School & District Management

Pa. Targets 11 Districts For Takeover

By Robert C. Johnston — May 17, 2000 8 min read

Philadelphia and 10 other low-achieving Pennsylvania school systems are bracing for the impact of a new law that gives the state education department vast new powers to intervene in them—and ultimately take them over.

The Education Empowerment Act, signed by Gov. Tom Ridge on May 10, gives nine of the districts, including Philadelphia, three years to raise reading and mathematics scores or face a takeover. New districts could be added to the list annually.

Districts Targeted
For Takeover

Eleven low-performing Pennsylvania school districts will receive new financial aid, increased regulatory flexibility, and greater state oversight under legislation that was signed by Gov. Tom Ridge last week. Following is a list of those districts, their enrollments, and the county in which they are located:

Allegheny County:
Clairton City School District, 1,000
Duquesne City School District, 1,000
Sto-Rox School District, 1,700
Wilkinsburg Borough School District, 2,000
Beaver County:
Aliquippa School District, 1,600
Dauphin County:
*Harrisburg City School District, 8,800
Steelton-Highspire, 1,400
Delaware County:
**Chester-Upland School District, 6,700
Lancaster County:
Lancaster School District, 10,800
Philadelphia County:
Philadelphia City School District, 212,000
York County:
York City School District, 7,500
Philadelphia County:
Philadelphia City School District, 212,000
* Harrisburg’s mayor is directed to appoint a five-member board to run the school district.
** Chester-Upland will be run by a three-member, state-appointed board of control.

To spur innovation, however, the law makes it easier for those nine districts to create charter schools, privatize troubled schools, reassign staff members, and waive state regulations as part of the improvement plans that they must send to the state this summer.

Provisions of the law hit harder in the remaining two districts. Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed is directed to pick a new school board to run his city’s 8,800-student system by July 1. And the 6,700-student Chester-Upland schools outside Philadelphia will be operated by a three-member, state-appointed board beginning on that date.

Assistance teams picked by the state from local colleges, businesses, or other professions will aid all 11 districts, which collectively serve some 250,000 students. The districts also will share a total of $25 million in improvement grants, amounting to $75 per pupil.

“With today’s signing ... we give our most vulnerable schools the tools they need to innovate and improve, and to provide a quality education to our kids,” Gov. Ridge, a Republican, said during the bill-signing ceremony.

With the new law, Pennsylvania becomes the 23rd state to allow state takeovers of its public schools on grounds of “academic bankruptcy,” according to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver- based policy-research group. To date, just seven states have used that power to take over districts outright.

In addition, districts in Maryland and Massachusetts have been forced by statute to cede authority and enter joint governance arrangements with their states. Meanwhile, California has taken over financially bankrupt districts, and Ohio ran the 77,000-student Cleveland schools from 1995 to 1998 under orders from a federal court.

Pennsylvania’s plan merges the takeover, technical-assistance, and regulatory-relief provisions that are found in other states, but only rarely in combination. Observers say the success of the plan could depend on how well the state balances its helping hand with its heavier hand. “It has great potential to improve quality of instruction in designated schools, or the potential of concentrating a lot of power and discretion in the state department of education,” said Stinson Stroup, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

Philadelphia Ripples

Even as they pored over the bill’s fine print last week, officials in the 212,000-student Philadelphia schools showed interest in using the flexibility provided by the new law to convert city high schools to charter schools, which are publicly funded but less heavily regulated than regular public schools. Currently, half of a school’s teachers and parents must approve such conversions. Most of the 25 charter schools now operating in Philadelphia are primary schools.

“I’ve been disappointed in how our charters have focused on elementary schools,” school board President Pedro A. Ramos said last week. “They could be a greater service at high school.”

Raising that number, however, is exactly what Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Ted Kirsch fears. “Governor Ridge’s legacy from this bill in 15 years will be the destruction of public schools,” predicted Mr. Kirsch, whose union is the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “They’re setting up little charter schools, and we’re losing the parent-advocates of schools.”

Mr. Ramos said that in the areas that must be covered by the improvement plans, the state has backed many efforts already in place in Philadelphia, such as raising standards, reducing class sizes, and expanding professional development.

The law’s shortcoming, he added, is funding. Philadelphia is slated to receive $16 million in grants as a district on the empowerment list, but is projecting a $204 million budget deficit by the end of the 2001 fiscal year. “It’s useful, but nowhere near enough to provide the types of programs that the empowerment act values and which we don’t have,” Mr. Ramos said.

Philadelphia Superintendent David W. Hornbeck, who has long battled with officials in the state capital of Harrisburg over funding for the district, agrees. But, he acknowledged that the money could be used to lower class sizes in 1st grade or expand programs that support students in danger of being retained. Asked about interest in hiring private firms to run schools, he said the district does just as well as the firms he’s studied.

Mr. Hornbeck predicted that the city would avoid a state takeover: “If we continue the dramatic improvement in achievement that we launched a few years ago, we will easily surpass the standards and goals that they have set out.”

State Education Secretary Eugene W. Hickok said teachersin Philadelphia and statewide must be part of the solution. “I know they don’t think I mean that,” he said last week. “The problems in these districts are no individual’s fault. I’d think that teachers in these districts want to turn things around because their destinies are tied to the schools. This can’t succeed without them.”

Mr. Kirsch, however, pointed out that the 11-person panels that the districts must pick to draft their school improvement plans call for just one teacher. “How will they know what’s going on?” he asked.

‘Major Headache’

School districts need only look to Chester-Upland to find out what would happen to them in three years if they don’t meet the improvement goals laid out in the law for raising test scores.

Beginning July 1, the schools in the impoverished industrial community near Philadelphia will be run by a control board consisting of Mr. Hickok or his designee and two local residents. The news prompted some 200 parents to march to Harrisburg last week in protest.

A state financial-control board has overseen Chester-Upland since 1994. And the mixed results from that history have diminished local confidence in forced intervention, said district Superintendent Sterling I. Marshall.

“The people here have been through a lot of disappointment,” he said. “It’s hard to get their trust. It will take us communicating with them and it will be all right.”

Gloria Zoranski, the president of the Chester-Upland Education Association, the local affiliate of the National Education Association, thinks it will take more than talk to get parents on board and to improve schools.

“We were not in support of it because it gives so much power to one man who’s not elected,” she said in reference to Mr. Hickok’s ultimate say over district improvement plans. “What we need is Pennsylvania to invest more in its schools.”

Meanwhile, Harrisburg’s Mayor Reed is gearing up for what may be the biggest challenge of his 18 years as mayor. As of late last week, he said that no one was lining up to join the new school board that he must appoint by July 1.

“It might be described as the worst district in Pennsylvania, which is not something we want to advertise,” he said of the local school system. “It’s been in a downward spiral for 25 years.”

Mr. Reed said he did not ask to appoint the board, but did not run away from it either. “This is a major headache and no one would take this on unless there is no alternative, and we lacked a better alternative,” he said. He added that the board, once it is picked, will focus on getting the district’s books in order and strengthening basic academic skills.

Hybrid Plan

As Pennsylvanians grapple with the state’s new enforcement powers, observers outside the state noted that the new law is an amalgam of school takeover and intervention laws from across the country.

Handing Harrisburg’s mayor control of the schools resembles what Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio have done in giving the mayors of major cities the power to pick school leaders, either on school boards or as the chief executive officers. Meanwhile, identifying failing schools for rewards and sanctions brings to mind state accountability programs in such states as North and South Carolina.

“They do it all,” Michael P. Griffith, a policy analyst for the ECS, said of the Pennsylvania plan. “The one thing they don’t do is vouchers, which is done in Florida.”

There is a reason for that. When Mr. Ridge put a voucher provision in a similar accountability bill last year, the measure died because of the controversy sparked by that private-school-choice provision. Mr. Ridge, who is seen as a leading contender to be the vice presidential running mate of presumed Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush, nixed that provision this time.

Mr. Hickok said that while many state intervention policies have focused on district finances, Pennsylvania’s puts academics first. “We want you to do things differently so we don’t need a board of control,” he said. “The real focus is educational turnaround.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2000 edition of Education Week as Pa. Targets 11 Districts For Takeover


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