Pa. Lawmakers Pass a Takeover Bill for Phila.
Go ahead and try. That's what Pennsylvania lawmakers effectively told Philadelphia last week when they authorized a possible state takeover of the city schools.
In a dramatic response to warnings from Superintendent David W. Hornbeck that he would close the schools unless the state ponied up more money, the legislators gave broad authority to the state schools chief to seize control of the 213,000-student system. Gov. Tom Ridge vowed to quickly sign the measure, which both chambers of the legislature passed on April 21 as part of a broader school funding package.
"We're saying, if you can't do it with what you have, we'll do it for you," said House Majority Leader John M. Perzel, a Philadelphia Republican.
State Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok said last week that he is not eager to invoke his newfound powers. Yet while he chided Mr. Hornbeck for "forcing a crisis," Mr. Hickok said he would step in if necessary, especially to avert a shutdown.
The takeover legislation is the latest volley in a long-running contest of wills between Mr. Hornbeck and state leaders over funding the nation's sixth-largest school system. Besides the political arena, the battle is playing out in state and federal courts. ("An Annual Rite in Philadelphia: Hornbeck Duels State Over Budget," March 18, 1998.)
Stage Set for Showdown
The seeds of the legislation were sown in February when Mr. Hornbeck unveiled a $1.5 billion budget for the coming school year that counted on some $85 million more in state revenues than Gov. Ridge proposed to provide.
If lawmakers didn't come through, the superintendent repeatedly warned, the mayorally appointed school board would pass the budget anyway. And if the district simply ran out of money next spring, then it would have to shut the schools down. That, Mr. Hornbeck said, would force state officials to assume responsibility themselves, something he said he doubted they wanted to do.
State leaders apparently took that as a dare. "If he continues with his brinkmanship, the state will be prepared to step in," Tim Reeves, a spokesman for the Republican governor, said last week. "And if we're going to take over, we're going to have the tools to do it right."
At the same time, state officials make clear they are not eager to use those tools. The state has operated one troubled system for several years--the 7,400-student Chester-Upland district outside Philadelphia--with unspectacular results. Other states that have taken over urban school systems, from New Jersey to California, have met with limited success.
'Tools To Do the Job'
Under the legislation, the education secretary could declare Philadelphia's schools "financially distressed," triggering a process that would sweep out the superintendent and put a five-member "school reform commission" in charge. The commission would appoint a chief executive officer to run the district.
The state schools chief would serve as the commission's chairman, while the governor would appoint three of its remaining members, two of whom would have to hail from the city. The mayor would name the final member.
"To make sure the CEO has the tools to do the job right," as Mr. Hickok put it, he or she would enjoy far more flexibility than the current superintendent.
Union Would Take Hits
That freedom would include the right to suspend many state regulations. For example, the takeover chief could hire noncertified teachers and administrators with commission approval. He or she could also convert any existing school to a charter school and contract with private, for-profit corporations to run schools.
In shaping the legislation, Mr. Hickok said state officials aimed "to make it so Draconian, especially toward the union," that city school leaders would think twice before provoking a takeover. To that end, the bill would strip the ability of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and other local unions to negotiate over everything from staffing patterns and class schedules to privatization and layoffs.
Moreover, the legislation would let the CEO "reconstitute" troubled schools--reassigning or dismissing staff members wholesale. Last year, the union effectively foiled Mr. Hornbeck's attempt to reconstitute two schools.
The bill spells out several scenarios that could prompt a takeover, including adoption by the district of a budget that fails to provide enough money to keep schools open all year. The secretary could also step in simply by finding that the district "has failed or will fail to provide for" an adequate educational program.
Mr. Hornbeck said last week that he could not say for sure that the district would run out of money next spring without new funding, given the unpredictable nature of its finances.
The superintendent made clear that he would welcome negotiations that could result in more state funding in exchange for greater authority by state officials over district affairs. Under the state budget passed last week, the district is slated to receive about $717 million in state aid.
"The people of commonwealth have to decide whether they really want all children, including poor children, to have a fair chance at a decent future," Mr. Hornbeck said.
Mr. Hickok, meanwhile, said he was ruling nothing out. "The ball's in their court," he said of city officials. "I have to wait and see what they do."