After 17 Years, Local School Board to Replace State Oversight in Philadelphia

What will happen in  Philadelphia as Pennsylvania releases the school district from 17 years of badly bungled state control?

In a piece this week for Our Future, Jeff Bryant marks the emergence of the School District of Philadelphia from state oversight: “State control of Philadelphia’s schools came to an end in November 2017, when the state-imposed School Reform Commission (SRC), which governed the schools, voted itself out of existence…. The transfer of governing power is expected to be completed by June 30.”

The School District of Philadelphia has been a centerpiece of corporate school reform for years and years. The issues have always been money and the myth that privatization would relieve the state budget by establishing efficiencies to lower the expenses in the state’s largest and among its poorest school districts.

In 2000-2001, the state seized control of the district, established an appointed School Reform Commission to replace the locally elected board of education, and forced the resignation of Superintendent David Hornbeck. Reformers wanted test scores raised and deficits obliterated without having to increase the state budget to compensate for outrageous school funding inequity. At the time, writes Samuel Abrams in his fine book, Education and the Commercial Mindset: “The differences in per-pupil expenditure in Pennsylvania were indeed striking. While Philadelphia, for example, spent $7,944 per student in 2000-2001, the five school districts along the Paoli/Thorndale Line—traditionally known as the Main Line—of the region’s commuter rail system, taking suburbanites southeast into Philadelphia and back, spent, on average, $11,437 per student…. Philadelphia was, in other words, expected to educate its children spending 70 percent as much per pupil as the school districts of Great Valley, Haverford, Lower Merion, Radnor, and Tredyffrin-Eastown.  Making matters worse, children in Philadelphia came to school with many more needs than their peers in the leafy Main Line suburbs…. Over the previous five years for which data are available, Philadelphia spent, on average, 68 percent as much per pupil as its neighboring Main Line school districts.” (Education and the Commercial Mindset, pp. 100-101)

The state then contracted with Edison Schools, the private management company, to evaluate the future of the School District of Philadelphia. Edison prescribed abolishing the elected board of education, replacing it with an appointed School Reform Commission of which one of the five members would be appointed by Philadelphia’s mayor and the other four by the governor. The new SRC imposed turnaround plans on many schools. Edison Schools, according to the recommendation in its own study of the district, eventually took over management of 20 of the city’s public schools. Ironically Edison almost went broke trying to run schools while cutting costs to try to live up to what it had promised in an underbid. Education often costs more than privatizers promise. (Education and the Commercial Mindset, p. 136)

The School Reform Commission’s implementation of the plan has been problematic for two reasons. First, Philadelphia’s schools were drastically underfunded under state leadership by the tax slashing Governor Tom Corbett, and the rapid expansion of parasitic charter schools has undermined the host public school district.

Jeff Bryant describes the impact of austerity education budgeting by Corbett and his tax slashing legislature: “More budget cuts ensued after the recession of 2008 and the election of Republican Governor Tom Corbett in 2010, who cut about $860 million from public education in his first budget… By 2014, the condition of Philadelphia schools had become a national scandal.  Report after report recounted Philly schools with leaky roofs, busted windows, rodent and mold infestation, and no sports or athletic programs and no instrumental music classes.  Schools had to zero-out budgets for extracurricular activities, textbooks, and supplies. Most full-time school nurses, counselors, and librarians were let go, and class sizes ballooned to outrageous levels with 40-plus students in elementary classes and over 60 students in high school classes.”

And in 2012, the School Reform Commission hired the Boston Consulting Group to develop a Portfolio School Reform Plan that focused on closing schools and opening charters instead of increasing funding. Bryant describes the impact of rapid expansion of charter schools: “The booming market for charter schools in Philadelphia worsened the funding situation in the district schools… As public school money followed students moving to charter schools, at a cost of $8,569 per student, the public schools were unable to reduce costs due to staff, building and transportation fixed costs.”  Because the state reimburses schools at a flat rate for special education students, charters were able to skim off students with the least expensive disabilities, stranding blind and deaf students, and students with multiple handicaps in the public schools.

As the School District of Philadelphia emerges from state oversight in June 2018, it will be managed by a local school board appointed by the Mayor Jim Kenney. Bryant describes intense interest by local advocates suggesting names of potential board members: “A 13-member nominating panel made up of parents… educators, public school activists, former school officials, and local business and non-profit leaders has generated a list of 45 school board nominees from which Kenney will select nine appointees by the end of March.  The nominating panel received 500 applications… in less than two months and interviewed about 80 potential finalists.”

Among the challenges for the new local school board, however, will remain state government. While the state will no longer control the governance of the School District of Philadelphia, the state remains responsible for inequity that continues in school funding.  Although voters replaced Governor Tom Corbett with a Democrat, Tom Wolf, and although the legislature finally passed a new funding formula two years ago, the Philadelphia NewsMaddie Hanna reported last November that the state has chronically failed, despite state governance under the SRC, to address massive problems in Philadelphia: “(I)n the last decade, the amount of state money distributed to Philadelphia schools—about $1.5 billion—has remained nearly the same, when adjusted for inflation. In terms of per-pupil subsidy, Philadelphia ranked 225th among the common wealth’s 501 districts in the 2015-2016 school year; in 2010, it was No. 139.”

The new school board will also need to assess the role of Portfolio School Reform—the kind of plan that expands the number of charters even though charter schools in Pennsylvania operate as parasites eating their host.


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