white, largely Jewish people, whose roots in the community went back further in time, decided that it was time for people of both races then present to work together to improve their mutual community.

UNITE HERE Local 634 Members Beat Back SEIU Raid By 2:1 Vote

Last week the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) announced the results of the election to represent the 2,300 cafeteria workers and noon time aides in the Philadelphia School District: members of UNITE HERE Local 634 voted by a 2:1 margin to stay with their union and rejected SEIU’s anti-union tactics.

After months of attacks directed by New York-based SEIU 32BJ, the PLRB counted 1121 votes for UNITE HERE Local 634 and only 551 votes for SEIU Philadelphia Joint Board. There were 10 votes for no union and 198 challenged ballots.

Legal or not - Do BRT payments violate the law?

It’s a question that Parents United for Public Education, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, and the Education Law Center are considering right now.

At issue is this section of state law, 72 PS 5341.21, which states that responsibility for the expenses of the BRT lies with the county:

§ 5341.21. All salaries provided for in this act and the proper expenses of the board shall be paid out of the treasury of the county.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association said they aren’t aware of any other county in the state which charged a school district for property tax assessments. Why us?

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