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January 31, 2011
February 02, 2011
"This plan is aggressive." Those are the words used by School District of Philadelphia Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon this morning in a press conference announcing a massive reform of K-12 education in the City of Brotherly Love. These changes come not a moment too soon: Philly's schools were facing massive deficits and ranked among the worst of America’s large urban school districts.
The School Recovery Committee deserves credit for making smart structural changes to the way Philly will operate in the future. Aggressive plans often entail mindless slashing of schools and headcount so that "business as usual" can continue elsewhere. The SRC instead plans to bolster parental choice, prizing the development of "high-performing seats" wherever they can be found over protecting the legacy school district at all costs. According to the Inquirer's Kristen Graham, the district also plans to restructure employee benefits, saving $156 million of the projected $218 million deficit for next fiscal year. A 7 percent reduction in per-pupil payments to charters is counterproductive, however: If the SRC really want high quality seats, it shouldn't cut charter funding.
District leaders around the country have been tempted into believing that the "new normal" of anemic revenue growth (or no growth at all) would be temporary. This has led to short-sighted cuts and quality-blind layoffs that supes and school boards hope will be reversed when the economy improves. In districts experiencing true financial distress, these thoughtless measures will hurt kids for the long haul.
Philadelphia chose real reform—and its staffers now have a very long row to hoe in order to implement the SRC's plan. Budget hearings start next month, and the district will have to convince parents, teachers, and the community that these reforms are the right way forward. The citizens of Philly should try to be receptive to many of these big-picture changes—and help the district get the details right—so that the schools there can provide an excellent education in a financially sustainable way.