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A closer look at the alternative plan to reform Philly schools

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

by Bill Hangley, Jr.

The report released Tuesday by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) is ambitious, to say the least: It represents an attempt to push back vigorously against almost all of the current trends in city and state education policy.

The immediate villain, as PCAPS sees it, is the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), whose privately funded collection of reform recommendations was unveiled with great fanfare by District officials in the spring.

Although the District has since distanced itself from some of BCG’s more controversial proposals, the PCAPS report asks officials to effectively deep-six the entire BCG framework, which it calls “deeply flawed.”

But more broadly, the PCAPS report, funded by private donations and coalition members (which include the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the Philadelphia Student Union, the Philadelphia Home and School Council, and other labor and community organizing groups), calls on local leaders to push back hard against the education agenda of Gov. Corbett and his allies, who strongly support current funding levels and BCG-endorsed reforms like charter expansion.

Among the funding and policy trends that PCAPS wants to see reversed:

  • The District faces a five-year deficit of over a billion dollars; PCAPS calls for significant increases in per-pupil funding, putting the city on par with its surrounding suburban counties.
  • The District has been laying off teachers and support staff and reducing access to programs; PCAPS calls for major expansions of staff, programs, and support services.
  • The District has relied on standardized tests and its School Performance Index to assess students and schools; PCAPS wants the District to create entirely new and much more complex accountability and evaluation systems.
  • The District plans to close its own schools and expand charters; PCAPS calls for a halt to school closures and charter expansion.
  • The District is effectively controlled by the state, which appoints the majority of School Reform Commission (SRC) members; PCAPS proposes returning the District to local control.

Yesterday, District officials were quick to challenge the coalition’s focus on BCG, even as they praised the new report as a thoughtful effort that is based on significant feedback from parents and community members.

“We appreciate all ideas that may help Philadelphia students,” said District spokesperson Fernando Gallard. “What is unfortunate is that [the PCAPS plan] appears to be responding to a BCG plan that does not exist. There is no such thing as the BCG plan.”

Gallard called BCG’s ideas “recommendations” and stressed that Superintendent William Hite has not embraced them all; outsourced student busing and “achievement networks” are BCG ideas that have been rejected, Gallard said. Hite and the SRC agree with PCAPS that more funding is necessary, Gallard said, adding that Hite plans to meet with PCAPS members soon and will consider their ideas as he prepares his own long-term agenda, which he plans to share in early January.

However, Gallard rejected outright the request for a moratorium on school closures. “We must move forward,” he said. “We are out of options.”

PCAPS members, for their part, said yesterday that they’re not sure yet what kind of support their ideas will have in City Hall or the SRC, but that they plan to start meeting with city leaders to press their agenda.

Highlights of the PCAPS report:

The report’s core criticism: The coalition believes that the District’s current financial straits are the result of deliberate policy choices by Corbett and his allies, whose intention is to weaken traditional school districts and expand the role of charter schools.

“Were it not for the deliberate underinvestment and disinvestment in Philadelphia schools by the state, and the misguided investment in an oversized and exceptionally costly charter school sector by the SRC, the district could easily be enjoying a multibillion-dollar surplus instead of a deficit,” the report says. “Indeed, the supposed fiscal ‘crisis’ is largely a fallacy.”

Current funding landscape: PCAPS notes that Philadelphia lags far behind its neighbors in terms of per-pupil funding and accuses Corbett of reversing funding gains made under former Gov. Ed Rendell, cutting the District’s budget by $200 million and forcing staff and program cuts. The report contends that an “equitable” funding system in which Philadelphia matched its surrounding counties would bring the District $2.3 billion in additional funds over the next five years. “The average Philadelphia classroom received $50,000 less in annual funding than its counterparts in nearby Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery Counties … one of the least equitable school funding systems in the country,” the report says.

For its part, the Corbett administration blames the end of the federal stimulus program for the drop in the city’s per-pupil funding, not disinvestment on the part of Harrisburg.

Proposal to restore funding: PCAPS calls for a return to the funding formula created under Gov. Ed Rendell and unveiled in 2008. That formula was based on a “costing-out” study calculating the amount needed to adequately educate students in each district based on local circumstances, including level of poverty and taxing capacity. It concluded that Philadelphia was shortchanged to the tune of $1 billion a year.

The report recommends that the state capture new revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes, re-negotiating bad credit swaps, taxing natural gas production, and moving funds from prison expansion or other “low priority” programs to schools. PCAPS also calls on the city to step up collection of unpaid taxes and solicit tens of millions of annual donations from large, tax-exempt nonprofits.

Proposal to halt closures: PCAPS calls for a moratorium on school closures until the District fully assesses their community impact. Among other things, PCAPS says that the District has not adequately considered the possibility that closures will be “extremely harmful and destabilizing to local communities” and that the anticipated savings, about $28 million, “doesn’t even provide much of a fiscal benefit.”

Proposal to halt charter expansion: PCAPS cites charters’ uneven academic results as the principal reason to reverse a policy of effectively replacing public schools with charter schools. “While we do not oppose high-quality charter schools … we strongly reject the notion that dramatically expanding the number of charter schools, and turning traditional public schools into charter schools, will meet the needs of our communities in the long term.”

Proposal to improve educational outcomes: The PCAPS report contends that BCG’s plans are overly focused on cutting operating and labor costs and offer little or nothing in terms of proven strategies that improve classroom outcomes; one member called it “a business plan, not an educational plan.” The PCAPS report says that “the BCG plan hinges largely on the district having greater freedom to fire teachers and principals and hire less expensive and less experienced replacements.”

The PCAPS alternative is to dramatically increase classroom investments of almost every kind, using its proposed “Student Bill of Rights” as a guide. “The very first thing that must be done … is to address the profound resources gaps that plague our students and our schools,” the PCAPS reports says. It calls for increased numbers of teachers, counselors and other support staff; increased numbers of academic supports and “wraparound” services for needy students; an updated and diversified curriculum; more autonomy for school administrators; better professional development for teachers; and targeted efforts to get experienced teachers in the most challenged schools

Proposal to improve accountability and evaluation: This calls for the District to develop new assessment and accountability systems that go beyond test scores and the School Performance Index and instead use multiple measures of student success.

Proposal to improve safety: The PCAPS report calls for a reduction in “get tough” safety measures like suspensions and arrests, recommending the increased use of the “restorative justice” approach, along with broader improvements like smaller class sizes, a more engaging curriculum, more welcoming and better-maintained facilities, and increased programmatic supports.

Proposal to replace the School Reform Commission: Without going into details, the PCAPS report ends by calling for an end to state control of the District. “It has been more than a decade since the people of Philadelphia have had a local school board,” the report says. “We want it back. As recent events have shown … we need it back.”