Big Money from PSP: Our Take

Last week, the Philadelphia School Partnership offered to commit $25 million to the Philadelphia School District to help offset the stranded costs of charter expansion over three years. This comes in the wake of tens of schools being closed, thousands of nurses, counselors and support staff laid off, and an ever deepening budget crisis for Philadelphia’s schools. It also precedes an upcoming SRC vote to approve or deny 39 new charter school applications. PSP has also offered the district $10 million to help shore up its traditional schools, adding up to a total of $35 million in potential “giving”. 

What do we make of this offer? It is yet another step in the direction of continuing an undemocratic process, a perfect example of money buying decision-making power, and a wielding of that power to push the privatization agenda of the few in opposition to the many.

The Philadelphia School Partnership is a multi-million dollar non-profit. They receive funding from anonymous donors, corporations, and major foundations, such as the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

Private foundations are not allowed to lobby the government directly, but this is a clear example in ways that private interests are directing the fate of the Philadelphia public school system:

First, let us not forget that foundations have their own ideologies, the Gates (and Broad) Foundation sponsored the pro-charter film Waiting for Superman. Their agendas are evidenced by the funding of non-profits that push forward their plan: performance-based teacher pay, data collection (read: standardized tests), national standards and tests (read: Common Core) and school “turnaround” (the process of firing the staff of an under-preforming school- based on test scores- hiring new staff, replacing the school with a charter or shutting down the school and sending kids elsewhere). The proliferation of these “reforms” is largely thanks to the millions in giving done by the Gates Foundation.

Gates and Walton answer to no one. And so we must ask, who is held accountable if these charter schools are not “successful” (Stanford University’s 2009 study of charter schools-the most comprehensive ever done- concluded that 83 percent of them perform either worse or no better than traditional public schools)? In fact, who does the PSP answer to? Finally, why has the PSP become a defacto decision-maker for Philadelphia’s schools?

In a situation like this, the School District of Philadelphia seemingly has little choice as to whether or not they can accept millions while facing a demanding budget crisis. Unfortunately, by taking that money, the SDP would be demonstrating that their priorities lie with those in power, rather than the neighborhoods in which their schools reside. We need look no further than the Citizens United ruling to show that corporations and billionaires can wield funding to ensure their interests will be promoted. The highest bidder wins. Just as corporations, the Koch brothers, and other anonymous billionaires can essentially buy elections (thanks to the Citizen United ruling), PSP can buy decisions for the School District of Philadelphia.

PSP’s ability to wield vast sums of money has allowed them to skirt the democratic process and continue to co-opt public education from the citizens who are the true stake-holders.

We already know that the School Reform Commission is profoundly undemocratic, but this is one step farther in completely removing the community from any decision-making process. The PSP is serving out it’s purpose, which is to funnel huge sums of money into changing the future of public education. This money is given quid-pro-quo, the SDP will accept PSP’s reforms, regardless of any public input.

The PSP doesn’t answer to the students, teachers, parents, or community members. Mark Gleason, the Executive Director of PSP, at a panel discussion hosted by the American Educational Research Association conference in April of 2014, proudly announced that his favorite reform model allows school districts to “dump the losers”. Has he made his decision to “dump the losers” after having conversations with students who attended shuttered schools? Did he base this opinion by talking to teachers and staff at our neighborhood schools? Or maybe, he talked to community members, about what kind of schools and communities they want to attend and live in? Gleason nor the PSP make decisions based on what we want. Rather, they use their financial prowess to push forward the agendas of the private entities that fund them. Moreover, these are decisions that should be made by elected officials, not the PSP.

We know that all young people should be able to attend schools that are fully funded and well-resourced. Foundations should not be deciding the fate of public school districts. We need a democratic process for making decisions about our schools and full funding for every school district. We need leaders who we can vote for, who are accountable to the communities that they serve. We need the largest stake holders- students, teachers, parents, and community members- to have the largest say in the ways our school district is run, not foundations with elite boards of directors, not anonymous millionaires, or unelected individuals.

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