Philadelphia: Our schools are not for sale!

As a group of wealthy investors looking to capitalize on the public education crisis met behind closed doors at the Union League on Sept. 30, protesters gathered outside let it be known that “Our schools are not for sale!”

Students, teachers, parents and community activists who joined the demonstration were urged to “bring the noise” and disrupt “corporate education reform.” They carried signs reading “No to profiteers” and notifying the for-profit school advocates inside that “Children are not commodities.”

During the rally, Benjamin Franklin High School student Sharron Snyder, a member of the Philadelphia Student Union, described her crowded classroom this fall, where some of the 45 to 50 students have to sit on radiators and floors for lack of desks. She called the attacks on Philadelphia schools “racist,” noting that “they are not doing this in white schools.” Snyder was adamant that “we are not going to go to prison; we are going to college and we are going to succeed.”

Youth United for Change member Mahala Papadopoulos, a freshman at Masterman High School, said, “The billionaires gathered here today helped create the crisis in education. Trying to make profit off the education crisis is totally not cool.”

‘Vulture’ capitalists plot to defund public schools

With attendance at the two-day conference limited to those who make $50,000 in charitable donations per year, there was little doubt that these vulture capitalists did not want the public to get wind of their plans to further defund public schools and force students into for-profit charter or even private schools. The press was kept out as well.

But these conference participants are not strangers to the growing movement fighting to stop the attacks on public education. The $2 billion William Penn Foundation, which provided funding for the event, also financed the Boston Consulting Group’s “Blueprint” study.

Commissioned by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission in 2012, the study proposed closing 64 schools by 2017, gutting the Philadelphia School District office and breaking up schools into “achievement networks” to be operated by private managers. A number of these potential managers were at the conference.

The Philadelphia School Partnership — advocates of the BCG “Blueprint” and promoters of the Great Schools Compact — played a key role at the closed-door event. PSP has received $65 million in pledges from wealthy businesses, individuals and foundations to support its goal to privatize Philadelphia schools. Their Web page boasts of a $5 million grant just received from the Walton Family Foundation.

The Gates Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, both of which funded the Great Schools Compact, were also at the conference.

Another key player at the event was Jonathan Cetel, director of Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now. Closely linked to PSP, PennCAN was recently caught secretly advising Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett that forcing major contract concessions from Philadelphia teachers could help his bid for re-election.

Having already succeeded in forcing the closure of 23 Philadelphia public schools and layoffs of more than 4,000 teachers and school workers in 2013, the for-profit education industry is now engaged in a major offensive against teachers’ seniority. PennCAN, PSP and their funders, including the Gates Foundation, are all behind this campaign.

One day before their conference opened, organizers announced plans to ask the School Reform Commission to “immediately pull seniority off the bargaining table and give Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. a free hand in assigning staff.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 30) The SRC is currently in contract negotiations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, whose contract expired Aug. 31.

The coalition introduced a bill in the state legislature on Oct. 1 to strip language from the state school code requiring that layoffs and recalls be based on seniority. Opposition to this ominous attack on a union’s right to negotiate their contract was reflected in signs carried by protesters that read, “The problem isn’t teachers’ seniority; it’s the 1%’s corporate greed!”

The calculated defunding of public education and the attacks on public employee unions are not unique to Philadelphia. Unwilling to create more jobs to produce goods and services in an economic system on the brink of collapse due to overproduction, Wall Street investors sitting on trillions of dollars are looking for other investment options.

Even a cash-strapped district like Philadelphia is mandated to pay up to $10,000 per student attending charter schools each year, to the considerable detriment of the public schools. Privatizing schools, like the privatization of prisons, is clearly high on the corporate agenda.

Several of the youth participating in the rally denounced the state spending billions on new prison construction while schools are being defunded and closed. Olivia Vazquez, a 19-year-old organizer with the immigrant rights group Juntos, told the demonstration, “We need a pathway for young people to go to college, not to go to prison.”