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District leaders criticize Pa. Senate’s school takeover legislation

A head shot of Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania.
Photo: Emma Lee/WHYY

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

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Philadelphia School District leaders are questioning the need for a potential new state law that would require the state to take drastic intervention at five "persistently low achieving" Philadelphia schools per year.

The provision passed Pennsylvania’s Senate in a bipartisan 42-9 vote Thursday evening.

"I’m not sure of the point," said district Superintendent William Hite. "We’re all for accountability and turning around our low-performing schools. I would much rather have the flexibility to make these decisions locally."

The "opportunity schools" provision gives the state secretary of education discretion to choose the five schools from a list of chronic low performers on the state’s school performance profile index.

The schools would then come under the purview of the Pennsylvania Department of Education for a minimum of three years. A maximum of 15 schools could be under state control, and the provisions would apply only to Philadelphia.

The department would have five intervention options:

  • turn over operations of the school to an outside education management organization;
  • convert the school to a neighborhood-based charter;
  • close the school and facilitate transfer of students to higher performing schools;
  • authorize a new charter and guarantee admission preference to any students who reside in the catchment of the low performing school;
  • or replace the principal and at least half of the school’s staff.

The bill does not mandate additional resources to support the interventions – leaving the Legislature to decide.

"It feels like it’s another layer of oversight, and I’m not sure how that’s helpful. We have a good relationship with the department of education," said School Reform Commission Chairwoman Marjorie Neff. "I don’t see a need – since we’re already involved in turnaround work and we’re focusing on our lowest performing schools – to have that extra layer."

The provision passed with the support of seven senators, all Democrats, who represent Philadelphia.

$100 million sweetener

Sources say the votes were a necessary tradeoff in order to secure the more than $100 million funding boost that would come to the city as part of the budget framework agreed to by Gov. Wolf and Republican legislative leaders.

Wolf’s office says it is "still reviewing" the school code as passed by the Senate.

"There are several items that were inserted into the codes by the Legislature that we did not support," said spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan.

When asked if Wolf would sign the code despite opposing some of it, Sheridan said, "Right now what the governor wants is a budget. And he wants the budget that was agreed with by House and Senate Republicans to pass soon."

Both Hite and Neff fear that the funding boost will be eclipsed by the long-term costs associated with the potential charter conversions.

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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