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Pa. Panel Takes New Look at Urban Education

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A diverse commission of elected and nonelected officials is taking on the daunting task of improving Pennsylvania's urban schools.

The 17-member panel of business, church, union, and legislative leaders named this summer by the state House of Representatives is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania. And other states may want to take note.

"They have the latitude to design whole new options and think boldly," said Christine Johnson, the director of urban education initiatives for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver clearinghouse. "The discussion will provide valuable lessons for the rest of the country."

The panel is midway through a dozen statewide hearings and must report its recommendations to lawmakers by Jan 1. It is charged with finding ideas to remedy the racial isolation, low test scores, financial crises, and safety concerns that are showing up in small cities as well as in the state's two biggest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

And if recent hearings are any indication, the group may try to rattle city schools to their core.

In a meeting here last week, state Rep. Dwight Evans challenged the panel to study vouchers and review collective bargaining for teachers and principals.

"Money isn't the answer," the Philadelphia Democrat and mayoral candidate argued. "To get taxpayer support back, you need radical change."

A Prototype Panel?

The panel is called the Legislative Commission on Restructuring Pennsylvania's Urban Schools. The bill to create the group was co-sponsored by House Majority Leader John M. Perzel, a Republican, and Rep. Evans, the ranking minority member of the appropriations committee.

"I believe I'm going to get the credibility to say that whatever we present is not a Democrat or Republican plan," Rep. Perzel said. "If they come up with a good product, I think we can pass it."

The group--the state's first legislative panel on urban education--stands out in several ways.

Typically, the legislature uses select committees of members to study specific issues. Instead, the urban education panel has three Republican and three Democratic legislators, and none of them leads the group.

The commission is co-chaired Peter J. Liacouras, the president of Temple University in Philadelphia, and Mark A. Nordenberg, the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh. They bring credibility to the group while diluting the politics of the effort, Mr. Perzel said.

Ms. Johnson of the ecs said the Pennsylvania group would stand out in any state. "It's an unusual structure in that it's bipartisan and has a high-profile group of legislators and citizens," she said, noting that it's higher education leadership is different, as well.

The commission may, however, face credibility problems for not giving urban educators more prominence on the panel.

Mr. Perzel defended the absence of big-city school officials from the group. "I didn't want someone from Philadelphia saying that if they had $1 billion, all of their problems would go away," he said.

Divisive Issues

But other obstacles lie ahead. The group's first closed-door meeting to review testimony and begin outlining recommendations was held last week.

Mr. Nordenberg and Mr. Liacouras said that they will facilitate and mediate the meetings, rather than try to steer the group to a decision. Said Mr. Liacouras, "I expect no unanimity, but consensus."

Nonetheless, given the divisive issues presented at a Sept. 29 public hearing in Philadelphia, even that may be expecting too much.

Rep. Evans said that the Philadelphia school system needs a new, parent-centered governance system, not new money.

That didn't sit well with commission member Thomas W. Wolf, the president of the Wolf Organization, a York, Pa.-based distributor and manufacturer of building materials. "You seem to undervalue the fiscal disparity that exists between urban and suburban schools," he said.

For example, the gap in per-pupil spending in the Philadelphia area ranges from $6,000 in the city schools to about $10,000 in some suburbs.

Some commissioners lamented privately that funding does not seem to be a board priority. Even Mr. Liacouras said, "Technically, funding is not part of our charge."

But with the 215,000-student Philadelphia school system predicting bankruptcy within two years, he added that money is "hard to ignore." The school system has also filed two lawsuits against the state seeking higher aid.

There are other sticky issues.

Mr. Evans wants to give students in low-performing schools tuition vouchers of about $7,000 to attend private, nonreligious schools.

Another speaker, Democratic state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, argued for breaking up the Philadelphia city schools into several smaller districts. He contends that the current system is too large to be well-managed. He also backed $1,000 vouchers as a cost-saving way to keep parochial school students out of public schools. He explained that every family that transfers a child from a parochial school to a public school to save money stretches the slim resources of the public school system.

The panel, which includes voucher foe Albert R. Fondy, the president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, is openly split on vouchers.

"We don't think vouchers are a good idea," Barbara Grant, the spokeswoman for the the Philadelphia schools, said in an interview days after the panel hearing. "[Vouchers] will decimate school budgets and make an inequitable situation even less equitable."

Legislative Future

One panelist, the Rev. Rodney Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, believes lawmakers will be open-minded about urban school reform. "I really think that they're going to make some changes and do things that haven't been done before," he said. "This may be a way of saying, 'We listened to community recommendations.'"

But lawmakers are being cautioned not to paint all of the state's urban school systems in the same hue of failure. Those districts vary widely, from the Philadelphia system, the nation's sixth largest to the 15,500-student district in Allentown, and other smaller districts.

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