Philadelphia school superintendent leaves; struggle for community control of education remains the fundamental question

Editor's note:

On Friday, September 2, Philadelphia independent mayoral candidate Diop Olugbala made the following statement during a press conference to respond to the recent resignation of School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

Olugbala announced the formation of his Education Commission, a community-based body of education experts, parents, students and concerned citizens prepared to address the education crisis through community control of the schools.


In the midst of debate as to whether or not the departure of Philadelphia school district superintendent Arlene Ackerman represents something positive or negative for our city’s school system I found it necessary to voice my unwavering opinion on the fundamental issue surrounding education.

The fact is that the individual who occupies leading positions in education, or any other sector of government, is useless to the people that they are supposed to serve if they do not carry out the principles that they promised to uphold to their constituency once elected. 
 
While Ackerman was not democratically elected into office, she was selected by mayor Michael Nutter, who was elected by the people. Once deemed as the “education mayor” who the city was hopeful would reform Philadelphia’s education system into an institution that would develop our youth into skilled workers, intellectuals and leaders, Michael Nutter’s term and his administration has been yet another disappointment for the people of Philadelphia – especially with regards to his work around education.
 
The fact is that both Nutter’s and Ackerman’s performances in their respective positions have been textbook examples of the culture of corruption and opportunism that has dominated Philadelphia’s government for a very long time. But we should not be surprised, for an effective government cannot be left up to individuals tied to big money, but through a process in which the people have a real say in how this government is run.
 
At best, what we are looking at, with Ackerman’s departure, is a case of a mercenary going to the highest bidder. We are not looking at a professional educator who was forced out of her position by a sinister group of conspirators who were intolerant of her firm adherence to lofty principles concerning education. 
 
On the contrary, Ackerman left because she had a million dollar severance package and a job waiting for her at an Ivy League college. On THURSDAY, AUGUST 25, 2011 ON 900 WURD radio station in Philadelphia, Ackerman even asked, "IF THEY WERE WILLING TO PAY FOR ME TO BE GONE, THEN WHAT IS IT THAT THEY ARE REALLY TRYING TO HOLD ON TO?" 
 
While we can and should speculate around the second part of her question, we must recognize that Ackerman was clear that she was paid to leave. She was not forced out. She was not assassinated. She was not fired. She was paid to leave – thus revealing her true motive in the education system.
 
But again, the failure of Arlene Ackerman as superintendent is more so a failure of Michael Nutter and the Democratic party’s opportunistic approach to government – an approach that does not place the interests of the people in the center.
 
During her nearly four year tenure as superintendent, neither Ackerman nor Nutter have stepped up to the plate to ensure a quality education for the masses of youth in Philadelphia. In fact, Ackerman’s tenure under Nutter’s watch has been riddled with betrayals of our community and the historic struggle made in this city for quality education for all of our children.
 

Charter school a tool for profit for big money

 
Another component of Ackerman’s policy was the increased funding for charter schools and decreased funding for public schools. Generally speaking the charter school is an institution that allows for private companies to directly profit from their involvement, investment in and ownership of those schools.
 
Funding for non-district operated schools (charter schools, non-public schools) will grow 15% to $649 million primarily due to charter school payments that are projected to grow 23% to $544 million. THIS MEANS WHILE LESS IS SPENT ON PUBLIC SCHOOLS, MORE IS SPENT ON CHARTER SCHOOLS. AS MAYOR, I WILL PRIORITIZE THE NON-CHARTER SCHOOLS THAT HAVE BEEN NEGLECTED. JUST BECAUSE YOUR CHILD WAS NOT SOME CHARTER SCHOOL’S PRIZED LOTTERY SELECTION DOES NOT MEAN THEY SHOULD BE DEPRIVED OF AN ADEQUATE EDUCATION
 
Through the charter school system, education is turned into a profit driven industry with no regard for the role and responsibility of preparing the students to be productive forces in society. 
 
This approach results in a heavy emphasis on training for standardized testing and a student recruitment standard that only has room for those students who show the capacity to perform well in such testing.
 
One example is occurring in Philadelphia’s Simon Gratz High School, where the Mastery charter school corporation under a program called “Renaissance” is moving to overturn the present order there. Charter schools, unlike public schools, have the right to determine what students are allowed into the school. They also select their own faculty and staff. The Renaissance program is made to look like a success because they simply get rid of any student that doesn’t have high enough grades or is considered to be a “problem.” The same students who they are getting rid of now have nowhere to go to get an education.
 
Dozens of students at Gratz who are part of the “Alpha-Omega” program, which is designed to make sure all students graduate, are now not even sure they will be able to attend Gratz next year because their program is being replaced by the Renaissance program.
 
ACKERMAN ADDED SIX NEW RENAISSANCE SCHOOLS TO THE DISTRICT. NOW SHE IS LEAVING. WE HAVE TO STOP THIS REVOLVING DOOR OF SCHOOL DISTRICT LEADERSHIP IN PHILADELPHIA. IT’S NOT FAIR TO OUR CHILDREN.
 

Ackerman’s policy prevented schools from functioning as tool for economic development

 
While Ackerman invested the people’s time and resources in training our youth to become professional test takers, the funding for vocational training which would provide the skills for our youth to be productive workers has been under constant assault.
 
Funding for vocational training has been cut by $2.1 million, or 30%. SHE IS NOT UTILIZING THE NEW SKILLS OUR YOUNG PEOPLE NEED TO COMPETE IN TODAY’S WORKFORCE. THEY SHOULD BE TRAINED IN SOLAR PANEL FITTING, WIND TURBINE MANUFACTURING, URBAN GARDENING. INSTEAD OF PROPOSING NEW VOCATIONAL CURRICULUM, ACKERMAN HAS WORKED WITH THE OLD SYSTEM AND ENDS UP CUTTING VOCATIONAL TRAINING.
 
This is one of the main errors that Ackerman has made. In a city where nearly 40% of all residents aged 16 or older are not in the labor force, a city where the average black man between the ages of 30-50 is expected to never work again in his life, there should be a priority placed on providing labor skills instead of test-taking skills.
 

Instead of economic development, current school system promotes police containment

 
Ackerman’s policies of education that deny the masses of students the opportunity to develop practical skills, obtain training in fields that can be of real use to our community, is backwards. It is a pessimistic approach to education.
 
It comes with an assumption that our children do not have the potential to grow up to be productive members of society – that they are natural born criminals. Such a response is not different from Nutter’s in the form of such policies as “Stop and Frisk” or his recent response to the flashmob crisis by imposing a curfew.
 
Through the pessimistic manner with which the education system is run, the masses of youth are not being prepared to work and produce in society. They are being set up for a life in which they have no skills or means through which they will be able to feed themselves or their families. Philadelphia’s youth are being herded into the growing prison industry and the starting point is the school system.
 
IF THEY HAD PROPER VOCATIONAL TRAINING, THEY WOULD NOT BE CONTAINED BY THE GROWING PRISON INDUSTRY LIKE THEY ARE. AS MAYOR, I PROMISE TO TRAIN OUR CHILDREN FOR GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT, NOT FOR PRISON.
 
The reality is, however, that criminalization of the school policy is an extension of Nutter’s and the Democratic party’s public policy of police containment – which serves as a poor substitute for the public policy of economic development that I am calling for through my campaign.
 

Current city leadership has been ineffective in resisting budget cuts

 
I recognize the budget cuts that are happening right now as a problem. The fact is that no matter how many people may disagree on how the school system should be run, we all must agree that if the budget cuts persist there will be no education system run at all.
 
While Ackerman has been vocal in her opposition to the budget cuts, one must question where her loyalties around the issue rest if she can run away with $1million dollars of the schools’ budget for work she hasn’t even done. Further, we must raise the question as to whether or not the fight that Ackerman made against the budget cuts was motivated by her goal to fund contracts for security cameras and private standardized test-training firms so as to provide favors.
 
While we can debate around Ackerman’s stance on the budget cuts, Nutter’s betrayal of the people is undeniable:
 
There is a social movement emerging in Philly right now, based in community opposition to governor Corbett’s denial of Philadelphia schools’ funding. Part of this movement, which is being led by Professionals for Progress, is calling for Michael Nutter and his appointed City Solicitor to sue governor Corbett on the grounds of his not honoring the Pennsylvania State Constitution Article III Section 14 which 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.”
 
Based solely on its budget allocation patterns, it is clear that the State is not honoring Philadelphia’s right to funding to support an efficient system of public education. As Professionals for Progress pointed out, “how thorough can such a funding system be where Philadelphia educates 10% of all students in the state of Pennsylvania yet are subjected to 30% of all budget cuts…?”
 
“…how fair is it that in Pennsylvania a student’s zip code determines the opportunity to education?”
 
Moreover, the question must be asked, how is it that Michael Nutter is not leading the charge in demanding that Corbett and the State overturn this clearly unfair budget attack on Philadelphia’s schools? Why should organizations like Professionals for Progress have to be demonstrating on the footsteps of City Hall pleading with the mayor to fight for resources that his own city is being cheated out of?
 
I believe that Nutter’s response to the budget cut question is consistent with every other response he has provided to the economic crisis confronting this city and state. He always sides with the rich against the people.
 
Nutter has never fought on behalf of the people in this city, not one time. All Nutter has done is fight AGAINST the people!
 
The people of Philadelphia deserve a mayor who will fight for them. This is why I, Diop Olugbala, am running for mayor of Philadelphia.
 

My model for community-controlled education

 
I have a concrete plan for how public education in Philadelphia will be run and funded. This plan will ensure success and prosperity for our school system, no matter who its superintendent it is, as the real basis of leadership will come from the community and the basis of development will be driven by the community.
 
I strongly believe that the budget cuts are just half of the problem. Even under full funding we saw how Ackerman’s budget allocation was not serving the interests of the students. Therefore, while I state my commitment to struggle against the budget cuts with all of my might I also call for:
 
a.    A Community-Controlled Board of Education with power to hire and fire faculty, staff and administration and determine the quality of the curriculum. 
 
b.    Economic Development: The education system itself must serve as a tool to revitalize Philly’s economy through providing economic programs to be carried out by the students who will receive training in the process. Such programs will include an urban agriculture program and other vocational training in construction, plumbing, mechanics etc.
 
c.     The Community-Controlled Board of Education will oversee the launch of a bond issue. They will oversee the management and distribution of these securities. The board issues bonds and everybody who is interested in investing in public school education can buy the bonds. They will become a bondholder. The Community-Controlled Board of Education runs the school district.
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