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Lancaster schools chief to head Pennsylvania Dept. of Education

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Vicki Phillips, the former school superintendent in Lancaster, PA, is new Governor Ed Rendell’s choice to head the state’s Department of Education, on the heels of a campaign in which Rendell emphasized the need to reform the way public education in the state is funded.

Phillips, 44, has won praise for her work in Lancaster, a high-poverty, urban school district with 11,500 students. Prior to heading the school system in Lancaster, she spent three years in Philadelphia, where she directed the Children Achieving Challenge, a $150 million program designed to assist the School District of Philadelphia in implementing the school reform agenda of then-Superintendent David Hornbeck.

Phillips began her career in education as a middle school teacher in her native Kentucky.

Phillips describes herself as an advocate of academic standards and strict accountability but has emphasized that schools need more financial and technical help to improve.

State legislators say they expect Pennsylvania’s Department of Education under Phillips to have a radically different approach than her predecessors in the Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker administrations – former Secretaries of Education Charles Zogby and Eugene Hickok – who oversaw the state takeover of Philadelphia schools.

State Senator Allyson Schwartz of Philadelphia, Democratic leader of the Senate Education Committee, noted, "We had an administration that really believed alternatives to public education were the answer to the problems in public education." Schwartz said she anticipates that Rendell and Phillips will promote initiatives that for the first time provide state funds for preschool and kindgergarten.

According to State Senator Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia, the new administration is also looking at funding class size reduction and stepping up building of new public schools through creative uses of the state’s finanical contribution for school construction. Hughes noted that the average age of school buildings in Pennsylvania is about 70 years.

Phillips is faced with the task of bringing the state into compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act and its requirements for improving test scores and putting a highly qualified teacher in every classroom.