Philadelphians Down on District; Rhee Says It’s on Right Path

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — September 17, 2013 2 min read
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Most Philadelphians are dissatisfied with their public school district, according to a new survey from the Pew Charitable Trusts. And the majority of city residents peg the district’s fiscal crisis, which came close to delaying the opening of the school year, on city and state officials rather than on district leadership or on the teachers’ union.

This year, 78 percent of respondents said the district was “only fair or poor"—the lowest public opinion on the district since Pew started surveying five years ago. Eighteen percent said the schools were good or excellent.

The Philadelphia school district had a $300 million deficit this summer even after laying off teachers and closing more than 20 schools. It requested funds from the city and state and is hoping for concessions from its union. The state-vetted funds are also contingent on union concessions, and city officials are still debating where their part will come from.

The Pew surveyors interviewed some 1,600 Philadelphia residents before city leaders came to an agreement allowing a Sept. 9 first day of school.

Thirty-one percent of those who were surveyed said that Mayor Michael Nutter and the city council or Gov. Tom Corbett and the state’s legislature were responsible for the district’s fiscal woes. Eleven percent blamed the teachers’ union and 21 percent faulted the district’s administration. White respondents were slightly more likely to blame the union and district, while black respondents were slightly more likely to blame elected officials.

Less than half of those surveyed would recommend the city as a place to raise children.

Twenty-three percent of those surveyed said the crisis meant that some families would start leaving the city. Almost half said they believed the crisis would lead families to seek other education options within the city. The poll showed that 64 percent of respondents had positive views on charter schools, which have become far more common in Philadelphia in recent years.

But the expanding presence of charters and other options are part of the regular school district’s challenge right now. Superintendent William Hite Jr., told my colleague Ben Herold last month that the district’s pattern of declining enrollment in regular public schools needs to change soon. “If we continue to lose students at the pace we’re losing them now, we will turn into a district that is not able to fiscally do anything but reimburse charters, pay debt service, and manage every other student who has either been refused, sent back, or is not interested in attending a charter school,” Mr. Hite said.

Meanwhile, Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor in the District of Columbia and founder of StudentsFirst, held a town hall in the City of Brotherly Love. Rhee agrees with Gov. Corbett that the district’s union should compromise on work rules and move away from seniority-based hiring. Protesters stood outside the event, according to CBS.

Here’s Rhee, from the Philadelphia Public School Notebook and Newsworks:

This Education Week story gives some background about the crisis facing the districtthis fall, and this story discusses the deal the city’s leaders put together to allow schools to open on time. Philadelphia‘s school district opened with 24 newly closed schools and dramatically reduced staff this year.

Photo: Students transition during the first day of school at South Philadelphia High School on Sept. 9 in Philadelphia. Officials contend the school district is prepared for the school year despite major budget reductions. --Matt Rourke/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.