We continue to look at the cost of public education, this time here in the United States. On Wednesday, thousands took part in education protests in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other Pennsylvania cities, condemning planned spending cuts. In Philadelphia, school officials have proposed a controversial plan to close more than 60 schools in the next five years and potentially privatize those remaining. On Thursday, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney visited a Philadelphia charter school one day after he gave his first major policy speech on schools. We speak to Daniel Denvir, reporter for the Philadelphia City Paper. [includes rush transcript]
AARON MATÉ: We continue to look at the cost of public education, this time here in the United States. On Wednesday, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney made his first major policy speech on schools, calling education, quote, "the civil rights issue of our era." Romney said he supports a voucher-style system that would give students federal funds to attend any public, private or online school they choose.
MITT ROMNEY: As president, I’m going to give the parents of every low-income and special needs student the chance to choose where their child goes to school. For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to the student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school of their choice. Now, in addition, I’m going to make that choice meaningful by ensuring that there are sufficient options for parents to be able to exercise them. And thus, in order to receive the full complement of federal education dollars, states are going to have to provide students with an ample school choice opportunity.
AARON MATÉ: Romney also called for an increase in the number of charter schools and for more ways to hold teachers accountabile for student performance. This prompted the Obama campaign to release a compilation of Romney’s past praise for the President’s similar education reform efforts, many of which continue President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.
AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, Romney took his education agenda to Philadelphia, where one of the largest public school privatization plans is underway. Philadelphia intends to close over 60 schools in the next five years and potentially privatize those remaining. During his visit, Mitt Romney spoke at a charter school in a largely African-American neighborhood of West Philadelphia. His comments came just one day after thousands of blue-collar union members protested against planned layoffs by the Philadelphia School District. At least 14 people were arrested for blocking traffic.
For more, we’re going to Daniel Denvir, who has been covering the story for the Philadelphia City Paper_, also a contributing writer at denvir/">Salon.com.
Daniel, welcome to Democracy Now! And explain what is happening.
DANIEL DENVIR: Thanks for having me.
Well, as we heard from Montreal, the attack on public education is taking place all over the world. In Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, like many states around the country, has suffered from major cuts to education. Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican governor, in the current fiscal year cut a billion dollars to public education throughout the commonwealth. In Philadelphia, the state-controlled School Reform Commission has taken advantage of that fiscal crisis, created by the very same state government, to propose the—one of the most radical efforts to privatize and dismantle a public school system. It would close 64 schools through 2017, potentially privatize all blue-collar work in the district, and would see charter school growth grow to educating 40 percent of district students.
AARON MATÉ: Now, how did this plan come about? You talk about the role of the Boston Consulting Group.
DANIEL DENVIR: Yes. Instead of—you know, the fiscal crisis is real. And we in Philadelphia do have to deal with it. But instead of there being a real public, democratic process discussion about how we’re going to make changes to deal with the fiscal realities, instead, kind of outside funders paid the Boston Consulting Group, a corporate consultancy, $1.5 million to develop a plan for the city, which they unveiled without any sort—soliciting any sort of public input. And it’s no surprise that they proposed a corporate education reform model for Philadelphia. If you look at the Boston Consulting Group, their education consultants include former Bush Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, people who have gone on to work at the KIPP charter school network, which could very well manage one of these achievement networks that would run the broken-up and privatized system that they’re proposing at the Broad Center, a major supporter of corporate education reform. So, it’s not clear what they got paid $1.5 million to do, because it really just cut and pasted a corporate education reform wish list for Philly.
AMY GOODMAN: In his Washington, D.C., education speech, Mitt Romney came down hard on teachers’ unions.
MITT ROMNEY: The teachers’ unions are the clearest example of a group that has lost its way. Whenever anyone dares to offer a new idea, the unions protest the loudest. Their attitude was memorably expressed by a longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers. He said, and I quote, "When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children." Yeah. The teachers’ unions don’t fight for our children. That’s our job. And our job keeps getting harder, because the unions wield outsized influence in elections and campaigns.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Mitt Romney. Now, we went to the Albert Shanker blog. He’s a former—he’s referring to his quote, though many are disputing that this is Albert Shanker’s quote. It has been cited hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times in newspapers, magazines, blogs and speeches. Virtually none of the authors has bothered to provide a source, a date, an event, anything. I’m reading now from the Shanker Blog. They say, "We believe the quote is fiction, and instead [have] an alternative explanation." That alternative explanation they’re saying is they believe it’s possible that Shanker once said, "I don’t represent children. I represent teachers," and went on to say, "But, generally, what’s in the interest of teachers is also in the interest of students."
DANIEL DENVIR: Mm-hmm. I mean, what we see from Mitt Romney is a desperate attempt to create some sort of daylight between his own platform and President Obama’s. And on education, save for school vouchers, which are taxpayer-funded subsidies to private school tuition, there really is no daylight. They both endorse the corporate education reform establishment agenda that was established under No Child Left Behind, which unleashed a regime of high-stakes standardized testing that has pushed teachers to not only teach to the test, but, because their very jobs and school survival is at stake, cheat to the test. In Philly, Atlanta, there are huge cheating scandals that reporters have uncovered. Cheating is suspected in New York, many times, Houston, Texas, also unleashed charter school growth. President Obama has doubled down on No Child Left Behind. His Race to the Top initiative leverages billions of federal dollars to push teachers—push districts to use students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and to remove barriers to charter growth. So, we really see—
AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting. I put this question to Peter Edelman, who was here the other day, who wrote So Rich, So Poor, a major anti-poverty advocate, around the issue of the Race to the Top, President Obama’s program. And he said it’s unfair to say he just supports charter schools, that 90 percent of the support, of course, and 90 percent—it goes to the public education in this country.
DANIEL DENVIR: Sure. Well, that’s the funding stream that’s established, but what the—Race to the Top is a really sophisticated use of a limited, but potent, amount of federal funds to push states to change their laws to increase the importance of high-stakes standardized tests and remove barriers to charter growth. And they’ve been successful. States have been doing so across the country in an effort to get these funds. It’s—yeah, I mean, there’s unfortunately very little difference between these two.
AARON MATÉ: Now, back to Philadelphia, there’s this push now for charter schools, but the city has a sordid history with charter schools, in effect. There’s a number right now that are under federal investigation?
DANIEL DENVIR: Yeah, I believe it is 18 Philly area charter schools have been put under—have been under federal investigation in the last few years. The proponents and architects of this privatization plan love to throw out corporate buzzwords like "competition" and "accountability." But we’ve been under state control for 10 years in Philadelphia. They took over in 2001. And we have seen no sort of accountability, no sort of accountability. At the district level, at the state level, there is very little oversight of charters. We see everything—the malfeasance range ranges from self-dealing real estate transactions to extraordinarily high executive compensation, to out-and-out embezzlement.
AARON MATÉ: And this is what they’re being investigated for?
DANIEL DENVIR: Yes. But, you know, they somehow think that if we chop up the entire system under the financial stress that it’s under and hand it over to the private sector, that somehow these charter management organizations will do better than they have. They also have not done well academically. Stanford, in a very well-regarded study, found that nationally charters do no better, and often do far worse—including they looked at Pennsylvania, in particular—than traditional public schools. So they’re not delivering academically, and they are handing hundreds of millions of dollars in Philadelphia a year over to completely unregulated private interests. And when that happens anywhere, but especially in a place like Philadelphia, you can expect trouble.
AMY GOODMAN: The protests expected to continue in Philadelphia?
DANIEL DENVIR: Yes. On Wednesday, thousands of people led by SEIU 32BJ, which represents the district’s blue-collar workers, took to the streets of Center City. Fourteen were arrested in an act of civil disobedience in front of the school district headquarters. I believe it was 11 arrested in Pittsburgh. People also marched in Harrisburg. Thousands of people have packed a number of church pews and a number of community meetings over the last few weeks. This has really energized widespread opposition in the city.
AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Denvir, I want to thank you very much for being with us, reporter at the Philadelphia City Paper, contributing writer at Salon.com.
And that does it for our broadcast. On Monday, we bring you a Memorial Day special: "Honor the Dead, Heal the Wounded, Stop the Wars." That’s the cry of veterans who threw their medals back at the NATO generals at the NATO summit. We’ll bring you an extended broadcast of that.