Pittsburgh’s Schools Need Drastic Reform, Says Commission

Published November 1, 2003

Pittsburgh will not have a high-performance school district without fundamental structural change in the way its public schools are governed, a citizen commission concluded in September after a nine-month investigation of student performance, finances, and governance in the Pittsburgh Public School District.

Despite having a low pupil-teacher ratio, highly experienced teachers, high per-pupil spending, and the highest teacher salaries in the nation, the district continues to maintain “alarmingly low math and reading achievement scores” and is in “overall academic peril,” the commission concluded.

“Bold solutions and fundamental change are necessary to achieve excellence in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, offer all students the opportunity of an enriching education, and brighten the city’s future,” the commission declared in its Final Report, called “Keeping the Promise.” In the commission’s view, the present governance structure of the city’s public schools–where board members are elected by geographic areas–produces ongoing leadership problems and contributes to high costs, high taxes, neglect of poor student performance, and widespread inequity.

The 38-member Commission on Public Education, consisting of large and small employers, educators, legal experts, clergy, and parents, was established in September 2002 by Mayor Tom Murphy. The mayor’s action followed an unprecedented announcement by Pittsburgh philanthropic groups that they would cease further funding of public education projects in the city until the district’s “bickering, distrust, and chaotic decision making” had been replaced by “an effective management and governance structure.” (See “The Friedman Report: Foundations Apply New Dynamic to Education Reform,” School Reform News, October 2002.)

The mayor’s commission concluded the key to success is the school board. What Pittsburgh and its children deserve, said the Commission, is a Board of Education that not only “reflects the city’s racial, geographic, and economic diversity” but also is “steeped in expertise and committed to a high standard of academic performance and sound management of finances and facilities.”

Improving student performance is possible, continued the commission, “but only with the unified sense of purpose, discipline, and consistency over many years that only a carefully appointed Board of Education can provide.” Such a board should not be elected but should be appointed by the mayor, the commission recommended.

While asserting mayor-appointed school boards “have proven successful in other large cities,” the commission’s report provides no support for that claim. The report does provide a classification of school board governance structures around the country, together with a brief description of how each district operates.

By-District Elections: Houston, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Diego, Seattle.

At-Large Elections: Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Sacramento, St. Louis.

Hybrid At-Large/By-District Elections: Atlanta, Charlotte-Mecklenberg, Denver, Kansas City (Missouri), Milwaukee, Tampa.

Mayor-Appointed: Cleveland.

Mayor-Appointed/Elected Hybrids: Oakland (California), Washington, DC.

Mayor and State Appointments: Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia.

Strong Mayor: Boston, Chicago, New York City.

For more information …

The full report of the Commission on Public Education, “Keeping the Promise: The Case for Reform in the Pittsburgh Public Schools,” is available at the Education Commission’s Web site at: http://www.educationcommission.org/KeepingthePromise-Full.pdf