Insider: Beware the Creation of a “Roid-Rage SRC”

Saltz: A super-powered state-run "achievement district" for troubled schools is a terrible idea. So why does it have so many prominent Philadelphia backers?
All looks well from up here. | Shutterstock.com

All looks well from up here. | Shutterstock.com

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)

If State Sen. Scott Wagner didn’t exist, school advocates might have to invent him.

At a budget hearing, he argued Pennsylvania should lay-off 18,000 teachers because “we’d never miss them.” Where did he get his school funding expertise? At an altitude of a couple thousand feet. Back in May, Wagner chartered a private helicopter, flew it over a couple schools in some well-funded districts, and then declared that most schools are really more like the “Taj Mahal.

He also compared teachers unions to Hitler and Putin. When you are betting on crazy, might as well go all-in.

Here’s your budget update: Though Harrisburg Republicans have finally acknowledged that common denominators are a thing and signed onto a more equitable school funding formula, they have not consented to significant new money for education. This provoked a rare show of Philadelphia unity. Last week, Superintendent Hite, Jerry Jordan of the PFT, City Council President Darrell Clarke, and the charter lobby spoke together in support of new school funding.

These leaders would have us believe that the battle lines are clean. Counties like Wagners’ are arrayed against cities like Philadelphia. That’s mostly true. But the Montgomery-Burns-types like Wagner can only succeed because too many Philadelphia officials insist on playing the hapless Smithers.

Consider the seemingly unrelated Education Opportunity and Accountability Act, or HB1225. This bill would take the lowest performing schools, measured by test scores (of course), and turn them over to a new State-run “Achievement District.” The State would proceed to hand individual schools over to charter operating companies. Performance would be centrally monitored by Harrisburg.

You don’t need a private helicopter to see this is a terrible idea. Harrisburg has no history or infrastructure in place to keep tabs on the close-to 75 schools across the state that would eventually be a part of the Achievement District. The state’s current charter school office is woefully understaffed, but HB1225 provides no new money (more on this in a second) to enhance compliance.

Harrisburg’s School Reform Commission is a catastrophe. HB1225 is a roid-rage SRC. Typical Harrisburg, right?

Nope. This is in large part a homegrown plan. A chief sponsor is Philadelphia GOP State Rep. John Taylor. One of the leading advocates of HB1225 is the group PennCAN, located on 10th and Chestnut. PennCAN was spawned from the offices of the Philadelphia School Partnership, and HB1225 is nearly identical to a PennCAN paper.

The “Achievement District” plan is is also supported by Philadelphia State Rep. Jordan Harris. Harris has made his case over and over again, emphasizing the dire situation of these schools. Harris acknowledges “our schools need additional funding,” but he says “money alone is not the solution.” If that sounds like something the aforementioned PennCAN would say, that’s because they have – nearly word for word.

Even if you love charters, even if you can ignore the burning-wreckage state control of the School District of Philadelphia has wrought, even if you ignore the $88,545 Harris’s campaign received from the anti-public school PACs like Students First and their subsidiaries (nearly half of his total war-chest), there’s a problem: HB1225 would blow a monstrous hole in the District’s budget.

Superintendent Hite, who has presided over a huge number of school closures and charter conversions, called it  “an unfunded turnaround mandate, resulting in the stripping out of supports and programs from schools left under local district control.” The district calculates that “stranded costs,” — which are the expenses the district absorbs when a student leaves a traditional public school for a charter school — at $7,000 per child. PSP says it’s actually closer to $2,000. Even if we split the difference, the Philadelphia born-and-bought Achievement District would bill taxpayers a huge sum just to make the transition.

Change doesn’t come cheap. In a smart rebuttal, the non-profit organization Research for Action explains how similar efforts in Memphis and New Orleans also included massive infusions of cash. Perhaps Harris and the rest of the Philadelphia delegation thought that supporting a bill which erodes union rules might curry favor with Harrisburg. The joke’s on them. And us.

That’s why the Philadelphia delegation’s ridicule of the GOP budget rings so hollow. Harris and the rest can’t rant about a “Corbett budget” when their education plan would create a Corbett-sized chasm in the district’s spending plan. If HB1225 is enacted, then it won’t matter much  if Clarke and Hite and the charters get the money they’re asking for. The Achievement District could gobble it up, and your local schools will have to keep waiting for that—nurse, or counselor, or a class smaller than thirty.

HB1225, the guy sweeping trash off the stoop only to dump it in the alleyway and light it on fire.

The Philadelphia delegation may not be our A Team, but there’s enough of them and enough of us to cause trouble. Horses could be traded. But not until they start working for every kid, charter, parochial, and public, instead of their individual clique.

Wagner is happy to play the villain. But when you look closer, the problem with school funding is very much a Philadelphia tradition.

Andrew Saltz has been teaching children reading and composition for 8 years at the Paul Robeson High School for Human Services. Follow him on Twitter at @mr_saltz.