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For Philly public schools, barbarian is Gates

He who pays the money calls the tune. . . and a whole lot more. It's not up to the school board, elected or appointed, to decide. No, Bill Gates is the decider. Money is never free.

By Lisa Haver

WHO WILL run Philadelphia's Schools?

Last week, Philadelphia became the latest in a long list of cities to be courted by Bill Gates, when his "Great Schools Compact" was presented for consideration to the School Reform Commission. Bill Gates has taken on a reputation as a school reformer as well as philanthropist, dispensing money throughout the country for struggling schools in economically distressed cities while imposing changes in policies and procedures in those locales. Sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

Then how has Bill Gates become the liberals' Grover Norquist? Just as Norquist, elected by and accountable to no one, tied the hands of the "supercommittee" with his no-new-taxes pledge, Gates undermines the authority of school boards with his pro-charter, pro-privatization contract. This contract requires that cities must sign on in order to benefit from the munificence of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He doesn't just sign the check and let the city decide what's best for its students. It's not up to the school board, elected or appointed, to decide. No, he is the decider. Bill Gates has joined the ranks of school "reformers" such as Michelle Rhee who, despite having no degree in education and virtually no experience teaching, have appointed themselves experts in the field.

Diane Ravitch, in her recent book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education," describes how Manuel High, one of Denver's oldest and most prestigious schools, was forced to divide itself into three separate schools because of the "small school" agenda Gates was pushing at the time; the ensuing disruption caused the school board to close it temporarily. Mountlake Terrace High, just outside Seattle, suffered the loss of many teachers and administrators in 2004 after being forced to split into five separate schools in order to receive the Gates funding.

Into the Philadelphia School District's state of fiscal desperation rides Bill Gates. Who can say "no" to free money when you are so deep in the hole? But the money is not free, and the price is the democratic procedure in the city and the state under which the community and its elected leaders make informed decisions about its schools.

This "Great Schools Compact"demands that "[i]n addition to schools already in turnaround through the Renaissance Initiative, the undersigned commit to replacing or transforming at least 5,000 low-performing seats annually for each of the next five years, beginning in 2012-2013."

Imagine clearing out Northeast High and Lincoln High every year and sending all those students to a charter school or promise academy. There would no longer be a public-school system, just a web of private schools taking public dollars.

The harm that closing a school does to its students and to its neighborhood is incalculable. The director of the consulting firm which assessed the number of now empty desks stated in a community meeting that over 50% of the students who previously filled these desks are now enrolled in charter schools. Why would we want to sign any compact which perpetuates this destructive pattern? Why the push when the data has shown, year after year, that charter schools do no better, and in many cases worse, than public schools?

The Gates compact lays out the future of our schools in no uncertain terms: "Failure to significantly improve would bring meaningful consequences, including closure."

The composition and policies of the new School Reform Commission have given many Philadelphians hope. There is an honest commitment to transparency and community involvement. But how much power does this body truly have when its policies can be dictated by billionaires with deep pockets and rigid contracts?

Lisa Haver is an education activist and retired teacher.

— Lisa Haver





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