Legislature Signals Probable Takeover of Phila. Schools

By Robert C. Johnston — October 31, 2001 5 min read
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Pennsylvania lawmakers are preparing for what increasingly looks like a state takeover of the Philadelphia city schools and a possible transfer of district management to Edison Schools Inc.

In what some saw as a power grab, the legislature quickly revised a state takeover law last week to make it easier for the governor to put a private for- profit or nonprofit management team in charge and to nullify contracts with employees other than teachers.

The move came one week before Gov. Mark S. Schweiker’s Oct. 31 deadline for giving his plan for improving the schools to Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street.

The Republican governor and the Democratic mayor must reach a deal by Nov. 30 on a plan for the district, or the state will take over the 207,000-student system, which is plagued by financial woes and low student achievement.

Gov. Schweiker, the former lieutenant governor who was sworn in this month after Gov. Tom Ridge was tapped by President Bush to be the director of homeland security, showed few qualms about shaking things up.

“For-profit companies are not the enemy. Failure is the enemy,” he said of school reform efforts in Philadelphia during an Oct. 24 speech to the Philadelphia Bar Association. “I have no time for those who prefer a publicly operated school that fails, to a privately operated school that serves them well.”

Chilly Negotiations?

Last week’s events injected a chill into the negotiations that were scheduled to begin this week. They will focus on Edison Schools’ two-month review of the city schools, for which the state paid $2.7 million to the for-profit school-management company. (“Edison to Study Woes of Philadelphia Schools,” Aug. 8, 2001.)

Mayor Street called the changes to the takeover legislation “ill-timed and ill- conceived” and said there would have been plenty of time for such amendments following the negotiations.

“Our attention ought to be focused on using our best efforts to develop a partnership, including a fair and effective governance structure that will bring quality and stability to public education in Philadelphia,” he said in a written statement.

The rapidly evolving events are being watched nationwide because of the unprecedented changes they may portend. No state has ever taken over a district as large as Philadelphia, the nation’s eighth-largest school district, nor has a system of its size ever been turned over to private management.

“I’m not optimistic about the results of this,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based coalition of urban districts. “I suspect whoever ends up with the system will learn what we’ve known in urban education: that this is much harder to do than people think.”

Lawmakers in Pennsylvania are plowing ahead, however. They made several key changes last week to the takeover legislation, or Act 46, which was passed in 1998 to allow the state to run Philadelphia’s schools if the state education secretary declared certain conditions existed, including bankruptcy.

Under the amendments ratified by the legislature on Oct. 23, the governor would name four of the five school reform commission members who would oversee the district if Act 46 went into effect. Two would serve seven-year terms, one would serve a five-year term, and another would serve for three years.

Previously, the governor’s appointees could have been replaced by a new state administration. The city’s mayor would appoint one commissioner to a three-year term under the amended law.

“The governor wants to make sure he has a school board in place that is willing and able to make a long-term commitment to his school reform effort,” said Gretchen Toner, a spokeswoman for the state department of education.

Sen. Allyson Y. Schwartz, a Philadelphia Democrat who opposed the changes, countered: “The changes the governor insisted on create a commission that’s not accountable to anyone. It relinquishes public responsibility. That’s unacceptable.”

The amendments also clarify that the commission could enter into contracts with private for-profit and nonprofit providers to operate the central functions of the district, as well as to review and run individual schools.

Officials with Edison Schools, the nation’s largest for-profit manager of public schools, have said they are, at the very least, interested in operating a group of the city’s schools.

“We continue to be hopeful that the governor and the mayor will invite Edison to be a part of whatever solution they come up with for Philadelphia,” Adam Tucker, a company spokesman, said last week. “But we’re not in the driver’s seat.”

He declined to comment on whether Edison’s report would recommend that the company oversee the entire district.

But Sandra Dungee Glenn, a Philadelphia school board member, said city officials had told the board that Edison was poised to recommend that it manage the district and run several low-performing schools. It’s difficult to view Edison’s evaluation as impartial, she said, if the company recommends itself as the solution.

‘Part of Puzzle’

While the full implications of the amendments were unclear last week, leaders of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers say they are worried that the changes allow contracts with its nonteacher members to be nullified.

“It’s a power grab for patronage jobs and multimillion-dollar contracts,” said Ted Kirsch, the president of the union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “It’s about governance and not about the educational needs of Philadelphia’s children.”

Rep. Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat who helped push the amendments, said that invoking Act 46 and its new powers was just one part of the puzzle. The state must also address the district’s short-term budget needs, as well as a projected $1.5 billion deficit over the next five years.

“We have an academic and fiscal crisis in our major city. People recognize we have to do something,” he said. “It’s not about being Democrat or Republican. Something must get done.”

Ms. Toner of the education department tried to defuse any preconceptions about what the changes mean, pointing out that Gov. Schweiker had not released his plan and that Act 46 had not been triggered.

“It’s increasingly apparent that the state is going to be taking over the school district,” she said. “We would rather do it in partnership with the city.”

Staff Writer Karla Scoon Reid and Associate Editor Mark Walsh contributed to this report.

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