The plan: Travesty or opportunity?
It is a new day, a bold experiment, an opportunity for innovation.
Or, it is a travesty, the end of public education as we know it, a cynical right-wing ploy. Not to mention a new twist on the decision a decade ago, for which the District has little to show, to turn over schools to education management organizations.
Sixty-four closed school buildings. A skeletal central office. “Achievement networks” of affiliated schools, at least some led by current District educators, perhaps by universities, that operate on performance contracts. More charter schools and charter networks. Renegotiated, or abrogated, labor contracts.
As the full implications sink in of the School District’s blueprint for “radical” restructuring – a tame description, under the circumstances – reaction is ranging from outrage to guarded optimism that city students might actually get a better education.
The School Reform Commission is doing this because it has few options and has to act with urgency, said SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos. “We know that what we have now isn't working,” he said. "We either achieve fiscal sustainability and succeed at providing safe, high-quality schools or become a mere social program."
Added Mayor Nutter: "If we don't deal with it, the system is going to collapse." He urged all the players to "grow up and deal with it."
But neither the SRC nor the mayor has been willing to talk about the systematic disinvestment in the city's schools.
Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen did point out that the high-powered consultants brought in to "right the fiscal ship" had concluded that individual school budgets had been wrung dry and that, compared to other big districts, its administration is not top-heavy nor its spending out of line.
"The new watchword is 'Live within our means,' but the means within we have to live is a political choice," said one school official who did not want to be named. "The assumption is, now we have the right amount of money. Before, it was too much. That is the constraint under which they have to operate politically."
Hence, the plan for next year: more borrowing and union concessions or outsourcing of services. Knudsen said the District now knows it could privatize facilities and transportation to save some $50 million. But he is still talking with the union that represents those workers, District 1201 of SEIU 32BJ.
The local has been "negotiating with the School District to reach an agreement that cuts costs, saves jobs and provides Philadelphia school children with a safe, clean learning environment," said 32BJ President George Ricchezza in a statement. "No outsourcing deadline has been set in those talks. 32BJ SEIU will continue to bargain in good faith to reach an agreement, but we won’t be pushed by [outsourcing] threats."
As for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, by far the District's largest union, they are having none of it.
"This is a cynical, right-wing and market-driven plan to privatize public education, to force thousands of economically disadvantaged families to select from an under-funded hodge-podge of EMO- and charter-company-run schools and to convert thousands of professional and family-sustaining positions into low-paying, high-turnover jobs," Jerry Jordan, PFT president, said in a statement.
In an interview, he was more tempered – but not much. Although he chose his words carefully, Jordan said that the PFT would not reopen its contract to save part of the $156 million that Knudsen is shooting for in fiscal 2013 through wage and benefit "restructuring." The contract is up in August 2013.
"We’re prepared to negotiate next year, at the appropriate time," Jordan said.
The city's two major organized student groups, Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change, issued a joint statement that questions the "political motivations behind the District's decisions and their impacts on young people. On its surface this proposal seems like yet another attempt to privatize our schools. We saw what happened with Edison in 2002."
The variety of providers that already exist has led, the statement said, "to warehousing students with the greatest need in the most underfunded schools."
The authors of the District's new educational blueprint plan are trying to promote the notion that the "achievement network" concept is not just about signing on more charter organizations, but letting the District's own successful teachers and principals unleash innovation and creativity. It will also provide new opportunities for partnerships with universities and an array of nonprofits.
In fact, how the achievement networks will be organized and operate is still very much a work in progress.
Some observers, however, are hoping that these achievement networks provide a real opportunity.
"You're never going to get fast-paced change with a centralized, cookie-cutter approach," said Diane Castelbuono, a former District and state education official now directing education policy for United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania. "This plan reflects that."
One person consistently mentioned as someone who could lead such an achievement network is Chris Lehmann, principal of Science Leadership Academy, a Center City high school.
He said he was game: Given a choice, he said, would always prefer a grassroots movement to top-down control.
"Empowering principals and giving more school autonomy is really important," he said. "I trust that the principals and teachers and parents and students of Philadelphia can come together in their communities to invigorate their schools. I think there are a lot of leaders in the District who are up for the challenge of both working within their own schools and working with their colleagues to help schools get better."
Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters PA and a consistent advocate for more funding for the District, said she feels that "principals and teachers have to recognize the opportunity" presented by the achievement networks.
At the same time, she wonders who will be willing to take this on when there seems to be little regard for whether they will actually have enough resources and support to carry out their ideas. This kind of autonomy seems to come only at times when there is no stomach for more investment in schools, she said.
Ths system's dire straits are "a consequence of systematic underfunding by the city and state," she said. "We have to be serious about what the real needs are if we want a high-quality and equitable education."
The SRC plans to hold a series of public meetings on the restructuring plan, starting May 1 at District headquarters.