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Lawmaker wants chronically underperforming schools under Pa. control

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

There’s a general rule in Harrisburg: Republican leaders don’t authorize more education spending without demanding stricter accountability measures.

Case in point: On the heels of Gov. Wolf’s proposal to dramatically increase state aid for public schools, State Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster) will soon introduce a plan to accelerate the transformation of chronic underperformers.

Districts would be given wide leeway to implement reforms. They could ignore teacher seniority rules, convert schools to neighborhood-based charters, or close underperformers — including charter schools — swiftly.

Under the proposal, Smucker, newly minted as chairman of the senate’s education committee, would give the bottom 5 percent of both elementary and high schools three years to transform.

The bottom 1 percent of both lists would have two years.

Without significant improvement, a state body would intervene, either by implementing more reforms or converting the schools to neighborhood-based charters.

Modeled after similar plans in Massachusetts and Tennessee, Smucker calls his proposed state-controlled group of schools an "achievement district."

"The idea is they make changes necessary to turn the school around," said Smucker. "At some point when [school] performance has improved … they may get transferred back to the local school district."

Under this scenario, the achievement district would be required to intervene in 5-15 schools per year, with a total cap of 75 schools.

Smucker’s bill calculates school quality using Pennsylvania’s School Performance Profile metric — the lion’s share of which is based on performance and growth on state standardized tests.

This system was put into place under Gov. Tom Corbett. Gov. Wolf has said he doesn’t believe the SPP best accounts for school quality and has talked about revamping it.

Schools tapped for the achievement district would remain there for a minimum of five years. Currently, there are 147 schools in the bottom 5 percent of SPP scores; 28 schools fall in the bottom 1 percent.

The controlling body of the special district would be set up in a way that seems to reflect the current political moment in Harrisburg: Republicans who control both legislative chambers would name four of the seven members (one by the governor; two each by the Senate president pro tempore and House speaker, one each by the minority leader in each chamber).

Hand in hand

Opponents of Smucker’s proposal say it simply shuffles school governance on the heels of major classroom cuts and does nothing to address the roots of school underperformance, namely, poverty.

Smucker says his plan is contingent on those schools getting more state aid.

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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