March 8, 2013

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Several protesters, including AFT president Randi Weingarten, were arrested this week at a Philadelphia schools closure meeting.

Philadelphia is the latest showdown between public education and the charter school "deform" movement. Between under-assessed property taxes and dwindling financial support from the rural Republican-controlled state legislature, our schools have been underfunded for a long time. We have a new superintendent who's been shaped by the Broad Foundation, which seeks to accelerate the charters privatization of big-city urban districts.

Like most big cities, Philadelphia is scrambling for money. They just reassessed property taxes (an extremely unpopular move), but we still have a state legislature that openly refers to the city as a "black hole" and refuses to adequately fund the schools.

Our state constitution states: "The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth (Sec.14)," and that "No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school (Sec. 15)."

Hah. They only give us enough money to keep the schools on life support, yet our ALEC-loving Gov. Corbett always seems to come up with money for charter schools -- and he's still pushing a voucher program for parochial schools. So much for the "rule of law."

This isn't a local issue. (That's why Diane Ravitch, former Bush education official, has formed the Network for Public Education. You should join.) This is about some very wealthy, very powerful interests who decided long ago to take out the public education system at the knees and use it instead to train barely-educated worker bees. That's why you should pay attention to this, because it's only the latest fight:

In a tense, dramatic conclusion to a months-long battle, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted Thursday night to close 23 schools across the city - and spare four it had considered shutting.

Taylor and T.M. Peirce Elementaries in North Philadelphia, Roosevelt Middle School in Germantown, and Robeson High School in Southwest Philadelphia were all on the chopping block but will stay open.

The vote capped a long series of protests, rallies, and public outcries against what appears to be one of the largest mass school closings in the nation's history. And it happened after 19 people, including American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, were arrested when they tried to block SRC members' entrance into the meeting.

Earlier, addressing a crowd that officials estimated numbered at least 700 and that shut down parts of North Broad Street, Weingarten was adamant.

"Philadelphia is being watched across the country," she shouted, standing on a concrete pillar outside the Philadelphia School District's headquarters. "This is a city that is under fire."

After the final votes were taken, the audience erupted.

"Shame on you!" people shouted. "SRC needs to go!"

Retired teacher Lisa Haver, a lifelong city resident, told the SRC that it was "the saddest day ever."

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said the large number of closings was the result of years of delayed decisions and a financial crisis for the district, which recently borrowed $300 million just to pay its bills for the rest of the year.

Ramos said the night was "excruciating, difficult, and emotional for all of us. Nobody wants to do this - much less at this scale."

But, he said, it would have been irresponsible for the SRC to have put off the closings for a year, as many had called for.

Initially, 37 school buildings were proposed to shut at the end of the school year, but Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. amended his recommendations late last month. The SRC did not vote Thursday on the recommended closings of Dimner Beeber Middle School and M.H. Stanton Elementary.

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