This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Midway through one of the most tumultuous years ever in Philadelphia public education, Superintendent William Hite is presenting a new “action plan” – his vision for the future – as he faces an unstable budget situation and prepares for determined new leadership at the School Reform Commission.
Focused on improving student achievement, teacher and principal development, and financial stewardship, the plan “is going to require some investment,” Hite said.
Councilman Bill Green, Gov. Corbett’s choice to be SRC chair, said in an interview that his and Hite’s goals “are completely in sync.”
“The discussions we’ve had … we’re in broad agreement.”
Both men want “100 percent great schools,” Green said, and recognize that major changes in the District are necessary and must be driven by “evidence and best practice,” not “emotion.”
Green also said that he was fully prepared to use the SRC’s special powers to impose a contract on the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers if a negotiated agreement cannot be reached, a bold step that prior SRCs have avoided. Whether such a move would survive a court challenge is unclear.
With the District asking teachers all at once for deep pay cuts, an overhaul of the compensation system, performance-based raises, dilution of seniority privileges, and changes in cherished work rules, the two sides have met without resolution since last spring.
“I hope we can have a negotiated settlement,” said the councilman when he was awaiting state Senate confirmation. “But whatever has to be done to have 100 percent good schools, if I have the power to do it, I’ll do it.”
Hite described the four goals in his action plan as:
- To have 100 percent of students graduate ready for college and/or career,
- To have 100 percent of 8-year-olds reading on grade level,
- To have 100 percent “great principals and great teachers at all grade levels,”
- To have 100 percent of the District’s funds spent efficiently and effectively.
Each goal has action steps to go with it.
Hite took pains, in an interview, to balance the need for reform with the need for adequate resources.
“In order for us to have great schools, many of our actions have to change, and we think this plan gets to that,” Hite said. “But by the same token, you can’t do these things while you are worried about whether you are going to have essential resources in schools.”
At the moment, those are lacking.
As next year’s budget season warms up, the District’s financial situation is “fragile,” said Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski. Months of political posturing in Harrisburg and City Hall have resulted in very little revenue that the District can count on next year and going forward.
“We’re still struggling to get to a point where we have long-term sustainable revenue equaling recurring expenditures that allow us to … provide a high-quality education to every student in Philadelphia,” said Stanski.
District leaders must decide whether to craft a spending plan using this year’s decimated budget as the baseline – a year that saw a lack of counselors during college-admission season, no space in some courses that students need to graduate, principals scrambling for supplies, parents raising money to restore staff members, laid-off workers volunteering in their old jobs. Or they may present a blueprint that adds on the cost of what Hite wants to do.
“There’s one [number] you could calculate if you just used the status quo,” said one District official. “Or if you say this is what we … think schools need, there’s a [different] number.”
The District does intend to eventually attach a “financial addendum” to Hite’s plan, sources said.
But what they’ll actually ask for from the city and the state in revenue is still unclear. Their request for this year’s budget didn’t go well, prompting the severe cutbacks (see sidebar).
Hite’s stated goal on good financial stewardship “is to have 100 percent of the funding we need for great schools,” he said. “We will still spend only what we have, but we will be explicit in what we need.”
Green said that many of the needed changes won’t cost money. He included a longer school day and year in that category, suggesting that he thinks this can be implemented without paying teachers more.
“Since the SRC doesn’t have taxing authority, our job is to take the resources we have and use them as best we can to achieve the goal of 100 percent good schools,” Green said. “We will take what resources we can, including advocating for the resources we need to be successful … and do the best we can with [what we get].”
Both men said that a key is improving teacher and principal quality.
Hite said his action steps “will be “consistent with a lot of the things that [Green] has talked about.”
“He talks about improving the quality of staff, we’re talking about strengthening the principal pipeline,” as well as supporting “continuous improvement of all personnel tailored to their individual needs.”
Doing that right, however, could be expensive.
Green was adamant that the current practice of giving teachers automatic raises based on longevity and educational attainment must change, replaced by a system that rewards “results.” Doing away with automatic raises could provide some sought-after labor savings, or that money could be redirected to targeted teacher development and performance pay.
PFT president Jerry Jordan has said repeatedly that although he’d agree to a pay freeze and benefit changes, he would resist salary cuts. He has also maintained that gutting seniority privileges won’t make much difference in school staffing. Hite and Green say it is necessary to give principals the ability to build their own teams.
Improving schools “requires an acceptance that the best decisions aren’t made for children on the basis of seniority,” Green said. “Whether that’s getting rid of bad teachers or getting more good teachers into schools that need them most, those decisions are going to have to be possible to achieve the goal. There’s no other way to do it.”
Hite’s plan does not emphasize charter expansion as the best vehicle for school improvement.
“I’m talking about all schools, not District vs. charter. We need to shore up charters, too,” Hite said. “The notion is to improve the quality of all seats children have access to.”