Philadelphia’s School Crisis: A City On The Brink

Unless we fix the schools, Philly is doomed. But what can be done when the city’s leadership class lacks the will to face the problem head-on? Here are eight changes we need to demand right now—before it’s too late.

Step 2

The School Reform Commission should immediately impose a new teacher contract.

Ever since it was formed during the state takeover of the schools in 2002, the SRC—the governing body that controls the district—has had the legislative authority to rewrite the teachers contract largely as it sees fit. The authorizing law, known as Act 46, prohibits city teachers from striking, and those who violate the law can lose their teaching credentials.

Still, the SRC—and the political actors who appoint its members—have been reluctant to impose a new contract, correctly seeing such a step as a nuclear option in this union-friendly state. (The union would surely sue if terms were imposed.) Yet the contractual changes the district needs are so sweeping, and the financial constraints so extreme, that teachers would never willingly accept the contract that’s required.

Imposing terms isn’t fair. Teachers aren’t the party most responsible for the district’s distress. But epic change is necessary, and the current contract is an obstacle that must be cleared.

What should the new contract look like? Shorter, simpler and far more flexible. Instead of a 200-page work-rule-laden tome that reads like something produced by the Pentagon—the existing contract defines the workday down to the minute (seven hours and four minutes, including lunch and prep time) and takes 40 sections and subsections to describe the grievance p­rocess—the contract must be lean and malleable enough to allow true autonomy for individual schools.

The role of seniority—in determining pay, job placement, layoff order and so on—must be weakened, if not discarded entirely. New standards should be adopted for determining which teachers deserve promotions. Principals should have the discretion not just to assemble their teacher corps, but also to pare them down as they see fit when budget cuts are enacted. Principals should also have broader authority to decide when the day starts and ends, and to determine how teachers spend their work hours outside the classroom.

Under the terms of this new SRC-imposed contract, all teachers would begin a comprehensive five-year, school-led assessment period—one where test scores play a role but are hardly paramount. The goal would be to identify and reward outstanding teachers, and to get weak teachers meaningful help and training—fast. Those who aren’t making the cut after five years will, at the discretion of individual schools, be asked to leave. (Most of this, though not all, would seem permissible under Act 46. I wager if the district went for broke and attempted to impose all these terms, the Republican-dominated state legislature would quickly draft whatever laws were needed to ensure that they cleared.)

The financial reality being what it is, teachers will also have to make reasonable concessions on health-care benefits, which remain a gold-plated perk that’s simply not sustainable. Beyond that, though, the SRC shouldn’t force further financial concessions on teachers, who are already undercompensated with respect to salary compared to their suburban counterparts.

An utterly new contract is necessary, but that alone isn’t sufficient. From there, it would be up to Hite and his lieutenants to actually accomplish something with the latitude a new contract would give them. “The be-all and end-all is what leadership actually does with the contract it gets,” says Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, and one of the best thinkers about city schools. “The district has enormous leeway in its principals union contract already, and they’re not using it.”

Step 3

The state legislature must rewrite the charter law and recognize that charters aren’t the sole salvation of urban education.

Lawmakers in Harrisburg must scrap or rewrite a controversial new charter bill that would rob school districts of their ability to directly regulate charter schools. Charters need more district oversight (just think of the scandalous charter headlines that pop up so regularly), not less. And it would help if the district were granted new authority to close low-performing charters more quickly, just as it can district-run schools.

Don’t misunderstand. Charter schools are here to stay, and that’s largely a good thing. There are 61,000 kids enrolled in Philadelphia charters—a staggering figure that approaches the total charter enrollment of New York City, whose school system is more than five times as large. Many of our city’s 86 charter schools are clear improvements over average district schools, and some are genuinely amazing.

But the notion that charters are a cure-all is simply wrong. There aren’t enough quality charter operators to successfully convert all or even most of the district to charter schools. And for every amazing charter in Philadelphia, there are plenty of others that are mediocre test-prep factories, devoid of genuine experimentation, and some that are clearly inferior to typical district schools. With some exceptions, charter schools also tend not to enroll large numbers of children with significant learning disabilities or behavioral problems. These kids need quality educations as well.

What is needed is a fresh approach to charters that gives district schools a fighting chance to compete while simultaneously enabling the charter movement to replenish its creative ranks and rediscover its original purpose: experimentation and innovation. How to do this?

To begin with, the district needs to restrain charter growth, at least for now. Every time a student leaves a district school for a charter, the district budget shrinks by about $8,100. That would be fine if the district could shed costs as quickly as it’s losing income to charter schools. But think about what shedding costs quickly requires: closing schools, laying off teachers, consolidating classrooms. All of this is enormously disruptive, and all of it fuels the exodus out of district schools and into charters. It’s a vicious cycle that can’t be sustained. “We are starving public schools into dysfunction to the point where many parents feel like charters are their only option,” says schools activist Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education.

That’s not just a trumped-up threat hyped by parent activists. Last month, Moody’s warned it would further reduce the district’s credit rating—it was already whacked to “non-investment” grade in July—if program cuts continued to drive students out of the district and into charters.

At the same time, the educational promise of the best charter schools is too precious to suppress. Here are three steps the district and state should take to improve the charter sector without destroying traditional public schools in the process:

  • Replace low-performing charters with new operators. “We ought to be closing five to eight a year,” says Philadelphia School Partnership executive director Mark Gleason, who is seen as a charter advocate. Twenty-one charter schools last year had lower state school-­per­formance scores than the district average. Fire those weak operators and bring in new ones to turn the school around, or start from scratch with a new charter altogether.
  • All but eliminate cyber charters. These online schools are a stain on the state’s educational landscape, costing taxpayers $366 million last year and producing some of the worst outcomes in the Commonwealth. The charter movement should disown them.
  • Invest in meaningful oversight of city charters. There are only six district employees managing charter school renewals in Philadelphia—a preposterously low number.