In a decision that could prove pivotal for Philadelphia’s school system, the appointed panel running the district has chosen three school management companies and three nonprofit organizations to manage 75 of its lowest-performing schools.
Assembled by the city’s mayor and Pennsylvania’s governor to run the schools when the state took over on Dec. 21, the School Reform Commission is charged with turning around the fiscally and academically troubled district. With their April 10 announcement, the five panel members took what many view as a big step into uncharted waters, attempting a large-scale improvement with a variety of methods.
The panel’s chairman, James E. Nevels, characterized the decision as “a major step in the reform process.”
“This is an exciting time for Philadelphia schools, and it is a monumental moment in the history of education,” Mr. Nevels said in a statement. “We all understand that change is long overdue, and today we begin a course to better serve students, teachers, and their families. These are schools where change is most urgently needed.”
The reform commission tapped Chancellor Beacon Academies of Miami and two New York City companies—Edison Schools Inc. and Victory Schools—to run some of the schools. To run others, it chose Temple University in Philadelphia; Foundations Inc., a Mount Laurel, N.J.-based nonprofit organization that operates after-school programs; and Universal Companies, a nonprofit, neighborhood-redevelopment organization in Philadelphia that runs one charter school in the city.
The groups will operate as educational management organizations, pairing up—in many cases—with community groups to run schools. The schools were chosen based on their low performance on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition and Pennsylvania state tests.
When Gov. Mark S. Schweiker, a Republican, pushed for a takeover of the 200,000-student Philadelphia school system late last year, his plan called for private educational management organizations, or EMOs, to take over the worst-performing schools in partnership with community groups, with Edison playing the lead role.
The reform commission has not decided how many or which schools each group will run. But its plan departed from that of Mr. Schweiker by making clear that privatization—which prompted intense local opposition—was only one of five governance models that would be used at the schools.
“An assumption a lot of people made was that schools would just be privatized,” said Carey Dearnley, a spokeswoman for the reform commission. “That’s not the case.”
The “most radical” step, Ms. Dearnley said, would be for schools to be privatized—taken over completely by private managers, which could replace current staff members with their own employees. The least severe step would be for a school to become “provider managed,” with a company or nonprofit group working with the existing administration.
Between those models are three other choices: reconstituting a school, converting it to a charter school, or making it an “independent” school, a term used in Pennsylvania for a type of public school similar to a charter school.
Ms. Dearnley said not all models would employ a combination of EMO and community group; some might use only an EMO. The reform commission had not yet decided late last week which models would be used at which schools, or which community groups would be involved in running schools.
In a decision March 26, the panel decided to negotiate contracts with 12 groups, including Edison, to offer consulting services at the district level. (“Takeover Team Picked in Phila.,” April 3, 2002.)
The governor’s spokesman, Steve Aaron, called the SRC’s latest decision “a bold step toward reform. It’s what those kids need and it’s long overdue,” he said. “We like the direction we’re seeing.”
The local teachers’ union, the 21,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, expressed doubts about the new developments, repeating its criticism that the reform commission has not focused enough on ways to improve teaching and learning.
“While they are tinkering with management and governance, it’s business as usual in Philadelphia schools,” said PFT spokeswoman Barbara Goodman.
Of great concern to the union was the reform commission’s contention that under at least two of the models—privatization and charter school—union contracts could be abrogated.
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as Phila. Panel Taps Temple University, Others to Run Troubled Schools