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My top 10 education stories of the year

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

From rising test scores to a Justice Department investigation into “unlawful discrimination” against Asian immigrant youth at South Philadelphia High School, education news this year was more prominent than ever. Money poured into the District thanks to stimulus funds and Gov. Rendell’s education funding formula. But it was the spending of that money that came under scrutiny, from contracts to salaries to million-dollar turnstiles at District headquarters. Here are my picks for the biggest local education stories of the year.

10. Big money for vouchers in the gubernatorial race
When three suburban Philadelphia businessmen made an unprecedented seven-figure contribution to Sen. Anthony Williams’ gubernatorial campaign, folks sat up and noticed. The reason for the investment was clear: revive vouchers. A Republican sweep of the governor’s office and legislature make it likely this 90s-era relic will resurface statewide and in Philadelphia.

9. Minority contracting
The Inquirer’s investigation into Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s role in steering a $7.5 million no-bid security contract to a Black-owned business unleashed renewed complaints about the District’s poor numbers in minority contracting. Black-owned participation is around 13% in the District. White female-owned is even less at 9%, and Hispanic-owned comes in at 4%. Asian Americans receive less than one half of one percent of District business. The question remains whether the District will engage in a transparent process as it tries to improve those numbers.

8. Where’s the SRC?
Whether it was school violence, a looming deficit, or a willful CEO spending money often without their approval, the failure of a proactive and decisive School Reform Commission was the biggest non-story of the year.

This past year, they rubber-stamped a host of contracts, frequently met behind closed doors on issues like school finances that ought to have been public, then failed to take decisive action while a budget deficit blew up under their watch (see below). When faced with controversies like the violence at South Philadelphia High School or minority contracting, they stood largely silent before hundreds of people at SRC meetings. One exception: The SRC initiated a task force to identify school failures in addressing Black and Latino male achievement, though it’s unclear whether its report will result in significant changes. While some commissioners have indicated a need for improvement, as a whole its members seem unable or unwilling to assume their role as fiscal stewards and assure the public that they will provide essential oversight to the often frenetic decision-making in the District.

7. Executive salaries
Daily News columnist Phil Goldsmith made a big splash this summer by highlighting Ackerman’s $338,000 salary (not including perks and benefits), among the highest for superintendents in the country. Salaries for top officials have ballooned at the District, with the District’s chiefs in public relations, human resources, and legal departments all earning paychecks that rival the mayor’s. The District’s claim that such salaries are “budget-neutral” will have a harder time flying given the pending deficit (see below).

6. West Philadelphia High School
West, once a school on the upswing, became the latest victim of a school turnaround process gone haywire and a superintendent’s wrath. The problems started when West was slated for outside turnaround over the protest of the principal, staff, and community. Things got uglier when Ackerman ordered the Inspector General to investigate parents on the School Council for conflict of interest, threw the staff into upheaval, and yanked popular principal Saliyah Cruz. West experienced chaos this fall, with many parents and students laying the blame at the feet of District interference.

5. Renaissance schools
Philadelphia jumped onto the school turnaround bandwagon promoted by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The District identified its lowest-performing schools through a complex performance index, then invited outside providers to convert them to charters serving the same students in the same buildings. The District also invested millions in its Promise Academies, which are District-managed "turnarounds" of low-performing schools. Promise Academies received new principals and teachers – most young and inexperienced – as well as new technology, extra hours of instruction, and enrichment activities. The approach raises important questions about the wisdom of outsourcing our most troubled schools and whether the District can guide schools into a meaningful process of improvement.

4. Rising test scores
For the first time, at least half of Philadelphia students met or exceeded proficiency standards on statewide testing. The governor, mayor, and District leaders heralded this development as historic. While the 2010 results are significant, other indicators of academic progress are more sobering. The Nation’s Report Card showed that fewer than one in five of Philadelphia’s 4th and 8th graders are proficient in reading and math on national tests – well below the national average – and the Fordham Institute ranked Pennsylvania near the bottom of the nation in terms of rigorous state testing.

A dogged media confirms that the District’s deficit next fiscal year will far exceed the $230+ million acknowledged by the superintendent and could approach half a billion dollars. (Note: Former Superintendent Paul Vallas was raked over the coals for a $73 million deficit in 2007). The mayor and Ackerman held a joint press conference to scold the media for “speculating” about the numbers while appearing to wait passively for Harrisburg’s budget. But shouldn’t the District be speculating about the budget and making plans public now? In most camps, that’s just called sound financial planning.

2. South Philadelphia High School
A year ago, dozens of Asian immigrant youth won international attention when they boycotted South Philadelphia High School to draw attention to prolonged racial violence against them. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice charged that the District’s "deliberate indifference" to harassment constituted “unlawful discrimination against Asian students based on race, color, and/or national origin." The U.S. Department of Justice and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission issued groundbreaking agreements that set a national standard on how to address racial bias and harassment in schools. A new principal has calmed the school and made clear the difference between a quality leader and a poor one. At the center of it all stood a resilient group of immigrant students, who summed it up best one year after the attacks:

“We will always remember December 3, [2009], but we refuse to be defined by that day. A year ago we came to you as victims. Today we come to you as youth activists, as organizers and leaders who have shown the power to make change.”

1. Arlene Ackerman
The superintendent is my pick for the number one story of the year – for becoming the news all the time. In addition to orchestrating the District’s disastrous response to civil rights violations at South Philadelphia High School, she oversaw a reverse turnaround at a once-stabilized West Philadelphia High; suspended suspected whistleblowers in a contracting dispute; fired and demoted a number of of underlings for decisions that turned sour; and won national awards and impressive displays of public support. Her style and personality transcended almost any issue and demanded that every controversy become a personal referendum on her. Last February, a small group of parent supporters held up signs at an SRC meeting that captured the District’s approach:“It’s Dr. Ackerman’s way or no way.”

With a paralyzing budget deficit looming and school closings on the horizon,both education and Arlene Ackerman promise to stay at the top of the news agenda in 2011.

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