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Reality check: The midterm elections and Philadelphia schools

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

In the week following an election that dramatically changed the political landscape in Harrisburg and DC, local education observers shared a grim sense of reality about what Philadelphia public schools are likely to face.

School closings, increased privatization, and reduced spending on education are themes echoed by a number of observers. Those possibilities demand even greater activism, focus, and community engagement, noted others.

For eight years, Philadelphia – like every school district across the state – has benefited from the most pro-education political leadership in decades. Today, Harrisburg awaits a governor who’s been relatively mum on school issues in the most expensive gubernatorial race in state history, where talk of privatization – specifically around reviving the 90s-era voucher movement – played a major part.

The foremost issue for most Philadelphia educators is whether Harrisburg will maintain Rendell’s funding formula. But even the most hopeful feel that one message from Harrisburg seems clear: tighten those belts.

“Since the Republican Govenor-elect Tom Corbett has by all accounts indicated no support for the funding formula, I am sure there will be lean times ahead,” wrote parent organizer Dolores Shaw. “Truly this is a sad time for education reform advocates who have worked their butts off to make progress.”

Teachers’ union head Jerry Jordan issued a statement last week which warned: “Cuts in education funding would stop progress in its tracks and damage an already fragile economic recovery.”

To some local observers, the message of financial austerity may not be unwelcome.

The District has taken advantage of stimulus funds and “has been spending like drunken sailors” on initiatives that aren’t sustainable, said City Councilman Bill Green. Green said the money would have been better spent on investments in infrastructure or teacher training.

Former schools CEO Phil Goldsmith also expressed disappointment at the District’s failure to impose “fiscal discipline,” particularly because the change in political climate and exhaustion of funds was predictable.

“In some ways I’m optimistic in that it may force the District to do the kind of things that it should have been doing all along," Goldsmith said.

Goldsmith cited contracting and the District’s salary structure as areas to exercise immediate control. School closings will be a budget necessity, he added.

Major changes in education policy will likely include expanding school choice – no longer simply a partisan issue. Councilman Green predicted that charter regulation – specifically the licensing and expansion of charters – could shift from District control to state control. That move could open the floodgates to charter school enrollment. Estimates indicate 30,000 students currently sit on charter wait lists.

“The District will have to be far more aggressive about rightsizing its operations,” Councilman Green said. “We could be looking at a District with only 100,000 students in as little as five years.”

The councilman also surmised that the state may establish a pilot voucher program.

Shelly Yanoff of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth said she hoped for a focus on early childhood education, jobs training, and anti-dropout initiatives. City Council legislative aide Derek Green said there might be active interest in changing the make-up of the School Reform Commission. The governor appoints three of the seats on the SRC.

Several observers cautioned against assumptions that Republican leadership was lock-step. Corbett, from western PA, may not share the same views as a Senate leader like Dominic Pileggi from southeastern PA, whose own Chester district has benefitted from the Rendell-era education funding formula.

Donna Cooper, Rendell’s longtime policy advisor, said the District needed to build alliances around education funding not only among legislators but with rural school districts. Most school districts are the largest employers in their region and have considerable political influence.

"They are in the driver’s seat and we need to know them," said Cooper.

A number of observers expressed concern about whether District leadership, including the School Reform Commission, will enter this new era responsibly. They cited mushrooming costs on central bureaucracy, particularly salaries, professional services contracts, and new initiatives. The lack of substantive dialogue about this spending in SRC meetings raises further questions about the SRC’s interest in strategic investment and responsible oversight.

“I question whether we’re up to those challenges because from what I’ve seen so far the powers that be don’t want to make hard decisions,” said Goldsmith.

For others, however, the issue boils down less with what’s happening in Harrisburg and 440 than what the task is ahead for parents, staff, and students in the schools.

Gerald Wright, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, said under Rendell, Harrisburg has driven the agenda around public schools. Now it’s time for Philadelphians – including the mayor, city and civic leaders, and parents – to assume that mantle.

"The challenge is for us to organize … to join hands and show a united front to Harrisburg that this is a city that supports quality education outcomes and wants to see those accelerate," Wright said.

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