Cheated: Sham Education for Minority Students in Dem-Run Philadelphia

Another Democratic stronghold, another wasteland of public schooling.

Editor’s note: The following is the third in a series of FrontPage articles that will unmask the racial injustice of Democrat-controlled education by examining some of the nation’s worst (and biggest spending) school districts. Read our previous reports on the public school systems of  Washington, D.C. and Detroit

The Philadelphia public school system is on the verge of implementing what the New York Times refers to as "unprecedented downsizing" of its public school system. As many as 37 campuses, representing one of out every six public schools in the city, is slated to close by June. For those familiar with the failures that underscore union-controlled, Democrat-dominated big city public schools systems, the impetus behind these closures is unsurprising: once again we have a system with huge budget deficits that must reconciled. And once again, the brunt of that reconciliation will be borne by the city's black American school children.

Some Philadelphians are up in arms. Just recently, as the City's School Reform Commission neared its decision on which schools will be shuttered, United Action, a group of activists, clergy and elected officials, presented a analysis of the initiative, demonstrating that such closures disproportionately affect minority, poor and disabled students. Moreover, they have gotten the U.S Department of Education involved in pursuing a civil rights investigation as a result. The Philadelphia Inquirer obtained a letter from the Department to that effect, confirming that it would look into United Action's contention that the "district adopted a school closing and consolidation plan...that has a disparate, adverse impact on African American and Hispanic students, and on students with disabilities."

There is a bit of irony attached to this effort. The analysis was compiled by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS). PCAPS is comprised of Action United, other community organizations -- and the district’s teachers union. Thus, while this seemingly noble effort is ostensibly aimed at stopping such closures to prevent their adverse effects on children and their parents, the reality is that 1,100 teachers would also be affected by the consolidation.

Yet PCAPS presents numbers that, if accurate, are nonetheless compelling. Of the approximately 15,000 students who would be caught up in the ensuing chaos, 81 percent are black American, in a school district where the overall number of black students is 56 percent. Twenty-four of the 37 schools that would be closed are more than 90 percent black American.

On the other hand, the Philadelphia School District (PSD) presents a reality that is equally, if not more, compelling. First, there is the problem of under-used schools. There are currently 195,000 available seats in Philadelphia schools. A staggering 53,000 of them are empty, forcing the district to maintain buildings it can no longer afford. Thus, despite borrowing more than $300 million to get through the current school year, the PSD remains $27.6 million in the red, with no relief in sight: over the next five years the total deficit is expected to hit $1.1 billion. That number reflects a cut of $419 million in financing from the state this year, as well as the end of federal stimulus funds.

Yet as it is with so many municipalities across the nation, the shortfall is also driven by ever-increasing pension costs paid to retired educators. Taxpayer contributions to Pennsylvania public pension funds in general are expected to rise by $1.5 billion in the fiscal year that ends in June, to nearly $3 billion by 2014-15. By 2019-2020, more than $5 billion will be required to maintain that funding. For perspective's sake, it should be noted that the entire state budget for this year less than $27.7 billion.

All of this chaos, only the latest in a series of reform attempts promised by city official over the course of years, has produced the typically dismal results one has come to expect in Democratic-controlled urban school centers with large minority populations. In 2011, city officials, much like their counterparts in Detroit, were congratulating themselves for a 3 percentage point increase in the on-time, four-year graduation rate from Philadelphia public schools--up to 61 percent. The six-year graduation rate for the freshman class of 2005 (whose four year rate was 56 percent) was also 61 percent--two points lower than the previous high for the PSD. Again, the reality that nearly two-in-five students fail to graduate is apparently cause...for celebration.

The sharp decline in student enrollment should not be surprising considering this systemic failure. Like the other cities chronicled in this series, the racial achievement gap in the PSD follows a familiar pattern. In 2009, a report by the National Center on Education Statistics revealed that Pennsylvania had a 33-point gap between white and black students -- predominantly trapping failing urban schools -- in fourth grade reading scores, one of the largest in the nation. In eighth grade math scores, the gap was a gargantuan 36-point divide. Since 45 percent of the state's black Americans live in Philadelphia, it remains the epicenter of this achievement gap.

At the high school level, there is also an “excellence gap.” Only 18 percent of black students took Advanced Placement courses in math in 2009, compared to 34 of white students, and 52 percent of Asian students. Only 3 percent took A.P. science classes, compared to 22 percent of whites and 39 of Asian students. Overall, only 18 percent of black students took at least one A.P. course, compared to 34 percent of white students, and 52 percent of Asian students who took one. Furthermore, a ten-year report released in 2010, chronicling Philadelphia students who entered public high school in 1999, reveals that only one-in-ten earned either a two-year or four-year college degree a decade later.

As bad as those gaps are, there is another, far more pernicious one, namely a "reality" gap. In 2010, education officials were again congratulating themselves for gains made on the state-administered standardized test known as the PSSA. The test purported to show that district-wide proficiency rates in the eighth grade math and reading scores had reached 57 percent and 51 percent, respectively, ostensibly representing the eighth consecutive year of growth. Eleventh graders' proficiency rates "soared" as well to 45 percent in math and 38 percent in reading, representing the highest one-year gain recorded. Yet even in the midst of this “success,” the achievement gap remained at 22 points.

However, as it is in so many urban school systems, the far less successful results posted on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests reveals the fraud that localized testing has become. Every achievement score posted by Pennsylvania's fourth and eight grade students on the NAEP test was lower than that posted on the PSSA. The gaps were stark. For example, on the 2011-2012 PSSA test, 81 percent of fourth graders were proficient or advanced in math and 72.1 percent were proficient or advanced in reading. On the NAEP test, those numbers cratered to 48 percent and 41 percent, respectively. Moreover, charter schools, the bane of public school status quo-ers everywhere, far outperformed the PSD. In a measurement known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) only 13 percent of Philly's public schools made progress compared to 53 percent of their charter schools.

One would think such test score disparities might elicit outrage. One would be wrong. In 2011, Dan Piotrowski, the executive director of accountability and assessment for the PSD, ignored the obvious. “The best news is of course that grade 4 reading and math are both showing gains,” he said at the time, even as he acknowledged that Pennsylvania should re-assess its standards, but not necessarily with regard to the gaps between PSSA and NAEP. “If we see a curriculum or standards disconnect, we should be addressing it not necessarily so that the students do better on NAEP, but that they are getting everything they need to prepare for high school and college and further on.”

If they see a disconnect? How about if they discover outright cheating? Currently there is a state investigation being conducted involving 53 PSD schools for cheating perpetrated by adults on the state's standardized tests. Part of it centers on the "miraculous" results garnered by students at Strawberry Mansion High School in 2009, when more than 66 percent of its students scored proficient or above on the exams. Lois Powell-Mondesire was principal at the time these scores were registered. When she left, the miracle apparently left with her. On last year's spring exams, just over 10 percent of the students were proficient.

Again, one might think that Lois Powell-Mondesire might be disciplined or, at the very least, viewed with a great deal of skepticism. Not in Philadelphia. In 2010, the former principal was promoted. She now commands a salary of $145,000 for her new job advising other principals on how to turn around struggling schools.

She is not alone. Although no one has been formally charged with cheating as of yet, there are a number of disturbing correlations between administrators whose schools turned in questionable gains on tests, and rewards for those administrators, including tenure. Furthermore, such rewards are continuing to be made, even as district officials became aware of exams containing evidence of questionable erasures.

Michael Josephson, a leading national expert on ethics and education and the president of the non-profit Josephson Institute of Ethics characterizes such behavior as "willful blindness." "There's a deliberate looking the other way," he contended.

Looking the other way might also be an apt description for a new disciplinary policy that was implemented in September. The new code of conduct engendered by School Reform Commissioner Lorene Cary was put in place, which has watered down requirements for disciplining students. One of those new standards does not allow for the suspension of students who use profane language. A fight or drug use may result in either out-of-school suspension, which has been primarily used to control bad behavior, or an in-school suspension instead. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. explained the reason for the change. "We can't suspend our way to higher student achievement. We can't arrest or suspend our way to safer schools," Hite told principals during a three-day safety summit last August. In other words, rather than the students adopting the no-nonsense culture of a school system run by adults, the adults are watering that culture down to accommodate the students. The code explains the capitulation. "Though there can be no excuse for behavior that harms or disrupts, there may be reasons that caring adults in school need to understand. We educate the whole child," it states.

That is hardly the case. Moreover, like so many failing, big city school districts around the nation, Philadelphia is a Democratic stronghold. The party has run the city virtually unopposed for sixty years, and in the 2012 presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney didn't get a single vote in 59 voting districts clustered in the almost completely black sections of West and North Philadelphia. Thus, in a city where 80 percent of 11th-graders read below grade level, 85 percent can't do grade-level math and only 25 percent even bother to take the SATs, the status quo is being embraced--even as it is black American school children whose futures are being disproportionately mortgaged by that status quo.

It is impossible to underestimate the irony that attends massive black support for the political party that has produced decades of substandard education for inner-city wastelands. While the Left coaches minorities, particularly blacks, to unquestioningly believe that their disadvantages can be laid at the feet of "racist" Republicans or "racist" white America, it is clear who the real oppressor is. As former Presdient George W. Bush put it, the "soft bigotry of low expectations," marches on, unimpeded.

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