Reflections on the fight for education justice in the 2010s
The Our City Our Schools (OCOS) coalition formed in 2016 with a goal of abolishing the School Reform Commission (SRC) and regaining local control of the School District. The coalition’s work is dynamic and it responds to pressing education-related issues in the city. It is important for our movement to take note of the significant gains and recognize the people and groups that have led successful campaigns toward education justice in the past decade.
The decade got off to an auspicious start when the newly elected governor, Tom Corbett, announced a staggering $1 billion cut to education funding. Corbett’s plan disproportionately affected Philadelphia, causing the District’s budget gap to reach $629 million in 2011. The SRC responded with austerity measures and mass layoffs. These measures were met with public outcry and protests locally and in Harrisburg. This gave rise to the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), which included all three school unions and more than a dozen community-based groups.
In 2012, the SRC advanced its privatization agenda by hiring the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and then William Hite as superintendent. In August that year, the BCG issued a report recommending the closure of 60 of the city’s public schools by 2017. Due largely to PCAPS’ successful organizing, the SRC’s plan was reduced from 60 public schools to 24 schools. From there, PCAPS began advocating and organizing for community schools as an alternative to privatization and closure turnaround strategies. The idea of community schools is to make school buildings into neighborhood hubs for services that the particular community needs, including health, recreation, and social services.
In 2014, PCAPS played a critical role in influencing Democratic mayoral candidate James Kenney’s educational platform. Upon Kenney’s election as mayor in 2015, he introduced a municipal initiative for adopting a community schools strategy as a way to strengthen Philadelphia’s public schools and neighborhoods. OCOS and education activists continue to push the Mayor’s Office of Education toward a more community-driven process rather than the current model that prioritizes service providers.
On Nov. 16, 2017, we won the fight for local control of our schools and the SRC voted to abolish itself. The establishment of the Board of Education, appointed by the mayor, marks a step toward a governance structure that is accountable to the communities it is supposed to serve. With local control, the city now faces the challenge of how to fill a five-year deficit of $700 million for Philadelphia’s public schools.
Read the first-year report card of the Board of Education’s operations and protocols written by the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, an OCOS member group. Join us as we begin the new decade continuing to push for a school board that operates in a transparent manner, is representative of the city’s students and families, and actively fights to protect and improve public schools.
In the final month of the decade, we saw the collective power of solidarity as we stood alongside movements for housing and land justice to end the 10-year tax abatement. With Philly Power Research, we found that the School District lost about $7.034 million in revenue in 2017 due to new abatements (OCOS Report, 2018). Using this as a baseline, we estimated what the District could gain $386,922,635 over 10 years if the program were phased out.
As City Council member Helen Gym said at the annual community-building dinner hosted by Movement Alliance Project, the bill that was approved on Dec. 12, 2019, is just the beginning, not the end, of this fight. OCOS and our allies enter the new decade with a renewed commitment to fight for fair and equitable funding for public schools at the state, local, and federal levels.
On Jan. 6, 2020, we saw our own Kendra Brooks get sworn in as the first-ever third-party City Council member. Brooks has been a part of all of these victories, fighting alongside us in her many roles: mother, restorative practitioner, researcher, advocate, organizer, and as the OCOS coordinator before Pep Marie.
We close out this decade reflecting on the hard work that it has taken to make these incremental shifts toward equity and justice. Because despite these efforts and successes, our schools are still toxic.
In Philadelphia, our students and educators spend about 1,165 hours each year in schools where they are exposed to toxic materials that pose serious health and developmental risks. Due to historical intentional disinvestment, our city’s schools are in a state of crisis, with toxins such as asbestos, mold, lead paint, and lead in water that are quite literally making people sick.
In the first half of the 2019-20 school year, six schools have closed due to asbestos. There are 120 schools that need lead remediation, and all 214 District-run schools need asbestos remediation, pest cleanup, and temperature regulation. The toxic condition of our school buildings is not only unethical, it is inhumane. In 2020, OCOS will continue to support and lead campaigns for fair and equitable funding as well as emergency funding to address the toxic conditions of our city’s schools.
We look into the new decade with hope, imagining things as though they could be otherwise. We will persist in our fight for quality equitable education for all Philadelphians.