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Looking back: Which Philly education stories were most important, most read?

Photo: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

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

The Notebook is closed until Jan. 2, and our reporters won’t be posting new stories. But follow our Philly Ed Twitter feed for any breaking news and join the conversation in our comments.

It is time for our year-end review of the biggest education news in Philadelphia in 2014. We looked at the 20 top stories viewed on our site over the course of the year, as well as other major developments that had an impact on education in the city.

No surprise, the topics that generated the most interest and news were state education funding, the District’s perennial budget crisis, the School Reform Commission’s battle with the teachers’ union, controversy about charter schools, and the continuing investigation of adult cheating on standardized tests.

A rundown:

State funding: Largely due to discontent across Pennsylvania over a drop in state education funding, Gov. Corbett lost to Democrat Tom Wolf – the first sitting governor in 40 years to fail in a bid for a second term.

Corbett’s defeat was accompanied by a more rightward tilt in the Republican legislature and leadership, so what this will mean for state funding equity is unknown. But a legislative Basic Education Funding Commission is on the case, and legal advocates have filed another lawsuit over equity and adequacy in the distribution of state resources to school districts. They are hoping that the new graduation requirement that students pass subject-matter Keystone exams will bolster their case that it is unfair to hold students accountable if, say, they haven’t always had qualified teachers in the tested subjects.

But our story on state funding that attracted the most attention was the one that reported on the findings of statistician David Mosenkis, a member of the faith-based organizing group POWER, that the state funding system is racially biased. He produced a stunning graphic showing that districts received less money per student if they had a more diverse student enrollment than equally impoverished but mostly White districts. After facing resistance – and POWER’s resolve to testify no matter what – Mosenkis was allowed to speak before the Basic Education Funding Commission when it met in Philadelphia.

Our top-read post of the year was one in November on the state’s delayed release of school performance scores. It reported that the Pennsylvania Department of Education decided to stop tracking year-to-year statewide performance on the PSSA tests, a fixture in the past.

At the last possible moment – the Friday before Christmas – PDE released a federal report showing that statewide performance slid for the final years of the Corbett administration, a drop that coincided with the reduction in funds coming from Harrisburg. Most notably, the biggest drops happened among the most marginalized students – Blacks and Latinos, students in special education, and English language learners.

Philadelphia’s continuing budget crisis: For the second year in a row, it was touch-and-go as to whether Philadelphia schools would have enough funds to open the school year in September safely and on time. City Council took its time enacting a 1 percent sales tax surcharge authorized by Harrisburg in 2013, while Harrisburg waited until the last possible moment to authorize a $2-per-pack cigarette tax that Council approved. But even the infusion of funds from these two sources was not enough to restore the extraordinarily harsh school budget cuts from 2013.

There was some new spending: As part of his commitment to “transform” the District, Superintendent William Hite moved forward with creating three new high schools designed to offer a radically different educational experience to students who were mostly in struggling neighborhood schools.

At the end of the year, the School Reform Commission did something unusual. The five-year financial plan voted on during its last official meeting said, in effect: This is what we’ll approve because we’re “good stewards,” but it is wholly inadequate, and this is what we need. That second number is huge: nearly $1 billion more annually by 2019. Even maintaining the status quo requires a bigger revenue commitment — $30 million next year.

The SRC’s battle with the teachers’ union: As the budget crisis raged, the SRC maintained that it had to pare down labor costs, especially after former councilman Bill Green took over as its chairman. Other bargaining units, including blue-collar workers and principals, swallowed givebacks. But negotiations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers dragged on without resolution. The District responded unilaterally. First in September, Hite announced he was suspending seniority provisions and seeking approval from the Supreme Court. Then in October, the SRC dropped a bombshell – canceling the contract and imposing benefit changes it said would save more than $50 million that it could put into restoring services, supplies and personnel in schools. The union quickly won a stay on this action in court.

Another story regarding the union that captured readers’ attention was a post from March on the emergence of the Caucus of Working Educators. This story has major implications for the future of the PFT. The caucus is seeking to shake up a union leadership that has not faced a serious challenge in decades.

Charter schools: This year produced a roiling in the charter sector. The SRC added two more charters to the list facing termination. One of those, the Walter Palmer charter school, had long been enrolling students above the number authorized and defying the District’s right to set a cap. In July, the SRC moved to close the school, citing major academic and financial shortcomings. Palmer ultimately lost the support of the courts and the state to continue to get money for students enrolled over its limit, and at the end of the year it was on the verge of closure. Another charter, Wakisha, ran out of money and closed abruptly, just days before Christmas.

Meanwhile, a legislative provision placed in the cigarette tax legislation forced the SRC to open up the charter pipeline again after seven years. Forty applications quickly poured in and were given quick hearings in December. But the most important developments here will come in the second round of hearings in January, when the District and its evaluators will give a report on each charter’s application. The SRC must grapple with the financial implications and vote on whether to grant or reject the applications by the end of February – and now any rejected applicants will have the right to appeal to the state.

One of our most-read stories of the year detailed how charter schools are paid for special education students. In one of the most eye-opening aspects of the nearly 20-year-old charter law, they get the same premium amount regardless of the actual costs of educating these students, and they are not required to spend the money on them. The estimate is that in Philadelphia alone, charters are paid close to $100 million for special education students that is not spent on those students.

And the District tried a new approach to converting low-performing schools to charters under its Renaissance Schools initiative. Instead of letting the school community choose which charter provider it wanted, the District instead let parents vote on whether to convert to a charter at all. One of our most-viewed stories was the one on how the parents at Steel Elementary voted to keep the school under District control. The outcome was the same at a second proposed Renaissance charter conversion at Muñoz-Marín Elementary.

Cheating on standardized tests: At its first meeting in January, the SRC announced that 130 city educators had been implicated in cheating. At the same meeting, it voted to terminate three principals for that reason. The revelation was the culmination of a lengthy investigation that was set off when the Notebook uncovered a statewide forensic analysis of test booklets that showed erasure patterns changing answers from wrong to right that were statistically improbable. In May, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane pressed criminal charges against five educators from Cayuga Elementary, including principal Evelyn Cortez. The indictments said that Cortez had built a culture of blatant cheating in the school, going so far as to give instructions to proctors over the school PA system.

But if more educators have been terminated or otherwise disciplined as a result of the cheating probe, which is ongoing, no further announcements have been made.

And the cheating scandal is another symptom of the reliance on standardized testing to rate schools that is growing more and more controversial. In 2015, watch for developments as the PSSA test is revised to reflect higher standards under the Common Core and see whether a nascent testing opt-out movement gathers steam. In December, City Council held a hearing and passed a resolution calling on the District to scale back its standardized testing.

Join the conversation. What do you think were the most important developments of 2014, and what do you look forward to in 2015?

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