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Philly schools, up for the highest bidder

A man runs across a sign in the street in front of the Philadelphia School District during a Wednesday protest against Philadelphia public-school budget cuts.
A man runs across a sign in the street in front of the Philadelphia School District during a Wednesday protest against Philadelphia public-school budget cuts.AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Philadelphia has a reputation for not giving the warmest of welcomes, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney couldn't have expected a lot of brotherly love from the residents of an urban Philly neighborhood full of black folks when he arrived there yesterday to hawk his education policy.

Philip Rucker, reporting in The Washington Post, quotes Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter quipping at the protest that Romney "suddenly somehow found West Philadelphia.” His constituents weren't so jokey:

Seeking to broaden his appeal heading into the general election, Romney was venturing for his first time in this campaign into an impoverished black neighborhood to hear the concerns of local educators and community leaders. But here in the streets of West Philadelphia, the emotion surrounding his contest with the nation’s first black president was raw, as dozens of neighborhood residents shouted, “Get out, Romney, get out!”

Imagine their anger if they then heard what Romney had to say once he was behind closed doors with local school and civic leaders at (naturally) a charter school. According to the Post, Romney continued his recent emphasis on education by hawking his plan to use federal money to "follow the student" to a charter or parochial school, thereby enabling "more choice." (Read: more school vouchers.) He'd also like to direct federal funds to states to ensure that they don't prevent "digital" learning, and increase teacher proficiency.

Romney -- who, if elected, would shrink or otherwise make insignificant the Department of Education -- is calling the failure of public education to help minority students "the civil rights issue of our era." Why this visit was an important one has little to do with grandiose rhetoric and a campaign focus on education, one of the only positive things about Romney's record as Massachusetts governor on which he can actually campaign. It's more about the fact that Romney's plan seems to have quite a bit in common with one being pushed through currently in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia City Paper reporter Daniel Denvir, who will be Melissa's guest tomorrow, explained it best in his expansive investigation of the decentralization proposal, "Who's Killing Philly Public Schools?" That headline was not hyperbole, since the plan is:

...a plan to shutter 40 schools next year, and an additional six every year thereafter until 2017. The remaining schools would be herded into "achievement networks" of 20 to 30 schools; public and private groups would compete to manage the networks. And the central office would be reduced to a skeleton crew of about 200. (About 1,000-plus positions existed in 2010, and district HQ has already eliminated more than a third of those.) Charter schools, the plan projects, would teach an estimated 40 percent of students by 2017.

Let's boil that down: there will be dramatically fewer schools, and the ones that are left will be broken up essentially into teams, and can be run by Random Corporation, Inc., or whoever bids the highest -- even if they have zero experience in running a school district. This is of little surprise to the plan's critics, given that it was devised by a Boston consulting firm with a record of recommending drastic school cuts, undermining teachers' unions, promoting what amounts to the privatization of public school districts.

Despite yesterday's grandstanding about Romney, Mayor Nutter supports the plan. Denvir adds in his report that others, well, don't:

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, however, called it "a cynical, right-wing and market-driven plan to privatize public education." And New York University education historian Diane Ravitch said Knudsen's plan has no basis in research, and criticized Nutter for giving up on schools. "I think he should be advocating for public education," she told CP.

Thomas Knudsen is acting as the interim Philadelphia Public Schools chief through his duties as Chief Recovery Officer, despite no experience in education. Upon his announcement of the plan in late April, both he and it were met with immediate public protest. Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church -- where, in the interests of full disclosure, I have been a member since 2005 and served as a trustee for the last two years -- quickly hosted a contentious public meeting on the issue, and loud, angry protests have continued all the way through this week -- both about the Philly plan, and the additional cuts Republican governor Tom Corbett is proposing for state education budgets.

What is happening to Philadelphia schools right now requires our full attention, and thanks to the loud voices of concerned Philadelphians and reporting like Denvir's, it's starting to get it (see last night's segment from "The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell below). Romney may be bringing some, inadvertently, because of his campaign focus on education. But as much as he may deem the failure of urban public education the "civil rights issue of our era." It very well may be, and that may make for dramatic rhetoric that excites the news cycle. But that doesn't mean that he is proposing any real ideas that do anything but shift the blame away from systematic privilege and inequities, and place them at the feet of teachers and their unions.

The same can be said for a Philadelphia city school district that seems less interested in fixing the problem, and more so in creating opportunities for private enterprise to do the job of governing for them.