School & District Management

Debating State Control

By Catherine Gewertz — September 12, 2005 2 min read
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Nearly four years ago, the Philadelphia schools were in such crisis that they were taken over by the state. Now comes the question: Is it time for the state to give them back?

Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street suggested last month that it could be time to talk about whether Pennsylvania should turn control of the school district back to the city. He noted that its test scores have been on the rise for several years, and that it’s on stronger fiscal ground.

One city councilman agreed that the schools should revert to local control within the next couple of years. But Mr. Street’s idea didn’t draw broad support.

State Rep. Dwight Evans, a Democrat from Philadelphia who helped write the 2001 takeover law, said the “partnership” between the state and the 205,000-student district—an arrangement that channels extra aid to the schools—is improving the district, so it should be left in place for a while longer.

“If it’s not broken, why mess with it?” Mr. Evans said in a telephone interview last week. “We’ve been arguing about the wrong things. It’s not about who controls [the schools]. It’s about what works for kids.”

Speaker of the House John M. Perzel and Senate Majority Whip Jeffrey E. Piccola, both Republicans, and Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the district, all told The Philadelphia Inquirer that it would be a mistake for control of the schools to revert to the city now.

Mayor Street’s spokesman told the Inquirer that the mayor had intended only to suggest that it might be time to begin discussion about an “eventual” changeover to local control.

Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a fellow Democrat and former Philadelphia mayor, doesn’t think it’s time for a change just yet. He pointed to the most recently released round of Pennsylvania test scores, showing Philadelphia students scoring higher in mathematics and reading for a fourth consecutive year.

Rep. Evans, while touting the gains, pointed out that most Philadelphia students still score below the proficient level on the state tests. That is another reason, he said, to stay with the current governance arrangement.

Since December 2001, Philadelphia’s schools have been governed by a five-member School Reform Commission. Two of its appointees were chosen by Mayor Street, and three by then-Gov. Mark S. Schweiker, a Republican. Under the arrangement, the commission has pursued a “multiple provider” approach to school improvement.

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2005 edition of Education Week

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