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Philadelphia Student Union protests school district privatization, 2001-2002
In 2001, the state of Pennsylvania started a process that eventually led to a full state takeover of the School District of Philadelphia. Governor Tom Ridge, followed by Governor Mark Schweiker, sought this takeover due to the dismal track record of the public schools in Philadelphia. With the takeover came the privatization of many of Philadelphia's lowest achieving schools. Edison Schools, Inc., a for-profit school management firm, eventually received a contract to run 20 schools in Philadelphia. Students, parents, teachers, and the city government all fought the takeover but lost. Opponents of the plan cited lack of oversight and community involvement as reasons for their opposition.
The Philadelphia Student Union, an organization founded in 1995, fought the takeover and privatization throughout the process. Joined by Youth United for Change, the Student Union staged protests, marches, candlelight vigils, and blockades of the School District headquarters to show their opposition. Eric Braxton, a founder of the Student Union and its director, led the union throughout this period.
On November 20, 2001, eight hundred students from Philadelphia gathered at the State Capital in Harrisburg for a day of protests. They demanded that Governor Schweiker withdraw his plan to have Edison Schools completely take over the School District of Philadelphia. The protests were organized by the Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change of Philadelphia. The students noted that Edison did not have a good track record. A small group of the protesters met with State Education Secretary Charles Zoogby and expressed their demand.
That night, Governor Schweiker and Philadelphia Mayor John Street met in Philadelphia. After the meeting, both men announced that they had reached an agreement such that Edison would not take over the entire District. Instead, the State planned to hire Edison in a consulting role, but the agreement left the privatization of individual, low-achieving schools on the table. The state takeover remained scheduled for November 30, at midnight.
On November 29, the governor and the mayor were still unable to reach an agreement as to the details of the pending state takeover. That day, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and other school district employee unions filed a lawsuit claiming that the Pennsylvania law, which granted the State the power to take over school districts, was unconstitutional. This suit, along with a similar suit filed during the same time period, was dismissed.
Also, on the morning of November 29, hundreds of students walked out of class in protest of the pending takeover. Approximately 75 students rallied at the school district headquarters at 21st Street and the Ben Franklin Parkway and demanded that the schools be kept public. Plainclothes police officers lined the steps of the district headquarters and prevented the students from entering. District officials said that the students who left school early in protest would face either suspension or detention.
That afternoon, after school let out, the Philadelphia Student Union organized a rally at City Hall. Approximately 200 students attended this rally and called for the scheduled takeover to be abandoned. The students then marched down the Ben Franklin Parkway towards the School District headquarters, briefly interrupting afternoon traffic. Upon arriving at the headquarters, the students grasped hands and encircled the entire building to symbolize their desire to keep the State and private companies out.
At the rally at City Hall, members of Youth United for Change also called for smaller class sizes and a computer for every four students. Six of these students did not march down the Parkway, but instead met with the Mayor and presented their proposals. These students had planned to spend the night outside Mayor Street's offices in City Hall, but officials prevented them from doing so. Instead, seven students camped outside City Hall in protest that night.
Late in the day on Friday, November 30, just hours before the scheduled takeover, Mayor Street and Governor Schweiker reached an agreement to delay the takeover for several more weeks, until Friday, December 21.
On December 6, a group of parents and students marched from Cottman Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia to the office of State House Majority Leader John Perzel, who supported the state takeover. The Philadelphia Student Union also held a meeting on December 6 to plan more ways to oppose the takeover.
On December 18, more than 1,000 high school students left school at 10:30 a.m. and gathered at City Hall for a peaceful protest. The students came from all over the city, from magnet schools as well as low performing neighborhood schools, to express their opposition to a state takeover and the privatization of schools. After three hours of protest at City Hall, the students marched to the State Office Building at Broad and Spring Garden Streets. As the school day let out, students riding public buses shouted in support as they saw their classmates marching on the sidewalks. Police did not arrest any students.
The same coalition of school district employee unions that filed the lawsuit in November alleging that the state takeover law was unconstitutional filed a similar lawsuit around this time. Both lawsuits were unsuccessful, and on December 21 Pennsylvania took control of the School District of Philadelphia. The Board of Education was dissolved and a new body, the School Reform Commission was formed.
On February 27, 2002, advocacy groups and a majority of Philadelphia City Council members filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the state takeover. The Philadelphia Student Union, the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP, the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, and the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women joined the lawsuit.
The School Reform Commission planned to meet at the School District headquarters at 1:00 p.m. on April 17 and announce a list of low achieving elementary and middle schools that would be privatized in the fall. The night before this meeting, the Philadelphia Student Union held a candlelight vigil outside of the headquarters. Approximately 25 students attended this protest. They camped outside the headquarters and continued protesting throughout the next day.
On the morning of April 17, Commission Chairman James Nevels arrived at the District headquarters before 8 a.m. Students were already waiting and approximately 30 of them had formed a human chain across the main steps. The students and Chairman Nevels both wanted to meet to try to reach a resolution, but neither side could agree on the terms of the meeting. Nevels said that he would meet with the students only after they agreed to stop the blockade. This was unacceptable to the protesters. The students requested that Chairman Nevels meet with a small group of them and give them assurances that he would involve the community in the decision to privatize the schools. The Chairman refused and the students continued the blockade.
Soon, district employees started arriving at the headquarters for work. The students blocked their entry. The Chief Financial Officer succeeded in entering the building by jumping over a fence. District officials attempted to bus employees to a separate location, but students blocked the bus. The employees were then given the day off.
The Commission gained a court injunction to break the blockade, but they did not want to risk student arrest. The new police commissioner, Sylvester Johnson, (who was sworn in that morning) met with students before and after his swearing-in ceremony to try and persuade them to stop the protest. Most of the students, however, were prepared for the possibility of arrest; they had the phone number of the Philadelphia Student Union lawyer written on their forearms. Police arrested one student for allegedly obstructing traffic, but the charges were quickly dropped.
Due to the massive student protests, the Commission’s meeting was delayed two hours and moved to another building. The protest ended around 2 p.m. and the Commission's meeting began at 3 p.m. The Commission, by a split vote, decided to hand over the administration of 42 low achieving Philadelphia public schools to outside managers. Edison received 20 schools. The Commission said that the transition would take place over the summer. In addition to the privatization, the Commission announced that another 28 public schools would either be converted into charter schools or be forced to undergo radical staff changes. Over one hundred parents, students, and activists packed the Commission's meeting. They heckled the Commission as the vote took place, singing "we shall overcome."
According to a review of local newspaper reports, the Philadelphia Student Union did not stage any further protests around this issue. PSU did, however, go on to organize around and campaign for increased funding and better conditions for public education in Philadelphia.