School & District Management

Takeover Team Picked in Phila.

By Catherine Gewertz — April 03, 2002 6 min read
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The appointed panel in charge of the Philadelphia public schools announced plans last week to hire 12 companies and nonprofit groups to offer advice on how to turn around the beleaguered district. But the move raised a host of questions and fueled fears that private companies would gain too much control of the country’s seventh-largest school system.

A lightning rod for complaints was the decision by the School Reform Commission, which has been running the district since a December state takeover, to tap Edison Schools Inc., as its key adviser on a broad range of issues. Edison, the nation’s largest for-profit manager of public schools, will give advice on matters ranging from crafting a management plan to enhancing teacher recruitment.

Although the reform commission whittled the New York City company’s role significantly from what Pennsylvania’s governor had advocated—that it run the entire district—the choice of Edison still prompted loud boos and chants of “No Edison!” from the audience assembled for the March 26 announcement. Opposition to the company has been intense from community members, who criticize Edison’s for-profit status and what they see as its uneven record in running schools.

Eleven other companies and nonprofit organizations were selected from more than 30 that had applied to examine ways to improve the district’s curriculum, procurement, food services, information technology, staff development, school safety, and high school achievement. No contracts have yet been awarded; the reform commission will now negotiate those agreements. No one knows yet how much the debt-ridden district will pay for the consulting services, and no cap was placed on that spending.

Commission Chairman James E. Nevels acknowledged the antipathy toward Edison, saying that “reform is never without controversy.” But he hailed the panel’s decision as a step toward forging a district that is “reorganized and reinvigorated” by fall.

Gov. Mark S. Schweiker, a Republican who appointed three of the five commission members to Democratic Mayor John F. Street’s two, praised the panel’s consulting decision as “proof that powerful reform is under way” in the 200,000-student district.

Still, skeptics and critics abound. Some lashed out last week at what they saw as a poor substitute for adequate funding.

“A mean, nasty trick has been played on us, our students, and their parents,” Dennis Barnebey, a high school teacher in the city, told the commission. “Our schools have been drastically underfunded for years, and now our lack of success with inadequate resources is being used as an excuse to turn the public sector over to profit-making enterprises.”

In the days after the vote, others expressed frustration that the district—the focus of a $2.7 million study by Edison last year—is being studied and analyzed yet again, instead of implementing proven strategies to boost student learning.

“None of these contracts actually do anything. They just give money to ‘suits,’ ” said Shelly Yanoff, the executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, a local advocacy group. “It’s not like we’re putting our dollars into teacher mentors, smaller class size, adequate supplies, and more counselors.”

The decision to use Edison as a consultant, coming after weeks of intense lobbying by Gov. Schweiker, resulted from “a raw exercise of political power,” Ms. Yanoff contended, and represented “the cost of us getting support from the state.”

An additional $75 million a year in state funding underpins the governor’s plan for the Philadelphia schools, along with a commitment of an extra $45 million from the city. But state support is hardly assured.

Funding at Issue

Some state lawmakers have expressed impatience with what they see as the slow pace of change in Philadelphia, and doubt that even a huge infusion of money would make a difference there. Hearing testimony in early March on the proposed $75 million in extra aid, some legislators voiced reluctance to dole out what would amount to an increase exceeding 4 percent for the district, when the state budget will allow only a 1 percent increase for their own home school districts.

The Philadelphia City Council has given preliminary approval to kicking in another $45 million to the district’s $1.7 billion annual budget this fiscal year and next. The reform commission plans to cut 325 positions from central administration to save $25 million, but the district still faces the prospect of a $102 million deficit by 2005. Still unapproved is a $300 million bond issue viewed as critical to the governor’s plan.

Another key— and controversial—aspect of Mr. Schweiker’s plan calls for allowing community groups to run 60 to 100 of the city’s lowest-performing schools in partnership with private managers. The reform commission is expected to decide later this month which private companies will be used in those partnerships. Edison is one of 10 finalists in that process, and is hoping to run dozens of schools. (“Community Groups Looking to Run Phila. Schools,” Feb. 6, 2002.)

When the state assumed control of the district Dec. 21, Gov. Schweiker promised a “system completely transformed to deliver academic results.” Commission spokeswoman Carey Dearnley affirmed last week that the reform panel is “committed to instituting radical reform in this school district and having the reforms in place by this fall.”

Adam Tucker, a spokesman for Edison, said the company is eager to negotiate a contract quickly so it can show that it can do right by Philadelphians. “We want to get in there and do good work,” he said. But Mr. Tucker acknowledged that the company currently has “only the headlines” and not a fleshed-out picture of what the district wants it to accomplish.

Meanwhile, some observers questioned how much improvement could be attained in the five months before the city’s 264 schools begin a new school year.

“We don’t see any grand plan that addresses the real issues, like improving graduation and attendance rates and test scores,” said Barbara Goodman, a spokeswoman for the 21,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve outcomes for kids, and we are probably blowing it.”

Debra Kahn, Mayor Street’s education adviser, ventured that citizens could realistically expect noticeable changes more quickly in the low-performing schools run by the partnerships than they could in districtwide management and performance. “To talk about a brand-new organization by September is ambitious,” she said.

‘Rube Goldberg’ Setup?

Just how the consultants’ feedback will translate into lasting improvement of the district was an open question. The task of synthesizing a dozen organizations’ analyses and putting their recommendations into practice is daunting, said William Lowe Boyd, a professor of educational administration at Pennsylvania State University.

“The reform commission is going to have its hands full,” he said. “If they are wise, this could work. But there is a real danger here of creating a sort of Rube Goldberg machine, with so many actors and contractors. How are all these pieces going to coordinate?”

Henry M. Levin, a professor of education and economics at Teachers College, Columbia University, favors exploring the role private companies can have in improving schools. But he worries about the situation in Philadelphia. While he thinks Edison is “sincere about wanting to create good schools,” Mr. Levin said he wonders if the company can do an effective job at improving district operations while dealing with sustained community opposition.

And engaging a large group of consultants at this point is unlikely to produce meaningful results in a district that has not responded well to years of past improvement efforts, he said.

A more successful strategy, he believes, would have brought together a “study group” of parents, teachers, administrators, and experts to determine the changes that all stakeholders in the city schools need to make, from students and parents to district administrators. Such a plan, he said, would then be presented to the state to justify extra funding.

“All the people involved are going to have to change their behavior,” he said. “It’s marshaling a social movement, really. And instead, what we have is consultants coming in to tell us what’s wrong.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2002 edition of Education Week as Takeover Team Picked in Phila.

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