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Panel Proposes Breaking Up Phila. District

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Urging Pennsylvania to join the growing list of states taking drastic action to mend city schools, a commission there has proposed a wide-ranging plan that calls for tuition vouchers for poor children and a breakup of the Philadelphia school system.

The proposal would carve the nation's sixth-largest district into 22 independent districts, each with its own elected school board. The plan comes from a panel appointed by lawmakers last spring to study the restructuring of urban schools. It is expected to become the basis of legislation in the coming months.

Although the commission's report touches on everything from principals' tenure to smaller classes, the proposals provoking the greatest furor are the breakup and voucher ideas. Philadelphia Superintendent David W. Hornbeck said the controversy has "distracted the world from an awful lot of good things in the report."

"Any time that governance is on the table it becomes the tail that wags the dog," he added.

But by advocating many of the nation's most hotly debated reform tools, the report's authors say they hope to provide a catalyst for Pennsylvania to rethink its current laissez-faire policy toward urban schools.

Peter J. Liacouras

"There's a real crisis in urban education, but I don't think it's perceived as enough of a crisis to produce a real change," said Peter J. Liacouras, the president of Temple University in Philadelphia and a co-chairman of the commission. "I hope the report would generate some urgency."

Known as the Legislative Commission on Restructuring Pennsylvania's Urban Schools, the 17-member panel included 10 members appointed by Republican lawmakers and seven by Democrats. It was led by two university presidents and included six lawmakers, representatives of business, teachers, and school administrators, and others. ("Pa. Panel Takes New Look At Urban Education," Oct. 8, 1997.)

Interference Foreseen

Under the proposal to break up the 215,000-student Philadelphia system, independent districts would be formed from each of the 22 school "clusters" created by Mr. Hornbeck. Such clusters include one neighborhood high school and the schools that feed into it.

The superintendent said the proposal smacked of a decentralization plan adopted by New York City 30 years ago that created 32 subdistrict school boards to govern elementary and middle education in the city.

Last year, the state legislature stripped those boards of much of their power because of chronic mismanagement and corruption in some of them.

David W. Hornbeck

"If this were to come to pass, it would be the Educational Bureaucracy and Patronage Act of 1998," Mr. Hornbeck said of the breakup plan. "That would be extremely unfortunate, and Philadelphia would spend the next several years on issues of governance rather than on whether kids can read."

Teachers' union leaders also condemned the idea. A breakup would "create a bureaucratic nightmare for children, parents, administrators, and educators unparalleled in size and cost anywhere in the country," said Ted Kirsch, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

But proponents of the idea say it is the current structure that is a nightmare. Overseen by a nine-member school board appointed by the mayor, the district has grown unwieldy and unresponsive to public concerns, they argue.

"They keep the residents so in the dark it's pathetic," said state Rep. George T. Kenney, a Philadelphia Republican and panel member who strongly advocated the breakup.

Mr. Liacouras, who said he personally favored strengthening the mayor's authority over the district, maintained that the breakup would promote greater community involvement in schools that sorely need it.

Acknowledging that a breakup would raise complex problems of fiscal equity and resource distribution, the panel called for the creation of another commission to work out the details.

Competing Plan

The commission's breakup plan is not the only one vying for the support of lawmakers.

Rep. Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat who, along with House Majority Leader John M. Perzel, a Republican from the city, sponsored the bill that created the commission, said he will continue to advance his own restructuring proposal. Mr. Evans wants to convert all 259 of Philadelphia's schools into charter schools, while making the terms of school board members run concurrently with that of the mayor. Mr. Evans, the ranking Democrat on the House appropriations committee, is a candidate for mayor in 1999.

Earlier versions of the panel report included Mr. Evans' plan. In the end, the commission embraced a restructuring blueprint similar to one floated last winter by Democratic Sen. Vincent J. Fumo of Philadelphia. ("2 Proposals Would Revamp How Phila. Controls Its Schools," Feb. 5, 1997.)

A spokesman for Mr. Fumo called the panel report "a step in the right direction."

Vouchers Would Aid Poor

Besides recommending the Philadelphia breakup, the panel endorsed a pilot program of "opportunity scholarships" that would subsidize private school tuition for 3,000 poor students in low-performing districts. The plan does not say how much participating families would receive. It says public schools that lost students to such a voucher program should "be held harmless with respect to their state subsidies."

Pennsylvania lawmakers have turned back several voucher proposals by Republican Gov. Tom Ridge in recent years. But this one is far narrower because it targets only poor urban youngsters. A similar approach is being taken in Cleveland and Milwaukee, the sites of the nation's only two state-funded voucher programs.

Murray G. Dickman, the president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association and a member of the commission, said a majority of panel members saw the vouchers as a way of helping children trapped in failing schools and of pressuring public schools to improve through competition.

"What we're trying to do is give poor kids the same opportunity as rich kids," he said. "We're not trying to ruin the public schools, we're trying to strengthen the public schools."

Opponents disagreed. Albert Fondy, the president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate, and a commission member, said the voucher proposal "rendered the entire report both useless and blatantly political."

Wythe H. Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, called the pilot proposal "just a foot in the door, so they can start to push for a larger statewide program."

The panel did not put a price tag on its voucher proposal or any of its other recommendations. It did call for an overhaul of the state's school funding formula, but only after implementation of most of its other points, including the Philadelphia breakup.

Establishing Equity

The report expresses some sympathy for the pleas for more state money from city districts, especially Philadelphia. For example, it says a rewritten formula should account for costs associated with educating poor, immigrant, and special education students as well as for urban security needs.

But it also found merit in complaints that Philadelphia fails to allot as large a share of local revenues to education as other city districts in Pennsylvania--a phenomenon that city officials attribute to the many competing claims on public coffers.

"Equitable funding for public schools is a legitimate issue, and it's not as one-sided as the rhetoric," the report says.

Some observers criticized the panel for not focusing more on funding and for urging that structural reforms occur before the finance system is changed. "Our urban schools are being starved of resources necessary to wipe out disadvantages that urban children bring with them," said Oscar W. Knade, the executive director of the Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools, a coalition of 24 city systems.

Accent on Accountability

The panel also called for a statewide system of rewards and sanctions designed to heighten accountability among students, teachers, principals, schools, and districts as a whole.

For chronically poor-performing schools, for example, intervention could include the ouster of staff members, closure, contracting with private managers, or giving students vouchers to attend other public or private schools.

For failing districts, the panel recommended giving the state secretary of education power to declare them "educationally distressed." Consequences of such a designation would vary from the provision of extra funds and technical assistance to state takeover of day-to-day operations to dissolution of the district.

The panel urged that the first district declared educationally distressed be the 7,400-student Chester-Upland system outside Philadelphia.

The state assumed control of the district's operations several years ago because of severe financial problems. The panel called on the state to take one of three steps: merge the district's schools with neighboring systems; close them and provide students with vouchers; or contract with private managers.

The report also calls for, among other steps, mandating statewide academic standards and related assessments starting next year; reducing class sizes to 20 in grades K-3 in urban districts; making preschool and full-day kindergarten more available; expanding alternative education; and improving city schools' curriculum, teachers, and technology.

Most observers say it is premature to forecast how the panel's proposal will fare in the legislature. "Everybody who has a piece of their legislative agenda in there will be strongly pursuing their piece," predicted Joseph Oravitz, the executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "That hopefully means we're going to get a lively debate."

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