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‘Achievement school district’ bill is an unfunded mandate, says Hite

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


Superintendent William Hite sought Wednesday to dissuade legislators from passing a bill that would create an "achievement school district" to turn around the state’s struggling schools.

Testifying in front of the Senate’s education committee, Hite called the draft of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Lloyd Smucker, a blow to Philadelphia.

"Senate Bill 6 would create an unfunded turnaround mandate, resulting in the stripping out of supports and programs from schools left under local district control," he said.

The creation of such a district, similar to ones in Lawrence, Mass., and Tennessee, would have an outsize impact on Philadelphia, where most of the state’s underperforming schools are located.

On accountability, Hite said that although demanding more results from Philadelphia in return for more funding is appropriate, the lack of resources has curbed the District’s ability to do more turnaround work.

"The current funding structure is a zero-sum game — in a period of scarcity, every additional dollar allocated to turnaround is a dollar pulled out of other schools," he said.

He urged the legislators to provide more funds for the District’s turnaround efforts already underway.

"Let me assure you, we do not lack the will in Philadelphia to own up and take bold action to turn around our struggling schools," Hite said. "We do, however, sorely need both the resources and some of the flexibilities required to pursue that work in a way that is not to the detriment of a broader group of students and schools."

In opposing Senate Bill 6 as written, Hite suggested a series of changes that could result in legislation that would "support turnaround work in Philadelphia."

Besides wanting more funding, he said, Philadelphia wanted to retain local oversight of turnaround efforts. Hite also said it was important to give districts undertaking turnarounds maximum flexibility and urged more clarity about how their powers "interact with, if at all, provisions in existing collective bargaining agreements."

School Reform Commissioner and former chair Bill Green sent a letter to Smucker in favor of the proposed achievement district. But he urged that the legislation provide more funding and that it be amended to "more explicitly level the playing field to allow districts to utilize evidence-based strategies to transform schools."

In an interview, Green downplayed any differences with Hite and said he sees Smucker’s bill as another lever to pressure the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to agree to changes in its contract and as a vehicle to give Hite "more tools" to implement effective turnaround strategies.

"I’m for it, but I want them to strengthen it, to give school districts more power to terminate legacy obligations which make them incapable of competing with charters," Green said. Changes like longer school days, he said, "are changes that the District would implement if it had any kind of labor cooperation."

Hite was among a dozen people to testify at the committee meeting. Read a written copy of his testimony below.