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Parents United’s City Council testimony on BCG

On Monday, Nov. 26th City Council hosted an education committee hearing on the Boston Consulting Group. Parents United co-founders Helen Gym, Gerald Wright and Cecelia Thompson waited four hours to testify and finally left around 5 p.m. with 15 people still on the schedule before us. Needless to say we were very disappointed that parents were placed at the end of the program. We’ve decided to post our testimony here. We’ll post more as we receive it!

Testimony of Gerald D. Wright, Public School Parent, and member of Parents United for Public Education

Good morning Chairwoman Blackwell.  Good morning Education Committee members.  And good morning other members of City Council present. My name is Gerald Wright.  I am the father of two children who attend School District of Philadelphia public schools.  I am also a member of Parents United for Public Education.  Since 2006 Parents United has attempted to work with and prod the School District of Philadelphia to function better and in a more open manner on behalf of our children.  Unfortunately, transparency seems to be a fading dream.

As the School District of Philadelphia becomes more a bunker, the less it is able to promote creativity, excellence, and transparency.  In fact, if it is not careful, the School District of Philadelphia leadership may diminish its capacity to a point where it will be incapable of conducting the vital business of leading the education enterprise with which it has been entrusted.

Who will trust it to handle money or to make critical decisions when it does not appear to include parents in its decision making or act openly?  For example, all of the press is that the School District of Philadelphia is broke, yet it was able to hire a recovery officer at $25,000 per month and continues to retain the temporary position even after hiring a Superintendent.  Effectively, what was one position is now two, each paying about $300,000 per year in salary, before benefit packages.

When a ship is sinking, all hands should be on deck doing what is necessary to provide safe passage for the passengers.  The brass can be polished in the first class section after safe passage is secured for everyone.  This morning, to my dismay, I read that the School District of Philadelphia has granted raises in the amount of $312,000 to “25 nonunion workers”.  Some may argue that this is a relativity small percentage of a nearly $3 billion budget.  However, when my children’s schools have to fight to keep a level budget from year to year, and are forced to cut teachers and support staff, how does this make sense?  Did the newspaper reporter add nonunion or was this terminology used by the district representative that she spoke with?  I can’t know anything because there isn’t transparency and I don’t know who to trust in this process.

Why does there always appear to be money for central office staff but not for teachers and support staff?  After all, this school district will not improve if line staff members such as teachers, support staff, and principals aren’t motivated to extend themselves beyond the call of their paychecks.  Union or not, the teachers are the key to improving education outcomes for our children, not more and higher paid central office staff.  Will the announcement this morning inspire teachers?  Maybe the teachers won’t care.

The Boston Consulting Group is an example of the SDP not taking public and parental comments to heart.  An outside sponsored paid a great deal of money to have an outside group do what the district should be able to do itself.  The money may have been better used to hire teachers and support staff.

The SDP has to become a more open process if it wants to be successful.  If this current administration continues to build a barrier between its decision making and parents, it will become less effective.  The SDP is at a crucial moment.  Let the light shine in and become open to public scrutiny or become closed off from public support, which is needed to achieve its mission.

Despite my deep concern about the way in which many decision have been announced without reasonable public discourse or opportunity for the parents to comment, I see signs for optimism.  Beyond optimism, a strong engaged School District of Philadelphia and successful public schools are vital to a thriving Philadelphia.

Primary among these signs for optimism is the children themselves.  In many schools across the district, the children respond surprisingly well when provided opportunities for exposure, knowledge, and growth.  They and their families continue to work to get into those schools identified as best in the public school system.  The Philadelphia Notebook published the ratio of admissions to special admit and city wide admission schools operated by the School District of Philadelphia.  Many of these schools admit less than 10% of those who apply.  I believe that these students and their parents remain engaged in the education process even when they are not successful in getting into the schools of their choice.

Another huge sign for optimism are the schools operated by the School District that are doing well.  These schools take in students from the same demographic as the rest of the student body.  These schools are run by SDP hired staff and the children are taught by union teachers.  These schools have been cut and in some cases are treated poorly because it is assumed that they will do well whether more money is invested in them or not.  The teachers and administrators in these schools are a tremendous untapped resource in this debate about how to improve School District of Philadelphia run schools.  Have their opinions been sought?  If so, where can we read the report?

While I would like to say a lot more, I will conclude with these recommendations.

  1.   Parents should be included in all decisions.  It might be a little messy, but worth it.
  2. The School District of Philadelphia should make it a religious practice to remain open in its deliberations and policy development activities.  No signification actions should be taken without parent and public input.
  3. The SDP staff and the SRC should be cheer leaders for the Schools they run and the children under their authority.
  4. Being a cheer leader also means addressing shortfalls and shortcomings with enthusiasm and tenacity because the children are worth it.
  5. The School District Staff, including the Superintendent, the School Reform Commissioner, must organize the city to demand more money for Education from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  The city cannot fund the educational needs of Philadelphia children alone.

Thank you for this opportunity to testify.

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Testimony of Helen Gym, parent, Parents United for Public Education

Good afternoon members of City Council. My name is Helen Gym and I am the mother of three children who go to public and charter schools in the city. I am a member of Parents United for Public Education which has raised numerous concerns around the focus of today’s City Council hearing: the Boston Consulting Group.

I assume that City Council is familiar with many of the concerns and critiques of the Boston Consulting Group plan.  I won’t reiterate those concerns. Instead, I’d like to focus my testimony on two specific areas: the proposed idea of mass school closings and the process by which the BCG plan came to Philadelphia.

Mass school closings are not an academic or fiscal solution

One of the most controversial and outrageous aspects of the Boston Consulting Group plan is the proposal for mass school closings. There is a difference in this identification. The school district and many communities acknowledge the fact that some of our school buildings need to close. Any school in poor condition – of which there are many – should be renovated or replaced with a new building. There has been talk in the past under Interim Supt. Lee Nunery’s tenure that the school district should actually focus on a facilities modernizing effort – and invest in refitting school buildings for a new century. Parents United lauds that approach. With the average age of buildings in Philadelphia being 70 years old, we do need a facilities plan that invests in buildings, puts people to work, and creates innovative learning environments. We are huge fans of the 21st Century School Fund that looks at community based processes of facilities modernization efforts, for example.

But that is not what we are discussing these days. The District language has completed abandoned the notion of facilities modernization. Instead we are talking solely about mass school closings – between 29 to 57 this year alone as recommended by BCG and a number that remains uncontested by the District.

There’s no question that mass school closings are a popular national trend. I use the term trend purposefully though because to my knowledge, there is no significant research data that shows that school closings of their own accord: 1) improve the financial situation of a struggling school district; 2) improve the academic outcomes or opportunities of students; and 3) have measurable impact on school quality of surrounding schools in the district. There have been numerous studies around Chicago Public, which has closed 100 schools over 10 years. One of the studies found that only 18% of Chicago children were able to attend a Tier 1 school (the higher performing category) while an overwhelming majority did not move out of the lowest-performing Tier 3 schools. Chicago, you should know, has just announced the possibility of a 5 year moratorium on school closings, citing disruption and instability after a decade of closing schools.

Pew Charitable Trusts conducted a national study and had similar findings. School closings en masse don’t in themselves improve educational outcomes or balance budgets or lead to better educational outcomes for children. So why in the world are mass school closings – not strategic school closings – such a priority?

For that answer, our focus returns to the subject of today’s hearing: the Boston Consuting Group.

Boston Consulting Group is a multinational corporation with an educational strategies arm that has been hawking similar plans around the country: mass school closings, mass charter expansion, private and philanthropic dollars replacing government dollars, shuffling schools into achievement networks and sorting and re-sorting schools according to crude measures of quality.  If Philadelphia thinks we bought something locally driven, based on local need and supported by local experts, I would ask us to think again. Check out BCG’s plan for Memphis, Cleveland, and New Orleans. Mass school closings are a product being sold to desperate districts nationwide. They are  NOT a result of locally driven solutions or strategies.

What’s extraordinary though about Philadelphia is not that we’re one of many cities doing this, but that we have let the consultants run so amok that they are taking us to a level never done in any school district. Sure other districts have closed schools. None have closed so many in such a short period of time. Chicago closed 100 schools – over 10 years. NYC closed 110 schools – over 8 years. No other district is closing both the largest number of schools and the largest percentage of schools in this time frame. No one. And certainly no one is doing so with such fewer resources, not only fewer staff but less experienced staff.

I urge City Council to consider the experience and lessons of other districts and to do independent research on school closings. We don’t need to chase other cities failed ideas and policies. We need to set a standard with clear guidance about lessons learned.

Funding BCG: Private money vs. Public interest

Perhaps one of the most serious issues for Parents United, is the lack of transparency around the Boston Consulting Group. Most of Council knows that BCG was paid for with private donations. What Council may not realize is that the majority of the Boston Consulting Group contract has not been with the District (the District held its contract for only a matter of weeks), but with private donors solicited by the William Penn Foundation.

These private and anonymous donors contracted with BCG to specifically promote charter expansion, identify schools for closure and impact labor negotiations. Not surprisingly, BCG’s August report is nearly identical to a contract signed months earlier. That should have all of us asking questions about whether BCG’s finding were truly based on an objective needs assessment of the District, or whether these were pre-ordained determinations governed primarily by private interests.

In terms of school closings, for example, shouldn’t it be of concern that among the donors of the BCG contract are a real estate developer and individuals and groups with ties to religious and charter organizations? After all, BCG is specifically identifying 60 school candidates for closure.

Shouldn’t  it be of concern tat BCG has had unprecedented access to non-public data, financial information, and building usage, while the public has had to settle for almost no information?

The public has not had a single bit of information about standards or criteria around school closings. We’ve been given no maps of where the distressed school buildings are, or even what constitutes a low-performing school other than test data. On the contrary, we’ve been subjected to demeaning forums where we’re asked to input random opinions via multiple choice responses onto a digital receiver.

When the five year financial plan was released, the public got a one-page summary to explain why we needed to borrow $300 million for one-year’s worth of debt and the rationale behind closing so many schools.

Moreover, this is only the information that we know of. There’s plenty we don’t know. From June-September, the Boston Consulting Group had a regular presence at the District. We have no idea who they were working for, how they were paid, what they had access to, what their goals and intentions were, and what conclusions they shared with what staff.

Whether or not you agree with the outcome, you cannot be a supporter of this kind of public process.

The District has spent a lot of time today dismissing the Boston Consulting Group work as just a “report.” But as parents we urge you not to be so naïve as to dismiss this organization’s unprecedented backroom influence in reshaping the landscape of public education outside of a public process.

This is not philanthropy. This is not educational expertise.

It is private money and a private agenda making an end run around what must be a public dialogue and process about rethinking our schools.

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