Bold proposal to re-cast schools gives me deja-vu

    The Philadelphia School District’s proposal to dramatically re-cast its structure and educational approach, in the process eliminating dozens of schools, cutting labor costs and saving hundreds of millions of dollars, reminds me of another moment in our city’s history.

    It was 1992, when newly-elected mayor Ed Rendell took over a completely broke city government and set about to turn it around.

    The situations aren’t identical, but one important aspect strikes me as similar.

    In the 1980’s, many in city government held the view that Philadelphia couldn’t fix its financial problems without a fundamental change in its fiscal relationships with the state and federal governments.

    Running the city was just a losing proposition.

    You can’t take an aging city like Philly, the argument went, and watch its economy collapse as industries move South or overseas and see it’s middle class flee to the suburbs, leaving behind a poorer and less educated population, and expect its city government to meet that population’s needs for police protection, child welfare services, transit and other infrastructure on a vanishing tax base.

    It just wouldn’t work, and as federal revenue sharing programs were folding up, the city’s finances seemed beyond repair without massive aid from the more affluent parts of the state and nation that had deserted its citizens.

    The city’s finance director, a brilliant woman named Betsy Reveal, made this case with compelling clarity, and I came to believe it.

    When Rendell came into office, that message was abandoned. He said nobody in Harrisburg or Washington would help us until we proved we can help ourselves. So the program was fiscal discipline, managerial reforms, aggressive collection of revenue owed under existing taxes, and some other measures.

    Now consider the Philadelphia schools. For decades, advocates have said the system of funding public schools is so fundamentally flawed that a school system like Philadelphia’s will never serve its kids without a radical change in the funding structure.

    In the early 2000’s, Mayor John Street engineered a state takeover of the city’s school system on the premise that funding public education was a state responsibility, and Harrisburg should be a partner in both funding and management.

    Now, a decade later, the current School Reform Commission seems to be saying, like Rendell 20 years ago, we’re on our own. We’re not going to be rescued by the state, and we have to figure out how to do our jobs with what we have.

    Look at the five new strategies on the School District’s website, and you won’t find, “Unite constituencies for public education to demand equitable funding from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

    What happens now?

    Rendell was remarkably successful in righting the city’s fiscal ship in the 1990’s with a combination of smart management, aggressive collection of existing taxes, sacrifice by public employees, and plenty of luck in the form of a booming national economy.

    I wouldn’t begin to predict what lies ahead for the Philadelphia schools. The challenges seem greater to me than those Rendell faced, but maybe my vision is limited.

    The district is counting on $90 million more from the city of Philadelphia in the coming budget year, and at that the moment that hinges on Mayor Nutter’s controversial proposal to overhaul the city’s property tax assessment system.

    It’s hard to say how the district’s announcement will affect the Council debate, but it’s interesting that its approach is unsettling to many of the stakeholders in the education system. It may make critics out of its boosters and co-opt some of its critics.

    I spoke yesterday to Shelly Yanoff, executive director of the Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a longtime advocate for school funding. She praised many of the policy approaches in the school district’s blueprint and said she’s anxious to learn more.

    But she added this: “Major change requires adequate resources, and we’re very concerned that the district does not have major resources to support the major change it is talking about.”

    The three City Council members I reached yesterday, Bill Green, Blondell Reynolds Brown and Maria Quinones Sanchez, were all enthusiastic about the approach the School Reform Commission outlined.

    Helen Gym, a co-founder of Parents United for Public Education denounced the proposal in a piece in the Public School Notebook as a “brand of disaster capitalism that tries to shock a besieged public with unproven, untested, and drastic action couched as ‘solutions.'”

    Like the early 90’s, these are interesting times.

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