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How low can you go? Leading schools into (or out of) ruin.

By the Notebook on Apr 25, 2013 09:58 AM

by James H. Lytle

The School District announced last week that its budget for next year would be cut by 25 percent. When coupled with the nearly 20 percent reductions the two previous years, school resources will have shrunk by at least 40 percent.

Next year, according to Superintendent William Hite, schools will have principals and teachers, and that's about it. No secretaries, no counselors, no music, art, sports, or extracurriculars. Definitely no afterschool programs. In these stripped-down conditions, every classroom would be filled to the maximum of 30 to 33 students.

That means schools, staffed at the lowest levels in 50 years, will still be accountable for meeting the performance standards that continue to grow ever more demanding.

Neither the mayor nor the governor has shown any leadership in addressing this crisis; neither seems inclined to do so. City Council is sitting on the sidelines. Even state legislators who support the city schools are frustrated over the lack of political or public outcry.

Like dutiful soldiers, the governor-and-mayor-appointed School Reform Commission and their selected leaders, Superintendent Hite and Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn, behave as though carrying out orders from on high. Making the balanced budget the District’s first priority, they have opted to close schools, reduce the size of the workforce, reduce salaries and benefits for the rest, as they continue to off-shore students by moving them to charter schools. All the while, they argue that the ship needs to sink before it will float.

Amazingly, this same District leadership continues to mouth platitudes about improving the quality of teaching and learning in schools. How can they pretend that the District can cut resources by 40 percent and improve outcomes at the same time?

What we are witnessing is what leadership expert Ronald Heifetz calls “technical change,” a clear problem that requires an expert's solution. Ostensibly, each of the actions taken to put the District in order can be justified as a necessary solution following years of profligacy. But the District and political leaders have misidentified the schools crisis as a technical problem. 

District officials have failed to see the need for what Heifetz calls “adaptive change,” which requires a more creative reimagining of the problem and an ongoing and collective exploration of how to solve it. Had they done so, District leaders would have taken the steps to organize the community to build support for political action. They are not exploring ways to reinvent schooling in the face of declining resources. Nor are they helping the community understand the long-term implications and consequences for the city of this public education wring-out.

What they are doing is testing the question "How little can you spend on city kids and get away with it?" while claiming that Philadelphia can continue to provide a “free and appropriate education” for its children -- in a city that keeps bemoaning its dearth of human capital.

What the situation calls for is advocacy from every quarter and leaders who have the courage and commitment to steer us out of this debacle.

James H. Lytle is a practice professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and a former urban principal and superintendent.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (31)

Submitted by Teacher (not verified) on April 25, 2013 11:49 am
As a teacher I completely agree with the fact that we need to take collective political action. The current efforts to balance a budget at the expense of educating the children of this great city is a crime. The recent push to balance budgets is a political action that is based on false pretense. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff wrote a now debunked report (see: arguing for austerity as a way to make economic gains. Now that this has been proven false we need to put pressure on Nutter, Corbett, and everyone in between to give the money back to the schools. We need to really ask ourselves why politicians would want to drain the district of 40% of its resources? That money needs to be put back where it belongs, and it needs to happen now.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 26, 2013 12:35 am
Teacher, Thank you for mentioning this study. I hadn't heard of it before, but the study, called "Growth in a Time of Debt," was published by the American Economic Review. The fact that basic coding errors led to errors in the authors' findings and conclusions does not shed positive light on the American Economic Review. It never hurts for a peer-reviewed journal to ask for the original data set in order to examine it. I wonder if assistants did the coding for Reinhart and Rogoff and they failed to properly check the work of the assistants? Education Grad Student
Submitted by Teacher (not verified) on April 26, 2013 8:23 am
The reason that I mentioned this study is because it is/was probably the most cited study by politicians campaigning on the grounds of austerity measures. The fact that the study in and of itself was flawed should wake us all up to the fact that, no, we do not need to cut education. Not that myself, nor my colleagues, ever felt like we needed to tighten our too-tight already belts, but for the general population of voting citizens in this great city of Philadelphia to put an end to this chaos. As far as next actions, we need unity on all fronts: educators, parents, students, citizens.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 26, 2013 5:36 pm
Teacher, You are exactly right. There needed to be some belt tightening, but there isn't much more belt tightening to do. The excuse that many politicians have for not spending more on education is the concept of local control and the fact that nothing about education is mentioned in the federal constitution. These politicians don't seem to accept that our society has evolved and that in the 21st century, with people more likely than ever to move from place to place and with the dependence on the internet, it makes sense to have national standards. I have my issues with Common Core, specifically with the content being developmentally inappropriate for younger children, but the idea of common standards and the way in which states adopted the standards makes a lot of sense. Local control can still exist. However, local control does not prevent the state from providing equitable funding to districts. There is wide variation in the amount that individual districts are able to raise revenue for schools. All public schools in a state should receive at least similar levels of funding in sum (state + local money), and even better, the poorest districts should receive proportionally more funding to compensate for the number of children who come from families of low SES. Education Grad Student
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on April 25, 2013 12:25 pm
Absolutely Great commentary Torch! Thoughtful, well said, on the mark, and of course, my highest mark -- Courageous.
Submitted by Rebecca Poyourow on April 25, 2013 12:23 pm
Submitted by Max (not verified) on April 25, 2013 1:57 pm
Well said, Torch! But you're preaching to the choir. What happens next?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 25, 2013 2:22 pm
The question of FAPE (Free and Appropriate Education) is important , I am surprised the state has not addressed the issue of special education. The students who are left behind during all of this are the ones who need the most. Many of our public schools will have special education populations of over 50%. Charters don't have to take them, where do they go??? Charters don't have to take sped students or keep them. When will this be addressed. Where are the wonderful attorneys who fight for their rights. It's time that parents of these children stand up,they are being excluded from a playing field in terms of money,safety, quality, and education. Just to save a few bucks. I think I hear Michael Basch at 440 now.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on April 25, 2013 3:49 pm
Obviously, we are in this almost alone so what should we do?? They are ignoring us big time so far so we need to "up it a notch or 10,000" and yes, now would be appropriate. 2014 is a long way off and the big money people will do their best to use their power to prevent us even then. Time is NOT on our side. Jerry, Jerry ??
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 25, 2013 11:51 pm
I love that you mention Michael Basch. I am familiar with some families using him as their attorney. One issue with special ed is that parents are just trying to obtain services for their child(ren). Change requires collective, class-action legal action. It might take years to remedy the situation, but there needs to be legal action in order for the Commonwealth to fulfill its special education obligations by adequately funding the School District of Philadelphia. Education Grad Student
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 26, 2013 9:09 am
I work in a Charter school 23% of our students are special ed. Get your facts straight before sharing them!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 26, 2013 4:15 pm
wow 23% So you only need 27% more to bring you closer to the population of a neighborhood public school.
Submitted by tom-104 on April 25, 2013 3:18 pm
What underlies what is going on in the School District is the vast shift of wealth to the 1% over the last 30 years. The fiscal crisis in the District has largely been created to carry out a political agenda. The SRC, the Governor, and the Mayor are carrying out the program of ALEC, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family who promote the interests of the corporate and banking community. Our political system at all levels has become beholden to the 1% and is no longer representing the public interest. We can only understand our local situation if we see it in a national context. Once people recognize this we can get down to what do we do about this!
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on April 25, 2013 3:35 pm
Torch------They didn't forget anything. They know exactly what they're doing. They're connecting the dots they want to connect perfectly. Please don't give them any benefit of the doubt nor subscribe to them human feelings of confusion or forgiveness. Their campaign is to destroy the Public Educational System in Urban America for profit--------------------------------Period. Actually, not only profit. Byproducts include ending unions, ending the Middle Class, ending democracy, ending "Hope and Change"--what a joke that is !! and creating a Caste System where masses of people are doomed to prison or, at best, menial labor. What are WE going to do to stop it is the real question now. How far are WE willing to go to stop it? How many people care enough to stop it ? How much influence will big money have in steam rolling the opposition (us)? How successful will the big money be in separating and conquering by pitting union workers against non union workers and how dumb will non union workers prove to be by falling for it?
Submitted by Mayday (not verified) on April 25, 2013 4:45 pm
This needs to be said over and over again. They DO know exactly what they are doing; this is simply the culmination of an agenda that has been in progress for years now. But here is some straight talk about the problem. Parents and students - in massive numbers that wield real power - have to care enough to take action, by any means necessary, to stop the cuts and assert their children's rights to a free, appropriate, SAFE education. School staff can scream and yell and gather in front of 440 (in the hundreds, sadly, rather than in the thousands) but it's the families who have to decide that they will NOT be steamrolled into submission. Parents in my school right now are being complacent, either denying the reality of the cuts or too involved in their own "business" to care. The attitude of the students themselves is disheartening. I prepped in a class of 5th graders today who had heard about the cuts. Their reaction of several boys to the prospect of no counselor, no dean, no SISL, no noon-time aides? "So we can fight and no one can stop us! Yeah! All right!" Next year is going to be utter chaos without the support of out-of-classroom school staff. And next year, when parents see the reality of the unsafe conditions in schools, it will be too late to shout.
Submitted by Geoffrey (not verified) on April 25, 2013 3:07 pm
Imagine a social justice movement in which the leadership actively worked against the interests of their constituents. Rather than fight for equality, citizens were encouraged to comply. This is exactly the way that Nutter, Hit and Kihn are behaving. Rather than showing real leadership and standing with and for the SDP, they are well-paid hit men, wringing their hands even as the commit the crime.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on April 25, 2013 4:19 pm
Yes---------------Exactly. Money for Murder. Have Gun, Will Travel. Play The Race Card or any other card whenever it serves your purpose and "keep clearing" as they say in Special Forces.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 25, 2013 4:37 pm
Torch, Thank you for cogently explaining the heart of the matter. GOP Harrisburg, with unfortunate collusion by our local Democrat leaders, will be quite satisfied to run a hollow shell of an education system even while they criticize it for failing to educate. The ultimate result of this hypocrisy will surely be privatization and dismantling of education for low income children here and elsewhere. What’s next? We need the District leadership, from the SRC down through Dr Hite, to show some spine here. Effective resistance against this systemic destruction by annual budget cuts needs to coalesce. Hite/SRC must at some point draw a line and say “No more cuts!” The District should run a full-fledged and effective program until the money runs out – and then on that day, shut down. Yes – that’s right: cut up to 40% of the school year, and then tell 150,000 students to stay home. Former Mayor and School Board chief Richardson Dilworth threatened to do exactly that back in the 1970s when the District was left underfunded. Harrisburg threatened to take over the schools (which they have now already done, so there is no threat of that today). In the end, money appeared because the politicians could not stand the prospect of tens of thousands of kids in the streets with schools closed. Sure, there would be court actions and lawsuits, but no one could order the District to stay open if there are no funds to pay teachers, the electric and heating bills, the buses, etc. once the money is gone. Hite may be dismissed for this defiance. But, in any case on the current path, he will soon have to take the fall, lose his job, and be branded a failure. He will be blamed for a situation not of his making, in which he could never have succeeded. Why not instead lose the job heroically with integrity and courage? Yes, it’s illegal, but what will the politicians do about it? The Pennsylvania constitution requires state support for adequate education: if illegality becomes the point, then the violation of constitutional requirements by Harrisburg becomes the bigger point. This will necessarily be argued in public, and in the local, state, and national media. This situation needs to become a loud and messy crisis before the 2014 elections, because if Corbett and the Harrisburg conservatives get comfortably re-elected, effective public education in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Chester, and all other communities with large numbers of low income and minority students will be doomed by 2018. This sort of resistance and outright rebellion is necessary: otherwise the damage and injustice will be irreversible and permanent. Now …who has the spine, and how many of us will stand with him/her?
Submitted by Mayday (not verified) on April 25, 2013 4:47 pm
Do you really believe that Hite was hired to "show some spine?"
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Submitted by Gtown_teach (not verified) on April 25, 2013 4:47 pm
Nice piece, but there's the question of whether this is pure discrimination. I'm seeing special ed, and racial discrimination in the slashing of the budget. I'm wondering when Ravitch, Jerry, and some others will make the case that the state take over of Philly schools has simply resulted in the systemic defunding of local schools to punish people with disabilities, especially those of color. I think we need the Feds in here to investigate how the charter laws, and funding laws are perpetuating this type of discrimination. Didn't the Feds have to step in and rewrite how the charters made AYP?
Submitted by LeRoi (not verified) on April 25, 2013 9:34 pm
I had more respect for Dr. Hornbeck's stance of using the money available to educate the children, knowing the money would run out before the end of the year. He drew a line and refused to pretend to educate. When the money ran out he proposed to shut them down. This is when the state took over claiming to be able to do a better job. Well I suggest that we use the money we have to fully educate the children 80% of the way through the year and then shut it down and look to the state to do that better job. Dr. Hire and company should be fired so we can use that money in the classroom. Leave it to the SRC to get the money from their state bosses.
Submitted by Judy Kottke (not verified) on April 25, 2013 9:45 pm
What if the entire school district -- students, teachers, SSAs, NTAs, BCAs, counselors, nurses, secretaries, building engineers, custodial staff, principals, parents and everybody else affected by such drastically slashed budgets -- marched on Harrisburg? It will be pretty hard to ignore busloads full of people from every school in the district if we're right out there in front of the press, instead of isolated in classrooms, homes, cafeterias and blogs. We need a "Million Student March" -- as soon as possible!
Submitted by Teacher (not verified) on April 26, 2013 12:13 pm
Submitted by Consejera (not verified) on April 25, 2013 10:14 pm
Why hasn't the PFT started informational picket lines as a way to help inform the parents? Let's start shouting now!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 25, 2013 11:22 pm
What's the PFT?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 25, 2013 11:59 pm
PFT Building Representatives and Building Committees are in each District school and are free to conduct informational picketing before school and after school hours. If your Building Rep and Committee isn't, ask them why not and bring it to your next chapter meeting in your school.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 26, 2013 12:16 am
Mr. Lytle's commentary is timely and hits the nail on the head. The lack of political leadership from the Mayor is glaring. Gov. Corbett cares more about tax breaks for Marcellus shale drillers. The catch is that the Marcellus shale isn't going anywhere. People who want to drill for natural gas will come to PA anyway because the shale is here. Dr. Hite and Paul Kihn have done nothing on their own to advocate for more money. Dr. Hite has said all along that "We are asking for more money." Then why not make a well-publicized trip up to Harrisburg? Why wait for the PSP? Oh, I forgot, you're all buddy buddy with Mark Gleason.... Education Grad Student
Submitted by Sensichaz (not verified) on April 26, 2013 9:55 am
Why doesn't anyone force the city to make up for the millions of dollars of school district money they gave away in tax abatements? Yes, the city has the right to offer tax abatements, but they should make up any shortfall in school district funding due to that abatement. I guess the only thing the current leadership can say is that the State is as incompetent at running school districts as the city was. Way-ta-go SRC!
Submitted by Brian D. Sadie (not verified) on April 29, 2013 11:30 am
First to mind for comment is that public outcry and advocacy shouldn't be necessary. That any public official, with or without department or administration support, can gut an education budget repeatedly and so thoroughly should be criminal. Brilliance is hardly required to comprehend the mess such shameful governance and disregard makes. Brian D. Sadie,
Submitted by goma (not verified) on June 6, 2014 7:21 am
wow....I don't know how things could have come to this. It seems like such a desperate situation that I can't imagine why something wasn't done to prevent it. jocuri gratis

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