Thursday, February 18, 2016

PA: Philly School Commission Gets Spanked

Philly schools are, by any measure, a mess. And after almost two decades, they are a prime example of how badly state takeover districts fail.

In the nineties, the school gave up lost local control in exchange for enough funding to survive. In 2001, the state installed the School Reform Commission, a board created by the legislature and  made out of politicians appointed at the state and city level. Of course, the advantage is that politically appointed boards know secrets to effectively running school districts that locally elected boards do not. Ha! Just kidding. Despite its insistence that it could do better, the SRC doesn't know a damn thing about running school systems-- but they have certainly learned a lot. And the states supreme court just delivered another lesson.

In the process of gaining an education, the SRC has managed to anger just about everybody on every side of the education debates. Their overwhelming concern became coming up with more money because, shockingly, it turns out you can't just reverse the effects of Pennsylvania's cockamamie inadequate funding system just by Tightening Your Belt and Being More Efficient. So the SRC went looking for money everywhere.

They angered teachers by finding money in staffing. They found this money by unilaterally declaring that they would honor neither their contract nor state law. They declared for themselves the power that reformsters like TNTP dream of-- the power to ignore seniority in staffing choices. This power allowed them to make staffing choices, including layoff choices, based on cost rather than seniority. They tried outsourcing substitute teachers to save money this year and-- well, fun fact: when you offer people less money to do a job that not many people want to do anyway, they do not turn out in droves for the chance.And they privatized like crazy, the Superintendent serving as chief charter conversion officer.

They could experiment with all these various techniques because the legislative act that created the SRC exempted them from huge chunks of the Pennsylvania School Code, the portion of state law that governs schools.

But the SRC learned one other thing-- Pennsylvania charter schools are financial vampires that suck the blood right out of public schools. And so the SRC started saying no to new schools, no to raising caps, no to letting charters grow. Some charters fought back by, well, just ignoring restrictions (one charter exceeded its cap of 675 students by 600-- probably not a clerical error). But the West Philadelphia Achievement charter decided to take their beef to court. The SRC said, the financial hardship no law law allows us to do this, because charters constitute a big fat financial hardship on our public school. And the case went to the state supreme court.

And the SRC lost.

What the State Supremes said was that the legislature was acting unconstitutionally when it gave the SRC powers that only belong to the legislature.

Is this good news or bad news? Well, it means that the days of the Philly SRC acting as if they don't have to answer to anybody are over, so that's not a bad thing. On the other hand, it means the day of Philly charter schools acting as if they don't have to answer to anybody are just beginning. Most importantly for the plaintiffs, in Pennsylvania a charter can expand as much as it wants, and the public school district to which it is attached, leechlike, must just keep forking over money (that's how the charters of Chester Uplands could end up actually taking more money from the district than the state gives in support). So now the district has to play by the rules even though, as the SRC has already noticed, some of the rules suck.

Philly schools now also have a tremendous mess to clean up from the years of disregarding seniority in job assignments and layoff callbacks. That's going to be a fun time.

Of course, there are other solutions. Periodically somebody floats the idea of installing an Achievement School District style state takeover district, and since most of the bottom schools in the state are in Philly, establishing an ASD would mean that the state could take over from, well, the state. That could prompt another fun rule rewrite.

Another solution would be for the state to finally fix its dementedly off-kilter finding system, but that's not going to happen any time soon. As I type this, we are on Day 233 without a state budget. The state capitol, currently occupied by the least competent legislature in the country, is currently the least likely place to find any sort of solution to anything. Good luck, SRC!

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