In mid-December, 2,500 teenagers walked out of their Philadelphia public high school classrooms and into the city's intersections. They traipsed through the city's center, a mélange that includes a giant nineteenth-century library, a bank-turned-hotel and thousands of handsome brownstones, winding up at the school district building. The marchers included 500 students from the poorer Strawberry Mansion High School, along with a sizable contingent from magnet schools like Masterman and Central.
These kids were not slackers eager to cut class. They were activists committed to defeating the privatization of their schools by Edison Schools Inc., a publicly traded company based in New York that operates more than 136 public schools in twenty-three states.
They partially succeeded. Originally, Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker proposed letting Edison manage the entire public school system's central administration, along with up to sixty individual schools. But on April 17, a state panel voted to give only twenty city schools to Edison--the rest are to be run by two universities and a range of smaller for-profit and nonprofit educational companies. As the panel conducted its deliberations, the student activists were rallying around the building. Few in the media have picked up on the critical role played by the students--which has been overshadowed in recent weeks by stories about the company's sliding stock price and desperate (though finally successful) quest for a new infusion of funds.
Early last year, neither the diminished role of Edison nor the protracted battle between the school privatization forces and the high school students seemed likely. At that point, city community groups and parents were supportive of the idea of Edison managing the seventh-largest school district in the country. They imagined Edison might be able to create charter-school-like entities but with more muscle and more fixed curriculum than the typical charter, a potentially expedient way of improving the ailing district, where some textbooks are so old they inform students that one day "man will walk on the moon." But the faith started to fade in September, after Edison was given $2.7 million to produce a report on the state of the city's educational system. According to its critics, the report tacitly made the case for Edison's own management. Using the SAT, a test not typically invoked as a yardstick of the success of urban school districts, Edison claimed the schools had simply been mismanaged, without even mentioning the role of underfunding and urban divestment in creating the system's ills.
The evidence of underfunding is hard to ignore. For example, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer's yearly survey of the schools, in 2001 instructional spending per student in Philly was $4,747. In contrast, in the mainline suburb of Radnor, instructional spending per student was $9,120. As for teacher salaries, Philly's instructors topped out at $62,600, while suburban districts paid as high as $79,371.
When Edison attempted, with the full backing of the state's governor, to win a contract for management of the school system in fall 2001, the company was derided by many Philadelphians, who felt insulted by the out-of-town educators denigrating their children's scholastic performance to demonstrate the need for their own services. Parents also detected an alliance of state and corporate power against Philadelphia dwellers, a familiar dynamic in Pennsylvania. Schoolteachers, too, voiced worry about whether they would get to keep their contracts under privatization--which they have--and fear about a new Edison curriculum that would be too corporate and one-size-fits-all to fit individual students' learning needs. School employees and their labor unions, faced with the prospect of job losses because of the privatization, also rallied to the cause. Their case against the company revolved around the spotty record of Edison schools in places like Baltimore. They also raised questions about whether a public school system should be run by a privately owned company at all, especially at a historical moment marked by an uncertain stock market and massive corporate scandals. Local journalists even dubbed the messy takeover plans "Edron."
But despite the widespread anti-Edison sentiment, the most powerful opponents of the takeover were and continue to be those most affected by it--the students.
"The students have provided the spark for opposition," says Paul Socolar, editor of Public School Notebook, an independent quarterly newspaper about the schools. "The student actions have been the most visible and the loudest, and have had a real consistency."