Philadelphia Story

The city is more than two years into an ambitious effort to turn around its schools. But without strong public support, that may never happen.

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For a few brief moments last month, it seemed as though the Philadelphia school district was on a roll. Superintendent David W. Hornbeck unveiled new performance goals for schools that won quick praise from the local media. Mayor Edward G. Rendell, in presenting his budget to members of the City Council, pledged unequivocal support for school reform. And business leaders announced that they had helped the district save $12 million in the past year.

But as so often has happened here in the past 2½ years, the momentum was derailed, this time when two of the city's Democratic state legislators unveiled separate plans to break up the 215,000-student district.

Wrangling over education has become the new sport in the City of Brotherly Love—a dramatic change for a district once viewed as an unapproachable fortress. The public has been jolted awake by the scrutiny of schools that began in the fall of 1994 when Hornbeck, a prominent reformer, was hired to overhaul them.

Now, the failures and struggles of the schools are on graphic public display. Few Philadelphians, it seems, lack an opinion about what should be done.

Whether parents, teachers, administrators, community members, businesspeople, suburbanites, religious leaders, or local and state lawmakers understand and support the radical changes Hornbeck has proposed, however, is another question. One thing is certain, though: that without solid public engagement, the reforms can't take hold. The job of fixing the schools is too big, the system's money problems too daunting, to be accomplished with half-hearted commitment.

The job here involves no less than rebuilding a constituency for public education, reformers say. That's a task at the root of many efforts to engage the public in schools. But the stakes are higher here because the problems and the plans to address them are both so large.

Hornbeck repeatedly says his goal is no less than to create an urban school district that educates all of its children to high levels—something that doesn't exist today. If his reforms fail, critics may conclude that urban districts in their current form can't be salvaged.

Building public support is one of the 10 points of Children Achieving, the ambitious reform plan Hornbeck introduced soon after he came to the district. An engaged citizenry is the linchpin for everything else his administration is trying to do: set high standards for students, push decisionmaking from the central office to the schools, improve teaching, support children and families, forge partnerships with community agencies, and give schools the textbooks, computers, and facilities they need.

The district's leadership and its partners in the community are trying to communicate their plans clearly and help residents understand the stake they share in the fate of the public schools. But they admit efforts to build understanding and support for reform have fallen short.

Part of the problem is that Children Achieving, in tackling so many issues at once, seems too complex. The district's 257 schools have been grouped into 22 clusters of a high school and the middle and elementary schools that feed it. Schools are themselves dividing into "small learning communities" to encourage better interaction between students and teachers.

And, unfortunately, much of the plan came wrapped in the dense jargon that parents and noneducators often find so confusing. City Council members, who oversee the district's budget, had to contend with unwieldy titles like "teaching and learning facilitator." (That means master teacher.)

"To be sitting in a conversation using those terms just drove politicians and the general public batty—it made this reform seem complicated," says Vicki L. Phillips, the executive director of the Children Achieving Challenge. The local nonprofit group provides assistance for the reforms with grant money from the Annenberg Foundation. "We are our own worst enemies, from the best of intentions. In our conversations with the public, we have been less able to boil it down."

Another major issue was Children Achieving's original price tag of $1.5 billion over five years. At a time when increasing enrollment and flat state funding meant a growing budget gap for the city's schools, the plan sounded to some like pie in the sky.

By themselves, the reform agenda and money woes would have been enough to make the plan's success far from certain. But the plan is unfolding in a city known for rough-and-tumble politics, in a region where suburbanites keep the city at arm's length. And in Harrisburg, the Republican-controlled legislature and the Republican governor are reluctant to spend more on a school system they believe is already a drain on the taxpayers.

Finally, reformers have had to contend with an aggressive City Council, an activist desegregation judge with her own ideas about how to fix the schools, hostile stories in The Philadelphia Daily News, and a teachers' union that has been sharply critical of change.

Hornbeck, who is usually supported by five of the nine school board members, remains undaunted. His early days as a minister may have something to do with his long-range view, although he admits that the personal criticism stings. He is often referred to in the local press as "embattled" or "beleaguered" but insists the adjectives do not describe his outlook.

A key problem with public perceptions, he says, is that Children Achieving "is too often seen as mine." But his own personal success or failure, he insists, isn't the point.

"The issue is whether or not some city, some place, with somebody as the superintendent—me or somebody else—can create the teaching and learning environment, the connections and support and all the rest, where all the kids know how to read and do math and science."

In Philadelphia, schools fall dramatically short of that goal. Although employers, parents, and residents had suspected this for years, Hornbeck has made achievement data and other indications of school performance painfully public. Fewer than half the students in the city's schools have a basic grasp of the three subjects Hornbeck considers critical: reading, math, and science. Only four in 10 high school students graduate in four years.

Releasing accurate data about schools and then holding teachers and administrators accountable for their performance is the cornerstone of Hornbeck's reform approach. It's a major departure in a school system that had for years kept a tight lid on information, which many believe led to public apathy.

A 1994 report to the desegregation judge by a panel of experts blamed "a failure of public will" for the city's inability to address the system's problems.

The school district has also made its funding problems crystal clear. The Philadelphia schools, with an annual budget of $1.4 billion, spend $1,900 less per pupil than the average suburban southeastern Pennsylvania district. The state's education subsidy, which makes up about 60 percent of the district's total budget, has fallen by about $300 per pupil since 1992. City tax revenues declined by an additional $500 per pupil during the same period.

Looming next year is a projected deficit of nearly $105 million. Although suburban districts can raise local taxes, the city of Philadelphia was insolvent five years ago and is cutting income and business taxes to try to keep residents and businesses from fleeing.

Thus far, the district has made no inroads with state politicians. "The place we have failed miserably is in changing the historic, bipartisan mistreatment of Philadelphia's children by Harrisburg," Hornbeck says bluntly.

In reply to the district's pleas, Eugene W. Hickok, the state secretary of education, pointed out last fall that Philadelphia gets 18 percent of Pennsylvania's basic education subsidy for educating 12 percent of the state's children. "The color of reform is not always green," Hickok said.

Hornbeck's strategy has been to do what he said he would do, when he said he would do it. That persistence, along with the district's openness with data, he says, has helped to convince Philadelphians that "this agenda is real."

"I think a lot of people were not, early on, clear that we were clear," he says. "I suppose they thought that as criticisms were raised, that we would either be distracted or we would go off on a different agenda. That hasn't happened. And that has, in itself, provoked some criticism."

Hornbeck's most persistent critic—and his most badly needed ally—is the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Union leaders are especially hostile to his plan to hold teachers accountable for improving schools. Despite union objections, the school board approved a "professional responsibility system" for teachers and administrators that will reward schools that meet achievement goals and penalize those that don't. The union says the plan has no credibility because too few high school students bothered to take the tests that form part of the basis for the system.

The City Council subjected the superintendent to intense grilling during budget hearings.

Last year, the district's circle of public critics widened. First, The Philadelphia Daily News, a tabloid-style newspaper fighting to keep its circulation up, declared in a bold headline that Children Achieving deserved "An F for Flunking." The paper called the plan "grandiose" and a "billion dollar gamble."

Commonwealth Judge Doris Smith, presiding over the desegregation case, threatened to jail Hornbeck because she didn't agree with his budget plans. The City Council subjected the superintendent to intense grilling during budget hearings.

Council members insisted that he require the members of his cabinet to move into Philadelphia, despite a law that waived the school district's public-employee residency requirement for longtime employees. When he agreed, in a move that affects about a dozen of his top administrators, the city chipped in an extra $15 million.

Things got so rocky that in June, a group of prominent Philadelphians took out full-page advertisements in the Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer to pledge their support for reform. "We are prepared to go the distance to make our schools a success," the ads said.

Hornbeck also took steps to shore up his message by hiring a public relations expert, William Epstein, to direct a new office merging communications and government relations. Epstein, who has worked for several prominent politicians, says "the negativism in the press got out of control" for a time because the superintendent and his cabinet were so busy overhauling the district that they didn't take time to explain themselves clearly.

In the meantime, the district and its partners have come up with a communications plan that gives various players a role. The Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, which received $1 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts in 1995, launched the Philadelphia Campaign for Public Education last year to build awareness and support for reform.

The campaign organized two tours of schools to let Philadelphians and suburbanites observe classrooms. Last spring, the campaign sponsored "Public School Sunday," discussions of education issues in 133 homes, churches, and community centers throughout the region. Participants were urged to write their state legislators, urging them to help close the school spending gap between the city and suburbs.

Ernest Jones, the executive director of the urban affairs coalition, says Philadelphians doubt whether the reform plan can produce good schools. "People are cynical," he says. "They don't believe it's going to make a difference. Even teachers."

The only way the schools will improve is for Philadelphians from all walks of life to shoulder their share of the burden.

To try to forge a consensus about public education, Jones, Mayor Rendell, and John F. Street, the president of the City Council, are convening a yearlong "education summit" that is to culminate in a blueprint for action by year's end.

Hornbeck's chief of staff, Germaine Ingram, is a key organizer. Still, the summit has been portrayed in the local media as sidelining Hornbeck and his reform plans. The superintendent says he's all for a broader community discussion of education.

"When we say summit," Street says, "we don't mean a couple hundred people getting together on a Friday night and everybody claps and waves and says, 'We do need education,' and then goes back where they came from." The summit has a steering committee made up of a cross section of Philadelphians, from scholars at the University of Pennsylvania to representatives of the local Million Man March organization. "We hope the level of the debate gets beyond just some of the details of the Children Achieving program," Street adds. "That's a means to an end."

Hornbeck continues to try to rally Philadelphians with a moral appeal. "Many of the issues that we face in education in this city and the state are values issues, moral issues." He has reached out to communities of faith in the area and keeps in close touch with a key group of ministers. About once a month, he gets behind the pulpit at a Baptist or African Methodist Episcopal church to spread the word that no child should be left behind.

The only way the schools will improve is for Philadelphians from all walks of life to shoulder their share of the burden, he believes, instead of looking to a famous reformer to fix the problem for them.

"This is about everyone's responsibility," he notes, "not just about mine."

Vol. 16, Issue 21, Page 27-30

Published in Print: February 19, 1997, as Philadelphia Story
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