State Takes Over Philadelphia’s Failing Schools

Published February 1, 2002

At 6:30 p.m. on December 21, 2001, Pennsylvania Education Secretary Charles Zogby signed a Declaration of Distress for the Philadelphia School District, triggering the formation of a School Reform Commission to oversee the troubled public school system.

Less than six hours later, at 12:01 a.m., on Saturday, December 22, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania turned over operations of the school district to the Commission, under the leadership of interim chairman James E. Nevels, a local civic leader and entrepreneur. The takeover could become the nation’s largest experiment in school privatization, but it faces fierce opposition.

A five-member Reform Commission will be in place by the third week in January, with two members appointed by Philadelphia Mayor John Street and three appointed by Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker. The Commission will decide which schools are to be turned over to private education companies and will negotiate contracts with those companies.

Although Edison Schools, Inc. had been involved in developing privatization options for the district, the company’s ultimate role will be decided by the Commission rather than interim chairman Nevels, as was called for initially.

Under the last-minute agreement hammered out between the governor and the mayor, the city has to put up an additional $45 million for the schools instead of the $15 million initially offered; the state will provide an additional $75 million. In return, the mayor gets to appoint two commission members rather than just one under the governor’s initial plan.

“Mayor Street and I realized that with nearly six out of 10 children failing reading and math, this is no time to continue the status quo or apply ‘Band-Aid’ solutions,” said the Republican governor in announcing the accord and appointment of Nevels on December 21.

The basic mechanism for the takeover was developed by the state legislature in April 1998 in response to a threat by then-superintendent David Hornbeck to shut down the city’s public schools. (See “Philadelphia Schools Face State Takeover,” School Reform News, June 1998.)

The 1998 takeover plan called for putting the district under the control of a School Reform Commission whose Chief Executive Officer 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. However, Nevels must defer contract approval to the full commission.

“Education and opportunity are inseparable,” declared Nevels. “It is my fervent belief that all children, especially those in the largest school district in the Commonwealth, should be afforded the same opportunities that I had. Those children will become my children.”

Nevels has served for over three years on the Chester Upland School District’s Board of Control, where Edison now runs nine of the 10 schools. Last summer, former Governor Tom Ridge awarded a $2.7 million contract to Edison to study and report on the Philadelphia School District.

The company’s recommendations involved turning over management of the district and a number of individual schools to private companies. However, Street and his allies have forced Schweiker to back away from a number of Edison’s recommendations.

“I understand the reluctance and uncertainty that’s out there,” said Schweiker, calling on “teachers, staff, students and parents to work with the Commission to give this new course a chance to succeed.”

While Street also said the partnership “holds great, great promise for our children,” Schweiker’s reform efforts face both overt and covert opposition. As a December 3 Wall Street Journal editorial noted, there is much to protest about a public school system where 176 out of 264 schools are on the failing list and half of all high school students drop out. But the protests by teachers, parents, students, and community activists have been against reform.

“What we really need is $3,000 to $4,000 more a student,” long-time teacher Lou Lessick told the Philadelphia Daily News. The district’s $1.7 billion budget currently delivers about $8,100 per student and runs a deficit of $1,000 per student.

On December 18, a combination of labor unions and community groups called the Coalition to Keep Our Public Schools Public filed a lawsuit to stop the state from signing a contract for Edison Schools to manage city schools. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers vowed to challenge the takeover, and Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-Pennsylvania) called for an investigation into the performance of Edison Schools.

Street’s credibility as a school reformer came under severe scrutiny in mid-December when Philadelphia’s watchdog newspapers published details of a secret report that described how the mayor could “cripple the school district’s ability to function” if the state took over. The confidential memo, dated November 28–when Street was urging Schweiker to cooperate–outlines a battle plan for destroying any attempt to bring change to the school system, through a combination of lawsuits, manipulation of personnel, and other actions that would “accelerate Edison’s anticipated failure.”

Although Street requested the secret report, he said he would never implement its recommendations.