Philadelphia school board fails children with lack of charter oversight | Opinion

The crisis at Bluford and Daroff is symptomatic of a larger problem, a former teacher says.

Aubri Juhasz / WHYY

Lisa Haver is a former Philadelphia teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools: @APPSphilly.

Students and families at two Philadelphia schools thrown into chaos just before the academic year have yet to hear those who could have prevented it take any responsibility.

Instead of providing explanations for what happened at Bluford and Daroff — the latter was shut down, and the former will close at the end of the year — Universal Companies, awarded charter contracts for the two West Philly elementary schools over a decade ago, has stonewalled those school communities.

Moreover, members of the Philadelphia Board of Education, who waited until the last minute to take action, have offered little beyond empty apologies and blame-shifting.

Board members could have taken action months ago so children at these schools could start the new year feeling joy, rather than uncertainty. They could have stepped in to stabilize these schools long before it blew up into an emergency. They could have made sure parents and teachers were not kept in the dark about what was happening.

Universal’s failure to meet academic and other standards has been well documented. Since 2015, the district’s Charter School Office recommended non-renewal for both Bluford and Daroff for failure to meet basic standards. Universal’s contracts at both schools were renewed anyway. After weeks of legal proceedings in 2021, a hearing examiner recommended the board vote not to renew Universal’s contract to operate Bluford, saying that doing so would be “cheating the kids”.

Unfortunately, it appears that protecting the district’s politically connected vendors takes precedence over protecting its students.

Universal lobbied hard to take control of several neighborhood schools as part of then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s 2010 Renaissance program to help the struggling district by privatizing public schools. The company, founded by record company executive Kenny Gamble, sold itself as a community-oriented organization led by savvy businesspeople. But its promises to turn the schools around went unfulfilled.

Of the six schools the School Reform Commission allowed Universal to take over, four were recommended for non-renewal by the end of their first 5-year term for failing to meet academic, organizational and financial standards. Universal hasn’t disputed the extensive data in the district’s evaluation — including low test scores, attendance, expulsion rates and teacher retention. Last year, however, Universal alleged that the non-renewal recommendations were the result of racial bias on the part of Philly School District staff and officials.

Federal tax information shows that Universal has collected hundreds of thousands in management fees every year for both Daroff and Bluford. The same records show that Universal CEO (and former chief of staff to Ackerman) Penny Nixon has in recent years been paid over $200,000 in salary and compensation.

After the promises made and broken, and after all of the money Universal has collected at these schools, why has the board not asked that Universal officials face the public with a full explanation?

Lynda Rubin, a member of grassroots advocacy group Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), suggested at last month’s emergency meeting that the School Board consider the debacle at Bluford and Daroff “a cautionary tale.”

Yet the board is taking no steps to prevent the same type of fiasco at other schools. They refuse to hold public charter renewal hearings, as other districts do, at which school operators would be required to make their case with data and observations. As the board holds fast to its speaker suppression policies, more parents will find their voices blocked.

The board’s practice of negotiating with charter operators in private meetings and of taking votes on charter transactions in secret doesn’t just violate Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act. It means the public cannot question the terms of agreements made with charter companies. Members of the Daroff community had no way to know that the board didn’t include transition plans in the agreement to close the school, because the board doesn’t post charter items until after it votes. The omission of a transition plan is significant — an indication the school may never reopen.

The Philadelphia Board of Education must hold responsible those entrusted with the education of Philadelphia’s children. The question is: when will the board be held responsible?

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Jorge Oliveira

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