With the start of the new year, the two sides in the ongoing labor talks between the School District and the teachers' union have jointly agreed to stepped-up mediation, a development that both sides described as an effort to reach some conclusion -- but not a sign that they are at an impasse.
The high-stakes negotiations have been going on since last spring with no public sign of progress. The contract expired Aug. 31, more than four months ago. Talks were scheduled for every day this week.
Attendance was lower than usual Tuesday, one of the coldest days in recent memory, with just 64 percent of students attending elementary and middle schools and 45 percent in high schools.
"It wasn't a wasted day," said District spokesman Fernando Gallard. Attendance rates at different schools varied widely, ranging from near perfect to numbers in the 30s. Average daily attendance for last school year was just over 90 percent.
Schools turned over to charter operators -- and to a lesser extent, District-run Promise Academies -- have shown improvements in academics and climate under the three-year-old Renaissance schools turnaround initiative, a new report has found, although big first- and second-year gains have started to slow down or reverse.
According to the study, conducted by the District's Office of Research and Evaluation, most Renaissance charters continue to have higher proficiency rates than those schools did pre-turnaround, despite the leveling-off of earlier gains.
The reported improvements occurred during a time when overall proficiency rates for District-run schools were declining after years of increases; the downslide began after strict test protocols were put in place in District schools in the wake of a statewide cheating scandal.
A newly formed coalition in Philadelphia is joining the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, an effort to make sure that as of the year 2020, all city students read on grade level by the end of 3rd grade.
The School Reform Commission postponed scheduled votes on two charter schools Thursday, pulling one at the last minute for reasons related to an investigation of test cheating.
Philadelphia Electrical & Technology Charter High School was one of three city charters flagged by the state for potential cheating after analyses of test results for 2009, 2010, and 2011 showed statistical irregularities. The charter was directed by the state to conduct an investigation, which resulted in the dismissal of an assistant principal and the imposition of stricter testing protocols.
The renewal vote on PE&T was delayed, officials said, not because of problems with the school's own probe, but because the District is not yet ready to release its investigations into possible cheating at more than a dozen District-run schools.
Philadelphia's Board of Ethics has rejected a complaint filed by several advocacy organizations contending that the William Penn Foundation was lobbying when it financed the hiring of a School District consultant in 2012 and was given access to its work.
The complaint, filed last December, argued that the William Penn Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group, whose services the foundation paid for through a grant to the District, should register as lobbyists.
Philadelphia students in District-run schools lag 7 to 14 percentage points behind the average for big cities in math and reading achievement in 4th and 8th grades on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the only test that compares students across the entire country.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education revealed today that it has directly paid more than $3.7 million in disputed per pupil allotments to six Philadelphia charter schools this fall. That's $3.7 million in expected state aid that the School District won't be receiving.
The state's payments to charters appear to defy an August decison of the School Reform Commission that suspended the part of the school code requiring the state to make such payments when a charter and a district disagree about how much the district should pay them.
The SRC action was designed to allow the District to control charter growth -- to impose enrollment caps -- so that it could plan financially. But the issue of whether the District can limit a charter's enrollment has long been the object of legal and political wrangling between the Philadelphia District and its charters.
Children who enter District schools after having a District-affiliated preschool experience have better literacy skills when they start school and through 2nd grade, but much of that advantage "fades" by 3rd grade, according to the latest report from the Accountability Review Council (ARC).
The ARC, a watchdog group created during the state's takeover of the city schools, did a statistical analysis of students in 2011-12 who had attended one of four different preschool programs in 2007-08.
Preschool "seemed to have narrowed the reading gap for their students when compared with their peers [who didn't attend] in the year or two immediately following the pre-K services," the report concludes. "By the time students took the PSSA in third grade, the benefits of [preschool] in reading proficiency tended to fade."
School District officials say that just over 1,500 students more than the number that they budgeted for are enrolled in charter schools this year, opening up a new $12 million to $15 million hole in its budget.
Spokesman Fernando Gallard said that the District was not prepared to say yet what steps it may take to close the gap.
The charter law requires the District to pay charters for each Philadelphia student enrolled. The District itself does not get money for those students from the state or the city on a per capita basis.
"We are closely monitoring the District's monthly revenues and expenditures to determine possible savings in order to meet the new cost estimates for charter schools," Gallard said. The District had already allocated 29 percent of its $2.4 billion operating budget, or $708 million, in payments to charter schools.
City Councilman Bill Green has long taken a special interest in the School District of Philadelphia, and a few years ago he laid out a detailed education agenda that, in essence, favored the abolition of the School Reform Commission, expansion of charters, and more parental choice.
Sources confirm that the councilman now would like to head the SRC and has spoken to members of Gov. Corbett's administration. One Harrisburg source said that Green is "definitely in the mix" as Corbett looks to fill the vacancy left by Pedro Ramos, who resigned for personal reasons. A second vacancy is expected when Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky's term expires in January. Dworetzky is a holdover appointment of former Gov. Ed Rendell.
In an interview, Green would not comment on whether he is interested in the SRC post or had talked to Corbett's team about it. However, he was willing to discuss education policy generally and clarify how his thinking has evolved since he released the policy papers on the School District in 2010 and 2011.
The School Reform Commission approved an amended charter for People for People Charter School on Thursday, allowing it to expand from a K-8 to a K-12 school, as long as it doesn't increase its total enrollment.
But two charters founded by June Brown, who is now on trial in federal court on charges of fraud, did not get SRC approval, although both were on the agenda.
Students from Youth United for Change continue their efforts to improve the quality of food served in school.
They took their case to the School Reform Commission meeting on Thursday night to publicly ask that students have a role in choosing a new provider for food that is prepared elsewhere and that the District set standards to require that at least 75 percent is fresh rather than frozen. YUC also wants rules for the request-for-proposal that will allow more companies to apply.
Back in August, the School Reform Commission suspended the state school code, using special powers it was granted by legislators when the state took over the District. Among the provisions suspended was one that prevented school districts from setting enrollment caps for charter schools.
But based on what the Pennsylvania Department of Education has done so far, it would seem that the code suspension -- designed to prevent unregulated charter growth that officials say would seriously impede the District's ability to plan financially -- has not had any effect.
After the SRC voted to suspend the code, Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn sent warning letters to charter schools that the District says have enrolled too many students, saying the schools should no longer seek direct payment from PDE. He also threatened charters that continue to "overenroll" with non-renewal or revocation.
The District and state, however, don't appear to be on the same page regarding this issue. Since the suspension, PDE has continued to pay charter schools directly for expenses that the schools claim they are owed and that the District refused to reimburse.
With the $45 million in state aid released by Gov. Corbett, Superintendent William Hite has restored 40 additional positions to schools.
Nearly half of those -- 19 -- are assistant principals. The 40 positions are in addition to 80 counselors that were restored earlier.
The Notebook calculates that with each position costing about $100,000 (the assistant principals cost closer to $150,000 each, including salaries and benefits), the restored professionals in the schools will eat up between $12 million and $15 million of the $45 million. The District has yet to provide a breakdown.