Was Michael Nutter Full of Hot Air When He Promised to Save Schools?

The Mayor has to overcome a lot of obstacles if he's going to make a difference for students.

Mayor Nutter kicked off his second term by placing a new emphasis on failing schools demanding that the Philadelphia School District focus on the three Rs—not Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic, but Reform, Restructure, and Replace. Nutter has pledged to eliminate 50,000 seats in the lowest-performing schools and to utilize charter conversions and consolidations to improve educational attainment for the students who have too often been failed by public education. By initiating this bold action, Nutter has attempted to redefine his mayoralty.  In taking on the tremendous challenge of making the public education system work for Philadelphia, he has the potential to establish an impressive lasting legacy. However, given the limits of his power, his focus on education could end up being long on rhetoric and short on results.

In recent weeks, Mayor Nutter and school district officials embraced a Great Schools Compact, demonstrating the commitment of the the city, the state, the school district, education advocates and charter school coalitions to work cooperatively to eliminate under-performing schools. Nutter and other officials traveled to Denver to learn how schools in the Mile-High City decentralized operations and promoted teamwork between the school district and charter schools. The moves have earned $100,000 in grant money—with the potential to generate millions more—from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to implement the new plan.

The renewed focus on education in Philadelphia could not come at a better time as the school district faces enormous challenges. Ongoing financial woes threaten to result in more cuts or higher taxes. Too many school buildings are half-empty or in need of major structural investments. Long waiting lists for charter-school admission—even for the ones with lackluster performance—suggest that too many parents have lost confidence in the district’s ability to safely educate their children in traditional neighborhood schools. While test scores show slow progress—and while some programs and schools demonstrate true excellence—Philadelphia proves the maxim that no large, urban school district has found a way to deliver a high-quality education to all of its students.

After the turmoil of the last year—more than $600 million in budget deficits, the threatened cuts to all-day kindergarten, the Godfather-like thuggery that killed the contract to run Martin Luther King High School, and the comedy of errors of Superintendent Ackerman’s dismissal—it appears as if the stars have aligned to make change possible. Nutter and Governor Corbett have pledged to focus on improvements. The members of the School Reform Commission are engaged in the reform effort. Outside advocates are involved in a productive manner. Promising models—here in Philadelphia and elsewhere—exist to copy or emulate.

If we can use better indicators, we can identify individual school needs and invest in long-term solutions. Already, some laboratories of education such as Mastery Charter Schools and others have demonstrated the ability to turn around once-failing schools. If the commitment to eliminate the 50,000 lowest-performing seats in district schools is real—assuming we have properly identified them— we can quickly make significant improvements.

But (and you just knew there had to be a “but”), education reform in Philadelphia has proven to be like cold-fusion or the Flyers’ search for a  Stanley Cup-winning goalie: a seemingly unsolvable problem that has defied efforts to create long-term positive results. It is not hard to see why so many mayors have either failed to deliver promised changes or decided to spend their political capital in other policy areas.

In terms of governance, the mayor does not control the schools, since the governor appoints the majority of the members of the School Reform Commission. Financially, the School District of Philadelphia receives about 60 percent of its funding from the state and the mayor will likely have little success in getting the Pennsylvania General Assembly or Philadelphia City Council to raise taxes to generate much additional funding. Negotiating any major changes with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will be another significant challenge for a Mayor who has been so far unable to negotiate transformative contracts with the city’s municipal workers.  Time is not on the Mayor’s side either, as a search for a new superintendent is likely to take the rest of the current school year and, as a lame-duck second-termer, the mayor’s power to deliver change ebbs with every passing week.

So will Mayor Nutter follow through on his inauguration promises to improve public schools in his second term?  Will his administration focus all of its political and governmental efforts toward real reform? Or will this end up being a well-intentioned but unattained rhetorical goal (like his first inaugural promise to cut the city’s dropout rate in half)?

I was once advised that a Mayor as a strong chief executive can do anything he or she wants, but not everything he or she wants.  If Mayor Nutter chooses to have a singular focus on education reform during his second term—and, of course, he would still need to have a lot of help from a new superintendent and many others—he has a chance to succeed in a way that could be transformative in a profoundly positive manner for Philadelphia. But, if history is a guide, if the continuing economic uncertainty is a gauge, and if the mayor’s poor first-term use of his political power is an indicator, Nutter may be about to get a real education about how hard it is to make change in a large, urban school district.