Law Center: City Demands District Oversight, But Right Fight Is With Harrisburg

What John Street was forced to give away, Mayor Nutter is taking back: City oversight of the School District. Hidden in deceptively bureaucratic language, that is the stunning message of the request for an “Educational Accountability Agreement” Mayor Nutter sent to Chairman Archie and the other members of the School Reform Commission (SRC) last week. The message was late in coming, arriving only after the SRC and the District had destroyed their own credibility. But it is only possible because of the vacuum in leadership from Harrisburg.

Michael Churchill

It is hard to remember the days when the state takeover of the District was in order to make sure the chief underfunders of the district – the Republican-controlled legislature and governor – felt they were in control of the District’s spending. Given a second chance, post Rendell, they have responded not with oversight but disinterest. The Governor has not even filled a longstanding vacancy on the SRC. The problems of this last year in part reflect the fact that Republicans in Harrisburg are just as happy watching the District’s credibility collapse as in making it function well. The latter might actually require money. The Corbett Administration has been silent because it just doesn’t care if the District makes it – after all, its case for vouchers is based on vouchers being an alternative to ―failing schools. So the more failure the better.

The saddest part of the struggles over how to cut the District’s budget is that the District had hard earned credibility for educational accomplishment. Student learning, by the measures available, had increased substantially, with higher test scores, fewer dropouts, and more graduates. Areas of school management that had long been abandoned to inertia were coming under active management, including evaluations of teachers, site selection of teachers rather than seniority, closing of under-used properties, etc. Many of its schools were performing better than the average charter school. Class size was going down, and the behavior of students was being to be addressed by the influx of new support personnel, leaving teachers more time to teach.

All this was possible because of the influx of new dollars. The pain from losing these services is great, but shooting administrators does not address the cause. Surely it is just a cheap shot to complain that the District actually spent money in the last two years to help students rather than hoard it so the cuts would be smaller next year. True, some adults would not have to be laid off, but that is because they never would have been hired. How that would have helped students is beyond my comprehension. At least students got two years of smaller classes and more support, even if it did not last forever.

But there can be little argument that the SRC has been a passive fiscal watchdog in how the funds were spent, and that Chairman Archie’s willingness to kowtow to Philadelphia’s political pay-off system in the Martin Luther King and Audenreid fiascos has destroyed any image of the SRC as a watchdog. And although the administrative cuts to district bureaucrats will be large, no one was looking at the bloated public relations budget.

One of the most interesting things about Mayor Nutter’s letter was his request for ―evaluative criteria‖ used to judge which programs to fund and ―when and how often performance evaluations are made.‖ Now isn’t that a wonderful idea! And he also asked for the long withheld evaluations of ―senior administrators‖ including the Superintendent. There is a new sheriff in town!

But better management alone will not close the District’s deficit gap—no matter how much City Council fantasizes that it will—nor will it solve the central dynamic of the school district’s finances which John Street and every mayor before him had to wrestle with: the City does not have the fiscal capacity to fund its schools adequately. The State’s own Costing-Out Study conducted in 2007 found the District underfunded by $950 million. The Corbett Administration has precipitated this latest crisis by cutting $500 million in state funding for k-12 education in addition to the loss of $600 million in federal stimulus dollars, despite the fact that the state will have a half billion dollar surplus at the end of this July and a billion dollar surplus by next July.

Until the District has the resources to educate its students on a par with its suburban neighbors, Philadelphia’s students will be denied what no child should be denied—an education which will allow him or her to compete with any other child, no matter where they live in the state.

Fixing that, Mayor Nutter, will be an even harder challenge than overseeing the feckless SRC, because you will need the cooperation of the rest of the political, civic and community leadership of the City to make that happen.

-Michael Churchill, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia