by S. Williams
Philadelphia, the first U.S. capital, holds title as the poorest city in the U.S. with a population over one million people. Over 27 percent, including more than a third of the children, live in poverty. Half of Philadelphians struggle to put food on their tables.
Areas in North Philadelphia are as bleak as post- industrial Detroit. Rusted warehouses and factories catch fire every year as delinquent property owners abandon large sections of poor neighborhoods. Property tax delinquency, now up to $515.4 million, increased 9.3 percent in 2012.
Over 20 percent of the school district budget comes from property taxes. The current budget deficit is around $95 million, less than one-fifth of unpaid taxes. While Mayor “1%” Michael Nutter holds out for a more punitive tax system to fund schools and public services, the big corporations behind education “reform” chop away, piece-by-piece, at the public school system.
Public Education Firsts
The first public school in colonial U.S. was established in Philadelphia. Originally for poor and homeless youth, it was still decades ahead of education systems in other cities. As of 2012, the School District of Philadelphia served around 200,000 students. Over 54 percent are AfricanAmerican, and over 85 percent come from nationally oppressed families. Over 82 percent of all district students are considered “economically disadvantaged.”
For decades profound racism and poverty have held back students in Philadelphia, with well-documented shortcomings in educational achievement. With a small group of corporate sponsors looking to capitalize on the weakness of public education across the U.S., Philadelphia is once again providing the test case for changes in public education. Only this time it’s promoting privatized, charter schools for some students, but prisons for the poor.
No Child Left Behind, a national education reform law which opened up low-income schools for restructuring, private management, and state control, emboldened the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to take over the struggling Philadelphia School District during the economic crisis of 2001-02. The Commonwealth ousted the corrupt yet elected School Board, replacing it with the politically appointed state-controlled School Reform Commission (SRC).
After years of slowly restructuring the school system, privatizing sections at a time, the SRC has used the latest economic crisis to escalate attacks on education. They now claim to need outside advice to fix the School District’s budget problems.
Wealthy individuals with connections to the Philadelphia School Partnership and other groups promoting privatization donated millions of dollars to pay the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to study the crisis. BCG is a group of right-wing, ruling class individuals including Mitt Romney, GE CEO Jeff Immelt, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and other CEOs, professors, and politicians seeking to privatize public schools and services.
The William Penn Foundation, one of several multi-million dollar school reform funders whose concealed donors are unaccountable to the public, paid over $1.5 million for a four-week study by BCG, which proposed closing 57 schools by 2014 (mostly in Black neighborhoods) and dividing the rest into areas of 20-30 “achievement network” schools. Their plan includes turning public education into a for-profit, privatized system based on punitive testing, charter schools, and cutting contracts for teachers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, janitors, and other public schools workers. Like previous privatization attempts, this plan sparked a mass movement of students, teachers, parents, and community members whose call for a moratorium on school closures won support from the Philadelphia City Council in a 14-2 vote.
Yet the School Reform Commission is not responsible to the City Council, much less the people of the Philadelphia. It answers to big money, to the ruling class. The Boston Consulting Group is the same group the U.S. government paid $7 million during the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler to restructure those companies, resulting in drastic wage-cuts and layoffs for unionized autoworkers. BCG’s auto industry strategy included reducing car production by nearly 40 percent, introducing job-cutting mechanization, and off shoring — austerity measures that have impacted workers and the oppressed across the globe, with zero success at ever improving people’s lives. This strategy of cutbacks stems from the systematic crisis of capitalism.
Capitalism at a Dead End
Capitalism, the system of the private ownership of all the workplaces and resources of society, prioritizes production for profit over production of goods and services for the consideration of human need. This system is experiencing a crisis that signals its uselessness and rotten-to-the-core nature. There’s no hiding the fact that this crisis isn’t ending.
No longer does capitalism operate in boom-and-bust cycles. Exploitation of workers for profit has developed to the point where workers are too poor to buy back all the goods they create. The past three crises, starting in 1990, 2001, and 2007, were all characterized by “jobless recoveries” in which the working class and oppressed suffered recession-level poverty and unemployment while corporate profits climbed to greater peaks.
The basis for cuts in public education are twofold — both destructive and creative. By destroying public services, private companies create new markets to exploit workers for profit, i.e., privatizations of classrooms, cafeterias, transportation and more. Workers are laid off while new technology, including online elementary schools, designed to replace even more workers is introduced.
The growth of job-killing technology and globalized production of commodities has led to layoffs and off shoring. Fewer workers are needed while those still working get paid less. This is where the education system connects to the economic crisis.
Public schools train future workers with skills needed to be exploitable workers in all varieties of industries. During periods of economic crisis followed by extended jobless recovery the need for workers is dramatically cut. Today over 10 million jobs in the U.S. no longer exist and the capitalist class needs fewer educated workers. It is not profitable therefore it is not a priority.
One thing that is very profitable is free labor. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, very keen to the needs of big capital interests like American Legislative Exchange Council, Bain Capital, and BCG, has led the way in decimating public education by cutting $625 million from colleges and universities and using this money to build prisons. Pennsylvania’s prison population has grown by 500 percent since 1980, despite few changes in crime patterns. Meanwhile, prisoners labor at slave wages creating products for IBM, Boeing, Target Stores, Hewlett-Packard, Macy’s and other
Time for United Struggle
In 2012 a broad coalition of community, students, workers and teachers emerged to challenge the SRC. The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) united teachers, students, and communities around demands against privatization. Yet these activists’ hard work has not slowed down the School Reform Commission. Something bigger is needed.
That something includes the 1,500 parents and community members at Dobbins High School in North Philadelphia who on Jan. 8 took over a SRC hearing and shouted down Superintendent William Hite, demanding real alternatives to closing a super-majority of schools serving poor and Black communities.
To challenge the SRC and their corporate rulers, we need to build a democratic people’s assembly of all the groups involved in this movement for public education, jobs, and a better society. This assembly needs to bring forth community leaders and organize them to stand strong against any school closings, not stopping short of occupying school buildings and keeping them open for students, teachers, and workers. We need to build this community assembly to challenge corporate-domination of school reform and to exert community and people’s control over education.
Organized to build people’s power, this people’s assembly can connect issues of education, poverty, unemployment, racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ bigotry and all forms of oppression and build for people’s control of all aspects of Philadelphia and beyond.