For Phila. Schools, New Pa. Governor Means Uncertainty

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The future of Philadelphia's schools, already uncertain, has become even more so following President Bush's surprise announcement that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge will take a new job in Washington as the nation's anti-terrorism czar.

Gov. Ridge and Mayor John F. Street of Philadelphia were to open negotiations this week on a plan to run the district, which faces a $216 million deficit in its $1.7 billion budget and a state takeover if no pact is reached by Oct 29. That date was extended last week to Nov. 30.

Observers had hoped that the surprisingly strong relationship forged between the Republican governor and the Democratic mayor would pave the way to a resolution that the city's school community and the state legislature could both embrace. Such a deal, some speculated, might even mean a breakup of the district into clusters run by private managers, universities, and others.

But optimism over a quick solution was put on hold last week, even as Mr. Ridge promised to work with Lt. Gov. Mark S. Schweiker and Mayor Street on a plan before the transfer of the governorship to Mr. Schweiker on Oct. 5.

"The news is shocking. We're concerned with how this will play out," Nancy J. McGinley, the executive director of the Philadelphia Education Fund, a nonprofit group that works to improve schools, said of Mr. Ridge's impending resignation. "It was Governor Ridge who said he would seek out significant new state funding."

While Mr. Schweiker's school platform was a mystery to many last week, a spokesman for the 38-year-old Republican said the incoming governor shares Mr. Ridge's agenda, which includes support for publicly financed school vouchers.

"He's been supportive of Governor Ridge's agenda since day one, and is proud of what the Ridge-Schweiker administration has accomplished on education," said David Hixson, Mr. Schweiker's spokesman.

Mr. Schweiker is keeping mostly mum on his ideas for Philadelphia, at least for now. And while he has pledged to make the issue of the city's schools a priority, he has secured a 30-day extension to review the situation and negotiate with Mayor Street.

But Mr. Street made it clear last week that he wants a rapid resolution.

"We understand there could be some slippage, but hopefully not much, given the urgency involved, both financial and educational," said Deborah Kahn, the mayor's secretary of education.

'Destruction of Schools'

A two-term lieutenant governor, Mr. Schweiker has led efforts to make state government more efficient and has coordinated state emergency-response efforts.

Those experiences may help him navigate the minefield of Philadelphia's school politics at perhaps the most crucial point in the history of the 210,000-student district.

One of the most volatile issues facing Mr. Schweiker, and Mr. Street, is the increasingly strident opposition to privatizing some of the city's public schools.

It is expected that Edison Schools Inc., the for-profit school- management company Gov. Ridge tapped to help draft a plan to improve Philadelphia's schools, will suggest that some schools be privately run.

Officials of the New York City-based company have said they are interested in running a cluster of Philadelphia's schools. They are scheduled to release a report this week showing that their schools in other cities have raised test scores—news that could boost support for a possible Edison role in the city.

Last week, though, some 100 foes of privatization—many representing parent-advocacy groups—dominated a Sept. 24 hearing on the city's schools by the education committee of the Philadelphia City Council.

Echoing protester sentiments, Councilman David Cohen argued that the ultimate solution was no big mystery: The state and the city must spend more on Philadelphia's schools.

He wants to see a federal lawsuit challenging the state's school funding formula reinstated. As part of his deal with Gov. Ridge, Mayor Street has postponed the suit until negotiations are complete.

"We hope that there will be an outpouring of Philadelphia protest," Mr. Cohen said. "I don't think the people of Philadelphia will sit by and watch the destruction of the public schools here."

Big Implications

Negotiating a proposal with Mr. Street will be only the first challenge facing the new governor, who will also have to get support in the Republican-led legislature, where his influence is largely untested.

Getting new state aid for Philadelphia would have been challenging even for the popular Mr. Ridge, who was ineligible to run for a third term next year.

"[Lt. Gov. Schweiker] has no statewide political base," said Thomas Gentzel, the assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "While people like him and respect him well enough, he's not been an independent player at the state table. That will change."

Mr. Schweiker has declared that he does not want to run for governor in 2002—a decision that political observers say could be altered if the office agrees with him.

If he does change his mind to seek next year's Republican nomination, his moves in the coming months will be more heavily scrutinized and could affect schools in the rest of Pennsylvania as well.

"There are enormous implications for public schools everywhere in the state," Mr. Gentzel said of the shift in power. "Everyone is watching to see if more money will go to Philadelphia. That could be a precedent for other schools. We certainly knew where Ridge was, but we don't know where Schweiker is."

Vol. 21, Issue 5, Page 8

Published in Print: October 3, 2001, as For Phila. Schools, New Pa. Governor Means Uncertainty
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