Decades of Philly high school students resist privatization

Students walk out to defend their teachers’ union benefits, October 2014. Photo by Harvey Finkle.

By Suzy Subways

December 1991: Central High School students hold a demonstration against a bill to give parents $900 vouchers from the state budget to send their children to private school. The bill fails, as reported by The New York Times.

May 23, 1996: Two thousand high school students walk out and march to City Hall, demanding the city return money it cut from education. Philly’s schools have been ruled by a judge to be segregated and unequal, with the 134 schools that are overwhelmingly Black and Latinx getting fewer resources, experienced teachers and special programs, according to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

Dec 22, 2001: Despite daily protests by high school students, the state of Pennsylvania takes over Philadelphia’s public schools and creates the five-member School Reform Commission (SRC) to run the school district. The state has just paid $2.7 million to Edison—a private, for-profit company—for a study that recommends eliminating jobs and increasing class sizes to save money. Then it turns over management of 20 schools to Edison. Only massive protests led by the Philly Student Union and Youth United for Change stop the state’s plan to let Edison manage the entire school district, according to the Notebook and City Paper.

2008: The SRC takes back six of the 38 Philly schools it had privatized, the Washington Post reports, because the six schools have not improved compared to schools managed by the school district. Four of these had been under Edison’s control. The SRC puts 12 other Edison schools on one-year probation, demanding they show significant improvement.

February 2011: The SRC hires Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which recommends closing 64 schools within five years, expanding privately run charter schools, major union concessions, and reorganizing schools into independently managed “networks.” Students protest inside SRC meetings, and the SRC delays its vote on the plan. Later, the school district announces it is no longer considering BCG’s recommendations, according to the Philly Student Union.  

2011-2012 school year: Pennsylvania cuts $860 million from Philly’s schools, which means $410 per student, according to The Nation. In turn, 1,600 teachers and 2,100 other staff are lost. Some class sizes increase to 40 or even 60 students, PBS Newshour reports. Students in the Furness High School chapter of the Philly Student Union successfully organize to keep their high school from being closed.

2012: The SRC finds money for eight new charter schools, despite concerns about previous charters accused of fraud, corruption, and using secretive methods to exclude students who may not perform well on standardized tests, as reported by the Notebook and WHYY NewsWorks. Charters are exempt from the city’s union contract rules.

December 2012: A dozen students enter a Wells Fargo branch and sit down for class, occupying the space as a teacher reveals how the bank’s bad swap deals swindled Philly schools out of millions. After the financial crash in 2008, the U.S. government bailed out major banks to save them from the debts caused by their risky financial practices. But our schools were forced to pay their debt to the banks, including Wells Fargo. Video of the teach-in can be viewed at

2013: The SRC closes 24 district-run (non-charter) schools, mostly in Black and Brown neighborhoods, to save money. The final decision is made in an auditorium full of outraged students and community members, with hundreds protesting outside and 18 arrested for blocking the auditorium’s doors to SRC members, as reported by the Notebook.

May 2013: Hundreds of high school students walk out Tuesday, May 7 after the SRC votes to remove funding for all arts, music and sports and even more teachers, nurses, librarians and counselors from the schools, to save $304 million, as reported by The Nation and The New York Times. By Thursday, the Philly Student Union and Youth United for Change have joined in, and 1,000 students take the streets. Thousands walk out on May 17, marching and shutting down traffic from school district headquarters to City Hall, NBC Philadelphia reports.

October 2014: Mayor Nutter blames teachers’ health benefits for the budget crisis, and the SRC revokes the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract. While the PFT clings to a strategy of offering concessions, relying on the courts, and refusing to mobilize its members, hundreds of students at Creative and Performing Arts high school and Science Leadership Academy walk out in defense of their teachers,.

2015: Philadelphia voters overwhelmingly approve a non-binding referendum to abolish the SRC, the Philadelphia Tribune reports.

2017: Major banks continue to take 10% of the school district’s budget, according to WHYY NewsWorks and Our City Our Schools. Edison founder Chris Whittle continues to live on an estate in East Hampton, which is listed as the seventh most expensive home in the country, at $140 million, reports.

August 2017: Parents and other members of the Our City Our Schools coalition demand the SRC disband itself., after Mayor Kenney’s staff had promised a timeline for abolishing the SRC but later backtracked, the Notebook reports.

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