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Published in Print: December 5, 2001, as Phila. Takeover Deadline Marked by Protests

Phila. Takeover Deadline Marked by Protests

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As top deputies for Philadelphia's mayor and Pennsylvania's governor parried last week over how the state will take over the city's schools, hundreds of chanting citizens stopped rush-hour traffic to demonstrate their opposition to hiring private management to run their neediest schools.

With an unusually tight lid of secrecy clamped onto the weeklong negotiations, little was known of the exchange between teams dispatched by Democratic Mayor John F. Street and Republican Gov. Mark S. Schweiker. The state was expected to take control of the schools as early as Dec. 1, but the outcome of the talks was to dictate just how cordial that takeover would be.

"It's hard to say how it will go," Steve Aaron, the governor's spokesman, said as the final day of negotiationsFriday, Nov. 30began. "Differences remain, absolutely. But a real deadline can make it happen."

The mayor's education secretary, Debra Kahn, said: "We're still talking. We're working toward a partnership."

One potential roadblock to a state takeover emerged last Thursday, when a coalition of labor groups filed suit in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a bid to block the state's school takeover law. The plaintiffs objected to the law on many grounds, including the powers of a school reform commission—which would be appointed by the governor and the mayor to run the schools—to tax citizens for the schools and to abrogate employee contracts. As of early Friday morning, the case had not been heard.

'Not for Sale'

As the mayor's and governor's teams met in a Center City office in Philadelphia, demonstrations unfolded on the street. On Wednesday of last week, activists carrying signs reading "Our Children Are Not for Sale" took over an eight-lane street in a march from the State Office Building to City Hall. They arrived as Mayor Street, surrounded by local children, was lighting the city Christmas tree, but no words were exchanged.

The next day, several hundred students staged a demonstration at City Hall and Mayor Street met with a few of them to hear their concerns. That evening, students formed a human chain around the city's enormous school district headquarters in a symbolic defense against privatization.

While few dispute that the nation's eighth-largest school system is in dire need of fiscal and academic help, there has been substantial disagreement over how best to provide that help to its 210,000 students.

Mayor Street has invited the state to take over, but objected to its proposal to hire Edison Schools Inc., the nation's largest private manager of public schools, to run the district's central administration. ("Pa. Governor Drops Privatization Plan for Phila. Schools," Nov. 28, 2001.)

Gov. Schweiker withdrew that part of his proposal Nov. 20, revising the role of New York City-based Edison from decisionmaker to key consultant. But the possibility that 60 of the city's worst-performing schools still could be privatized has attracted national attention and sparked intense local debate.

"A for-profit entity should not be running public schools," said Veronica Joyner, who founded a high-performing charter high school in a poor, predominantly African-American North Philadelphia neighborhood and runs an advocacy group called Parents United for Better Schools.

"They are going to cut corners for profit," she charged, "and not have the best interests of our children at heart."

Wendell A. Harris, who has four children in city schools, believes privatization is a "ploy" rather than an attempt at true reform, which would have to tackle inequities in state funding that leave city schools cash- strapped compared with their suburban counterparts.

"Our problems are based on revenue and resources," he said. "If they don't have the resources for us in public education, how can they have it for us in privatization?"

Draining Resources?

Even in northeastern Philadelphia, where some of the city's best-performing schools are located, many parents don't like the idea of private management. Lois Yampolsky, whose two sons graduated from Northeast High School, said she worries that if a profit-conscious company manages city schools in needy areas, resources from better-financed schools could be drained to sustain those programs.

She has called for resistance "by any means necessary," invoking the language of black civil-rights activist Malcolm X.

"When you have thousands of people coming together, it shows a diverse group that says, 'We don't want you here,' and the governor would not be well-advised to ignore that," Ms. Yampolsky said. "We're going to be a bad dream. We're prepared to stay and fight."

But not everyone shared those sentiments. Vernard Johnson, whose daughter attends a charter high school in southwestern Philadelphia, said many other parents he knows think Edison should be given a chance. At Edison's invitation, he and other parents visited schools the company operates in Baltimore, Washington, and nearby Chester, Pa.

"I saw clean buildings, students walking single-file in the hallway, kids engaged in learning in quiet classrooms," Mr. Johnson said. "As leery and skeptical as I am about a corporation managing a school, I was really impressed. If they come [to Philadelphia] with the same model, determination, and authority that we saw, we can turn this system around."

Some have worried that the five-member school reform commission would be unable to provide an objective assessment of the district's progress.

State Sen. Allyson Y. Schwartz, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate education committee, has proposed setting up a separate board that would hire experts to appraise the district's academic and financial progress.

If such an idea is not incorporated into the takeover agreement, she said, she might introduce it as legislation.

Vol. 21, Issue 14, Page 5

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