Chester Upland schools’ recovery plan ‘radical and bold’

A state-appointed turnaround officer has presented what he calls a “radical and bold” recovery plan for the troubled Chester Upland School District, warning that if things don’t change, the entire district could be turned over to a private operator to manage.

Chester Upland has been plagued by both educational failure and financial dysfunction for nearly 20 years.

The prescription from Pennsylvania-appointed recovery officer Joe Watkins is strong medicine: closing schools, cutting staff, imposing new responsibilities and accountability standards for teachers, and raising property taxes. While the student-to-teacher ratio rises under the plan, educational standards are supposed to climb, too.

Robert Maranto, an education professor from the University of Arkansas who has studied and written about Chester Upland, said it’s hard to be optimistic after so many efforts at reform there have failed.

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“When an organization gets to that point, that for years and years nothing has really worked, they’ve had a lot of different governance schemes and a lot of different superintendents come in and out, all promising changes, and nothing’s really changed very much, I think people tend to give up after a while,” Maranto said.

Watkins, the recovery officer who crafted the plan, is from the school choice movement.

The plan provides that if the district doesn’t restructure itself and improve, then “the districts’s remaining operations shall be transferred to an educational management organization or other non-district operator” for the 2015-2016 school year.

Are there private organizations ready to run a troubled district such as Chester? Jeffrey Henig, a professor of education and political science at Columbia, said that’s not clear.

“There’s not a big track record in terms of running entire districts,” Henig said. “There are for-profits and nonprofits that have run schools or clusters of schools, and their record is, quite frankly, mixed.”

The Chester Upland school board has until Nov. 23 to approve or reject the plan. If the board rejects it, a law enacted this year requires the state education secretary to seek a court order putting the district into receivership so the plan can be implemented.

You can read the plan here.

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