SRC pits ‘my babies’ against the needs of all Philadelphia students

SRC member Sylvia Simms is shown at a February meeting. (Bastiaan Slabbers for NewsWorks

SRC member Sylvia Simms is shown at a February meeting. (Bastiaan Slabbers for NewsWorks

New editions of Keystone Cops just keep coming from the “School Reform Commission.” Same storyline, same ending, but the characters take turns embarrassing us. Public education suffers. Charter schools expand. Local control is gone. State level integrity is rated 45th in the nation. Misfeasance is rampant.

Sylvia Simms is the new lead character, with self-focused loose lips. In a recent episode, after dark, when many school kids were in bed sleeping, and in a direct slapstick move on the quiet leading man, William Hite, Simms railroaded a motion to eliminate another public school for Mastery Charter. Her own recently released email illuminates possible motive, containing divisive racial overtones. In it, she asks for “people to have [her] back” while she works “especially for [her] babies,” the people she represents and who look like her. (Read the full text here, page 87.)

In contrast, Simms is much more tight-lipped when folks ask to understand her family connection to the very same Mastery Charter business. Simms’ philosophies and loose lips headlined a different episode a year-ago when school children interrupted another of her pro-charter efforts. Simms responded by shaming the children, shrieking “You must attend failing schools” and “you belong in jail.” Of course, Commissioner Simms is responsible for those public schools in her “professional” role.

Bill Green is the former “head cop.” The new producer, Gov. Tom Wolf, moved Green out of the lead. Even in a supporting role, Green remains in the midst of SRC approvals of more and more charters. In fact he couldn’t wait to ‘second’ Simms’ motion to add the Mastery charter mentioned above.  Note that Green, himself, is a graduate of a private school.

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Lately, Green has been heard claiming that state law “prohibits considering financial impact of additional charters on the public district when deciding whether to approve [charters].” Never mind that funding a charter opportunity for a few select kids takes funds from all the other kids in public schools. Never mind that the whole purpose for the commission is to alleviate financial distress in the district: Financial impacts of his decisions can’t be considered, in Green’s opinion.

You have to watch closely for the next “cop” — Farah Jimenez, who often recuses herself from “reform” decisions, especially about Mastery Charters, because of family conflicts of interest. She can duck and dart with the best of slapstick.

Marjorie Neff, who voted against all charter applications a year ago, has spent a lot of time on the disabled list recently. She is still waiting to break out from Green’s shadow.

‘School reform’ in Philadelphia, a contrived disaster

Fifteen years ago, the state created the SRC to take away local control from Philadelphia (Pa. Acts 46 and 83). In the interim, politicians’ records include stunningly consistent academic starvation with simultaneous fiscal disaster. The previous governor cut a billion dollars from state funding of education operating budgets.

Since 2001, the state has appointed the majority of SRC members. The SRC has hired several outsider CEOs. The District operating budget has been described as a “Doomsday” scenario for the past three years. Teachers have been working without a contract since 2013. Thousands of children are without regular teachers. “Equal access” funding is missing, given overwhelming incidence of childhood trauma and its shocking neurobiology. Teaching staff is at all-time lows. Vacant positions remain unfilled. Substitute teachers decline to work here. Class sizes increase. Course offerings only decrease. Building conditions are atrocious, even dangerous. Philadelphia charter school approvals mushroomed to one-third of total students, draining public funds without public consent. Those same charters exclude (or expel) students with higher costs-to-serve, which must then be served in public schools. School District bonds are now junk. Pennsylvania’s system of “base funding” for schools ranks worst in the nation for fairness.  Politicians’ persistent, precise underfunding of public education, in Philadelphia in particular, is a prime cause of our condition.

Public education, a constitutional mandate in Pennsylvania, is being systematically bled.

Public service becomes private business

The education “marketplace,” if commercialized, is measured in hundreds of billions of dollars, attracting Walmart, Bill Gates, the Koch Brothers, the Broad family, and many others in favor of privatizing education. They’re often involved for “their babies,” too, but with a different motive: profit.

In fact, a leading initial plan in Pennsylvania during the state takeover, was to begin contracting out public education services to Edison Schools, Inc., a private, for-profit business.

Privatizers promote standardized testing as the way to measure results — or, in other words, to proclaim “failure.” Standardized test results are deceptive and blind to large variations in personal situations, which radically affect results. This sort of “bubble testing” has been shown to be an accurate way to measure nothing more than socioeconomic status. This contrived failure strategy is in the playbook at Broad Academy, where CEO Hite trained, and it has roots going back to Milton Freedman.

State politicians pressing privatization agendas, threaten reduced revenues or more withdrawal of support, if we don’t approve more charter businesses every year.

The moral vacancy in all this is that public, neighborhood schools are not collateral damage in this war, they are the very intentional bloodbath at ground zero.

Once privatized, the pathway to the “American Dream,” becoming an educated citizen, ultimately becomes a service we all need to buy, not something we all have a right to.

This brings us back to Sylvia Simms.

Privatization may seem good to Simms right now while the charter company is buying her “babies” color-coordinated t-shirts to wear and free, convenient bus rides and boxed lunches to eat so some of her neighbors and friends can be used as public relations at SRC meetings. Sadly, their free lunches aren’t free.

Simms herself is microcosm of the destruction of democracy in the name of self and “get what I can for me and mine.” Her tiny, selfish vision divides all children.

Clearly, District revenue is a zero-sum system (Neff’s term). Charter company funding to support Simms’ babies comes directly at the expense of all our other babies, who lose efficiency, straining under the load of 60,000 students selected by charters, which are taking hundreds of millions of dollars of public monies from public education.

Meanwhile, many charter businesses skim students, a very different process than public schools. Unlike public schools, only a limited number may enter, fewer are retained, and some are even expelled back to true public schools, which carry higher variable costs for all students, plus the “sticky” fixed overhead burden for all students.

Shirking the Constitution of Pennsylvania

We can not privatize our way out of accountability for public education for all.

The Pennsylvania Constitution mandates the the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education — but we violate the mandate daily.

We can not “maintain” what doesn’t exist. According to the state’s secretary of education, the District is “distressed.” We can’t be distressed and simultaneously “thorough” and “efficient.” Political pressuring from the General Assembly for more charters every year is not “support” for public education, but rather a direct attack. Even the concoction of the SRC itself, an unelected body outside of local accountability, is in direct conflict with the mandate, because it is inefficient for citizens, by definition.

We need to get outside of ourselves somehow and understand the cumulative effect of what Pennsylvanians are doing to each other in the name of working “especially for my babies.”

Like Simms, my wife and I have “babies” (and grandbabies). We too live in north Philadelphia. Some of our family look like Bill Green, some like Jimenez, some Simms. I am hurt and angry that Simms is working only for the part of my family that looks like her.

Yes, I can feel the frustration of Simms. I want Simms to feel that frustration for all children: a “universal” vision. All 200,000 in our city, not diminished to whatever thousand she thinks look like her.

Many like to talk about “universal, high-quality” pre-K; why not “universal, high-quality” pre-K through 12? If that vision is too big for some, maybe it’s time for them to move on.

The list of groups who want change is long, broad, and growing. According to Joan Duvall-Flynn, president of the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference, the SRC “has clearly demonstrated an incapacity to facilitate a thorough and efficient public education for the children of Philadelphia, and has in fact, destabilized the entire system.”

Rodney Muhammad, of the Philadelphia chapter, has called for ending the SRC. “They [want] to take over our children and put them back on the auction block,” he said.

There are many avenues that would get us back to supporting and maintaining public education for all.  Constitutional remedies beckon, as do Act 46, Sections 691, 696 (a), (b), (d), (d3), (j), (n), and maybe even federal oversight via violations of equal-access principles.

We cannot be swayed by hand wringers like Sylvia Simms and Bill Green, who would lose power in a true grant of local control for Philadelphia. We need a vision of true democracy, for all, in the birthplace of democracy, along with taxing authority and with constitutional support and maintenance of public education from our great state.

The future of Public education hangs on this battle between “my babies” and “all children.” Is City Council listening? Mayor Kenney? Anyone in the General Assembly? Gov. Wolf? Someone in Washington, D.C.? Anyone?

Daun Kauffman lives in the Hunting Park neighborhood of North Philadelphia, serving children and families in urban schools for more than 15 years. Earlier, Kauffman earned an M.Ed. from Temple University, and an MBA from Harvard University Graduate School of Business. Daun blogs at

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicate4d taht Bill Green went to an elite charter sschool. In fact, he went to a private school.

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