Skepticism on school plan? Sure, but at least be open to change

Is the School Reform Commission trying to sell the Philadelphia schools off to the highest bidder?

In a word, no.

But it is proposing yet another dramatic overhaul of how the city’s public schools do business.

And the same collection of people who resisted previous efforts is predictably resisting this one, describing it with a peculiarly Philadelphian swear word: privatization.

A bit of background: The city schools are led by a five-person board appointed by the governor and the mayor.

I know two of those folks pretty well, and I know the rest well enough to believe they try to do what they think is best to educate the city’s children.

Their notions may strike some as misguided, but they are not acting from venal motives or on behalf of sinister forces.

A fair case can be made that one — one — of the problems here is that a city-wide school system is ponderously, perhaps ungovernably, large. When organizations get too large to fulfill their mission efficiently, that spawns bureaucracy.

So, the SRC is mulling a consultant’s plan to break the system into smaller parts, and inviting outside groups to bid to run them.


That’s the cry from the people who’ve reliably hated just about every gesture towards school overhaul in the last 15 years. This includes the unions representing district employees. I realize these folks have endured many bad ideas and bad managers over the years, but they’ve never exactly been on the ramparts of innovation, either.

In this very blue city, the word “privatization” often is enough to trigger howls of outrage while shutting down whatever portion of the brain is charge of grasping nuance.

There’s a lot I don’t get yet about the SRC notion, but privatization it is not. Schools will still be publicly funded, with public accountability.

I do have qualms. A couple of failed superintendents ago, the Philly schools tried a similar decentralization. And it didn’t work.

Here’s one main problem with David Hornbeck’s old “cluster” plan, which sounds a bit like the latest “achievement network” idea: In this city, a lot of scuffling families move within in the city in mid-year. When you have different mini-school systems pursuing difficult curricula and approaches within the city, a kid who moves from one cluster to another might as well be plopped down mid-year on the educational equivalent of Mars.

There’s so much unknown right now about the SRC’s plan, including the name of the CEO who will implement, that it’s too early to judge.  Yet some folks are racing to the conclusion that it’s a disaster cooked up in some smoke-filled back room.

What’s really riled some critics the most is the SRC’s openness to more charter schools.

Pennsylvania’s bad, ideological charter law has enabled some scandal-ridden charters to run for far longer than they should have, and it has also allowed some academically dubious ones to crop up.

But other charters are among the best, most inspiring schools you could find.

The trick is to figure out how to replicate the successes while shutting down the charlatans and the fools.

If you can do that, I don’t care who blasts it as privatization. I’m all for it.

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