Philadelphia Schools Face State Takeover

Published June 1, 1998

Philadelphia Public Schools Superintendent David W. Hornbeck threatened in February to close the city’s schools if the state did not provide the funds needed to balance his proposed budget. House and Senate lawmakers in Harrisburg responded to Hornbeck’s threat with a lightning move during a seven-hour period on April 21, approving a school funding package that included a takeover plan for the nation’s sixth-largest school system.

“Holding students and their parents and teachers hostage in an effort to gain additional funding is certainly bold but not very wise,” commented Representative Dwight Evans, Democratic chair of the House Appropriations Committee and prime architect of the takeover bill. “It is counter-productive and hurts everyone involved, especially the children,” he added.

The takeover measure, which was quickly signed into law by Governor Tom Ridge, gives State Education Secretary Eugene W. Hickok authority to declare Philadelphia’s schools “financially distressed.” Although current law already permits such a designation, the new law allows the Secretary to make the determination if the district’s budget does not provide sufficient funds to keep schools open for the whole year, or if the district’s educational program fails to comply with the provisions of the state School Code.

If financial distress is declared, the powers of the existing school board would be suspended, the superintendent would be suspended or dismissed, a five-member School Reform Commission would be established, and a Chief Executive Officer would be appointed to run the district. The CEO could hire non-certified staff, suspend compliance with state mandates, reconstitute troubled schools by reassigning or firing staff, hire for-profit firms to manage some schools, convert others to charter schools, and reallocate and redistribute school district resources.

“At the core of the legislation is the recognition that the answer to Philadelphia’s continuing problems is not for Pennsylvania taxpayers to turn on a cash firehose and spray greenbacks in downtown Philly,” commented Sean Duffy, vice-president of the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation. According to the bill’s language, he said, a dynamic CEO could introduce a broad-based school choice program.

“I do not want to take over the Philadelphia School District,” said Representative Evans, but he noted the District had become “adult-centered” instead of “child-centered.” Declaring that simply spending more money would not spark the kind of excellence the city’s students deserve, Evans said “We must take positive steps to make things better for the 215,000 school children of Philadelphia.”

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers did not see the new law making things better for its 30,000 members, who would be forbidden to strike under a state takeover. Teachers who failed to show up for work or perform their jobs would not only be disciplined but also would lose their teaching certificate for a year and would be barred from taking advantage of early retirement options.

The new law also prohibits the extension of current collective bargaining agreements beyond their expiration in the year 2000, even without a declaration of financial distress. After that date, the school district is no longer required to bargain or negotiate with the union over contracts with third parties; staffing decisions, including staff reductions; creation of charter or magnet schools; issues related to the academic program; the use of pilot and experimental programs; and the use of technology.

At its statewide convention in Pittsburgh on April 30, the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO viewed the new law’s collective bargaining provision as “an arrow in the heart of every union contract.” The group unanimously approved a resolution barring labor unions from supporting legislators who voted for the school takeover bill. Politicians could receive labor union endorsement and financial support, however, if they now vote to repeal the contract provisions of the takeover bill.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].