Budget & Finance

Unprecedented Change Eyed For Phila. Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — November 07, 2001 4 min read
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Gov. Mark S. Schweiker of Pennsylvania proposed last week that the Philadelphia schools be taken over by a private management company, a move that would turn one of the country’s largest school systems into the biggest public-school-privatization experiment yet.

The plan brought to a head a simmering debate over the future of Philadelphia’s beleaguered school district. Some state and city leaders welcomed the proposal as a breath of innovation in a system beset by academic and fiscal woes. Others denounced it as too big a gamble, or as state strong-arming.

Still hovering prominently is the specter of a state takeover, which could occur if the state and the city fail to agree on a plan for the 210,000-student district by Nov. 30. (“Legislature Signals Probable Takeover of Phila. Schools,” Oct. 31, 2001.)

City leaders made it clear they did not like Gov. Schweiker’s opening bid.

“Fantasyland,” Mayor John F. Street told the Philadelphia Daily News, referring to parts of the governor’s plan. “This is a very, very troubling development, and I think it’s not going to be accepted by the people of this city. People are up in arms.”

In a report laying out his proposal, the governor promised that parents would see an immediate improvement, and he said bringing in a private operator was the only way to ensure a long-term commitment and continuity.

He added that he aims to make Philadelphia the “greatest urban school district in America.”

Strained Relations

Last week’s developments further eroded the state-city relationship, which had been on the upswing under former Gov. Tom Ridge, but teetered again when the Republican stepped down last month to became the U.S. director of homeland security.

A city government source said city officials believe that Gov. Schweiker, since moving up from the lieutenant governorship on Oct. 5, has betrayed his predecessor’s pledge to engage in true negotiation with the city to fix the district.

“We are very upset with the process,” the source said. “It’s been completely derailed. Our goal all along was to achieve a partnership with the governor. But this is not a negotiation at all.”

The Republican governor’s plan, presented to the Democratic mayor Oct. 31, calls for a private company to operate the district. The company would answer to a five-member commission; four members would be appointed by the governor and one by the mayor.

That body would take over the function of the city school board. The management company would be permitted to replace the district’s top 55 leaders. In addition, the plan would divide the city’s 264 schools into three groups, based on performance.

The 60 worst-performing schools would be run by the lead private operator, or other private firms, in partnership with community organizations.

Meanwhile, the 34 top-performing schools would be supervised by the district’s private operator, but left essentially alone.

Finally, the 170 remaining schools would receive special assistance, such as textbooks, teacher training, and curriculum improvements. Curricula in those schools would be made more uniform, and millions of dollars would be spent on performance bonuses for principals and higher pay for “lead” teachers who mentored less experienced colleagues.

Edison’s Influence

The plan, which echoes recommendations in a $2.7 million study Gov. Ridge had commissioned from Edison Schools Inc., the country’s biggest for-profit operator of public schools, would cost $150 million a year. Half would come from the state and half from the city.

Gov. Schweiker’s report envisions $225 million in cost savings by 2004-05, achieved through such measures as “procurement innovations,” staff attrition, and selling the school district’s Art Deco-style headquarters. New money and savings would be focused on improving the worst-performing schools. A $300 million bond issue would finance the district’s deficit, projected to top $200 million in each of the next few years.

Although the 32-page plan does not name Edison as the company that would run the schools, Edison has made no secret of its desire to be hired for the job. The development of Mr. Schweiker’s proposal was closely interwoven with the drafting of Edison’s own report on the district, and they were released jointly.

The New York City-based company manages 136 public schools in 53 cities and 22 states.

“We spent 90 days studying Philadelphia, and we know we can absolutely deliver on the governor’s proposal,” said Adam Tucker, Edison’s spokesman. “We hope to be a partner, and we know we’re up to the challenge.”

The governor’s proposal divided community groups. The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a group of African-American clergy attacked the privatization plan as profiteering “off the backs of our children.” About two-thirds of the district’s students are black.

Other community groups—some of which hope to run clusters of city schools—supported the plan, saying it represents the best hope for community control over a failing system.

“Right now, [the school district budget of] $1.7 billion gets me high dropout rates and functional illiteracy,” said the Rev. Luis Cortez Jr., the president of Nueva Esperanza. The nonprofit community group runs a charter school and hopes to operate eight more schools in heavily Hispanic north Philadelphia.

“Why should I care if someone makes money if my kids can read?” Mr. Cortez said. “It’s not about who makes money. The point is who is learning to read and who is not.”

One certainty is that the plan, should it take effect, will be widely watched.

“It now seems possible for a large district to be privatized and moved more under the authority of the state,” said Steve Honeyman, who serves on the board of the Cross-City Campaign for Urban Reform, a Chicago nonprofit group.

“This situation is worth watching,” Mr. Honeyman continued, “because of the themes of interest everywhere else: state versus local authority, who can be held accountable.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Unprecedented Change Eyed For Phila. Schools

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