Obama’s Promise Zone in Philadelphia; A Plan to Privatize Public Education?

NBC Philadelphia reported earlier today that the Mantua section of West Philadelphia will be designated as a “Promise Zone” – which is a program that President Obama introduced during last year’s State of the Union Address.  The program is designed to fight income inequality, poverty, low school attainment and other issues that plague impoverished areas, but after President Obama was talking about a Harlem Promise Zone, public education activists should be weary that this program can become an experiment that’ll push more charter schools in poorer parts of the country.

I am ideologically opposed to the charterization of public education because this movement treats poor inner cities as colonies that extract resources, vis a vis tax dollars, from a community to those sitting on the boards of charter schools.  While speaking in Harlem today, the president was touting this new program and was touting examples of how charter schools are granting inner city children a ticket out of the

For the last 17 years, the Harlem Children’s Zone — the brainchild of Geoffrey Canada, who’s here today — has proven we can make a difference.  And it operated on a basic premise that each child will do better if all the children around them are doing better.  So in Harlem, staff members go door to door and they recruit soon-to-be parents for “Baby College,” preparing them for those crucial first few months of life; making sure that they understand how to talk to their child and read to their child, and sometimes working with parents to teach them how to read so they can read to their child and give them the healthy start that they need.

And then, early childhood education to get kids learning at four years old.  And then a charter school that help students succeed all the way through high school.  And medical care and healthy foods that are available close to home.  And exercise.  I was very pleased to hear that — Michelle was very pleased to hear that — (laughter) — that they’ve got a strong Phys Ed program.   And then students getting help finding internships and applying to college, and an outstanding, dedicated staff that tries to make sure that nobody slips through the cracks or falls behind.

And this is an incredible achievement, and the results have been tremendous.  Today, preschool students in the Harlem Children’s Zone are better prepared for kindergarten.  Last year, a study found that students who win a spot in one of the charter schools score higher on standardized tests than those who don’t. In a neighborhood where higher education was once just something that other people did, you’ve got hundreds of kids who’ve now gone to college.

And the president goes on to say:

Growing up — I want you to listen to Roger’s story, because it’s unique and it’s special, but it’s also representative.  Growing up, Roger spent some time in the foster care system before going to live with his mom, who was working two jobs to make ends meet.  When Roger was in 6th grade, his mom entered his name in the Promise Academy Charter School lottery and prayed.  And Roger won a spot.

Now, the way I hear it, Roger, you were still having some problems sometimes.  He was the class clown and acting out, and almost got himself expelled.  But the teachers and the staff did not give up on him.  They saw something in him.  They kept pushing him.  And then one summer when Roger was home visiting his foster family, he looked around the room and he realized nobody in that room had gone to college, and nobody in that room had a job.  And at that moment, something clicked.  And Roger decided he wanted something better for himself — and for his mom and for his two sisters that looked up to him.

So Roger buckled down.  He went from failing his classes to passing his classes.  He became a member of the first graduating class at the Promise Academy.  (Applause.)  And today Roger is a sophomore at Hunter College in New York, one of the best colleges in the country — the first person in his family to get that far. And now he wants to go to medical school and become a neurologist.  (Applause.)

However, there is controversy surrounding Geoffrey Canada – the founder of Harlem Children’s Zone.  In 2010, Geoffrey Canada claimed that it’s the teachers unions who kill teaching innovation in this country.

Geoffrey Canada, the man credited with turning around black under-achievement in Harlem and the star guest at conference, has told Michael Gove that the teaching unions are the biggest threat to the education secretary’s reforms.

Canada has been hailed as a pioneer in education by Barack Obama. In an interview with the Guardian, Canada said he had told Gove that in the UK the unions constituted an inflexible brake which was “killing” the innovation necessary to transform children’s lives, and that they “cover up” for failing teachers.

Canada said: “Our charter schools were not unionised. My contract with my teachers is fair, and is two pages. The union contract is 200 pages. You cannot manage your business when you cannot make any decision without going back to 200 pages worth of stuff.

Last summer, Diane Ravitch went on to explain why Canada’s school is “successful.”  His school is successful because Canada has an obscenely large amount of resources – a $200,000,000 endowment – to keep the school operational, which is something that public schools in other parts of Harlem don’t have.  When comparing the “miracle school” in Harlem to other schools in the area, Canada’s schools are performing at the same levels as public schools.  Ravitch writes:

After all, miracles should not be a one-time deal; they should go on forever, right? The short answer: No. They face the same problems as other schools serving poor kids, and their results are not miraculous. Below are the scores of Canada’s charter schools on the recent Common Core tests. The city’s public schools had an average passing mark of 25% in ELA and 30% in mathematics. The charters of the HCZ have scores all over the map. Some are higher than the city average, some are lower. Some are dramatically higher (like grade 5 in math at HCZ 1 at 46%), some are dramatically lower (like grade 6 in English language arts at HCZ 1 at 9%). Bottom line: There is no miracle here.

If Obama is going to align himself with charter school reformers – or wealth extractors – on his Promise Zone tour, progressives and education activists should be highly skeptical of this actual initiative.

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About Sean Kitchen 595 Articles
Assistant Editor of the Raging Chicken Press and living in Harrisburg pursuing journalistic opportunities. You can send tips to SeanKitchen@RagingChickenPress.org and reach me on twitter at @RCPress_Sean!
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