No state budget. Continuing labor strife. Conflict with City Council. Courts that block the School Reform Commission’s moves to control charter expansion. Student proficiency rates that tanked in the wake of a new, more difficult state test.
Despite these challenges, Superintendent William Hite, starting his fourth year in Philadelphia, says he is optimistic that he can move forward with an agenda for 2015-16 focused on expanding opportunity for all students – what he is calling “ensuring equity.”
In an interview, Hite said he hopes this will be the year to settle the teachers’ contract and get the District’s charter office operating at full speed to make sure that all charter seats are “high quality.”
Overall, he said, “Things feel different this year. This is the first time we are talking about opening schools without having to reduce, cut or close something.”
Under Gov. Wolf, he said, “There is real talk about providing school districts with the resources they need and restoring drastic cuts” imposed under his predecessor, Gov. Tom Corbett.
Although schools are planning to operate under the insufficient status quo, Hite noted that every principal has proposed a wish list budget should Harrisburg significantly increase education spending.
But if the Harrisburg standoff goes on too long, -- until mid-October, Hite said -- it could result in $1 million in borrowing costs. He also raised the possibility of being unable to borrow at all due to the District’s precarious finances.
Also requiring the District’s attention are the grim statewide results on the new, more rigorous PSSA exam. Educators are trying to assure parents that they reflect a change in the test, not a decline in students’ abilities. Still, the District had to adjust its criteria for admission to selective schools.
Marc Mannella, CEO of the charter network KIPP Philadelphia Schools, said the new standards require from students “a different level of understanding,” especially in math. That means expensive and time-consuming investments in new curricula and teacher retraining will be needed.
As a result, it is even more crucial “to bring more dollars to public education in this city,” Mannella said, and to monitor how it is distributed and spent.
Hite is defining equity as “great schools close to where children live.” As an example, he cites a new foundation-funded career and technical education center for advanced manufacturing at Ben Franklin High School.
Within schools, there is more leadership stability: About 90 percent of new principals have stayed. New partnerships include one with the College Board so all 9th, 10th, and 11th graders can take the PSAT test for free. There is also a citywide campaign called READ! by 4th focused on early literacy.
Key to Hite’s agenda is the reorganization of school networks, led by new assistant superintendent hires who have experience with the kinds of schools they are supervising. Four new networks focus on innovation, school turnaround, alternative options for students seeking to re-engage, and autonomy for schools doing well.
But spending money on additional high-level administrators has irritated City Council President Darrell Clarke, who is still holding $25 million in city funds earmarked for the District.
Clarke’s position is that Hite promised to put those resources directly into schools; he is also miffed about the outsourcing of substitute teachers and principals.
Before the school year is out, the city will also have a new mayor, almost certain to be Jim Kenney, and new City Council members likely to include Helen Gym, who built her campaign around education.
Gym has advocated for more resources for schools and has been strongly critical of many District policies, particularly outsourcing and school privatization. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, perennially at odds with District leadership, supported both Kenney and Gym.
Hite, too, says the new faces in City Hall will benefit the District. “The more we have individuals concerned about the quality of education for all students, the better the chances we will have ... sufficient resources,” he said.
Settling the contract?
The SRC is in prolonged, and so far losing, legal battles with its teachers’ union and charter schools. The relationship between the District and the PFT remains toxic; the two sides haven’t been able to reach an agreement after three years of negotiations. The SRC has taken a series of unilateral actions including nullification of the contract, but judges and arbitrators have so far mostly sided with the union.
Hite hopes this will be the year the contract is settled. He said teachers deserve more money. Throughout the stalemate, teachers have gotten no raises. “I want to get teachers something as much as teachers want to get something,” he said. “We don’t pay our teachers nearly enough.They have gone long enough in this situation.”
But, he added, “Given the economic environment, we all have to make sacrifices.”
The state Supreme Court will ultimately decide the case about the contract, which the SRC nullified in October, trying to impose benefit changes to save $50 million.
PFT president Jerry Jordan agrees with Hite that Wolf has changed the conversation about education funding and that teachers deserve more. But he mostly scoffed at Hite’s concern for teachers, citing his support at the start of talks for cutting their salaries.
Although Jordan also hopes for a settlement, he said that the PFT will not back down from including in the contract detailed staffing provisions like the one requiring a full-time counselor in every school. The District wants to remove such language.
“The only reason it is in the contract is that at some point the District wasn’t doing it,” he said.
The state of charters
Courts have also rebuffed the SRC’s unilateral moves regarding charter schools.
DawnLynne Kacer had barely accepted the job as head of the SRC’s charter office, which was vacant for three years, when Commonwealth Court ruled that the District can’t impose enrollment caps on charters that don’t agree to them. Without such power, the District argues, it has no control over its own budget and cannot plan.
Hite reiterated that he thinks charter enrollment has reached a “saturation point” – signaling that under Kacer, the charter office will likely be aggressive in trying to weed out poor-performing charters as it considers new ones.
As the SRC votes on new charter applications this year, it will continue to pursue four nonrenewals: Delaware Valley, Imani Education Circle, New Media Technology, and Universal-Bluford. Three other charters closed last year.
“I am looking for an honest conversation about what is high quality, how do we know it, when do we know it, and what do we do when schools are not,” said Hite. “I would rather talk less about what sector it is. That’s an old, stale argument.”