Philadelphia students mobilize outside school district headquarters. (Flickr)
During one of many anti-austerity protests last summer, more than 1,000 people rallied to oppose the Philadelphia District’s plans to “transform schools,” a pleasant euphemism generally meaning school closures and mass layoffs. The Philly district planned to lay off 2,700 blue-collar workers, including every member of the SEIU 32BJ Local 1201, the city school union representing bus assistants, cleaners, mechanics, and other workers.
In late July, the School Reform Commission scrapped those plans and approved a contract that avoided layoffs, but led to worker salary reductions (employees had between $5 and $45 deducted each week from their pay). Additionally, the union nixed two planned wage increases—a 3 percent jump set for earlier in the year and another raise that would have kicked in the first of this year.
Despite the union’s concession, the district still has a $282 million deficit, and the Philadelphia School District’s plan to save money is closing one in six public schools in the area, a move that activists, clergy and some officials say will disproportionately affect students of colors, as well as poor and disabled students.
The US Department of Education recently confirmed with activist group Action United that it will be investigating its claim that the “district adopted a school closing and consolidation plan…that has a disparate, adverse impact on African American and Hispanic students, and on students with disabilities.”
According to an analysis completed by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS)—an umbrella group made up of the district teachers’ union, Action United, and several other community organizations—81 percent of the roughly 15,000 students who would be affected by this year’s planned closings and mergers are African American.
District-wide, 56 percent of students are African American.
Most of the schools that would close—24—have populations that are more than 90 percent African American. Just three of the schools have white populations higher than the district average.
The group also found that most of the schools targeted also have district higher-than-average populations of poor and disabled students.
Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, a citywide parent group focused on school budgets and funding to improve achievement and acceptability in public schools, alleges the district is using fuzzy math: