This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In this annual Notebook review of the year in education, these top stories, in no particular order, represent a combination of the most important and the most read on our site in 2017.
Dissolution of the School Reform Commission
The five-member board took advantage of a brief window of fiscal stability in the District to vote itself out of existence in November after 16 years. The commission was rounded out by Mayor Kenney’s appointee Chris McGinley, who started in January, and Gov. Wolf’s nominee Estelle Richman, who took her seat in May. The political journey to this place was long and steep, but the denouement, when it came, was swift. Kenney moved from philosophical support for local control during his campaign to concerns, as mayor, about whether a governance change would improve education in the city. He came to the realization that there weren’t likely to be political repercussions in Harrisburg — not because the lawmakers agreed that it was time for a change, but because they no longer cared and had moved on. For legislators, the issue of vouchers has risen in favor again among solutions for underperforming urban schools, not the state’s hand in governance. Concluding that the city’s future depended on it, Kenney decided that it was time for Philadelphia to step up and take full responsibility for its educational system. Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera certified the SRC’s action on Dec. 27, declaring that the District was no longer distressed and that leaders had a plan for the governance transition.
The role and the power of organizing
After more than a decade of organizing and after a Democratic mayor and governor who supported local control of Philadelphia education were elected, a host of activist groups formed the Our City Our Schools coalition to demand that the SRC vote to dissolve itself. Ron Whitehorne, a retired teacher and member of the coalition, outlined problems with the SRC in an op-ed for The Notebook. The coalition held a rally outside City Hall over the summer demanding that the SRC vote to disband. The commission declined to do so at its next meeting in August. But by late October, the Mayor’s Office was reaching out to stakeholders for feedback on dissolving the commission, and in early November, Kenneypublicly called for the SRC to disband. The SRC voted itself out of existence later that month, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers joined Our City Our Schools and local politicians to celebrate at a rally outside District headquarters. Finally, an agreement with the teachers’ union
The District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, historically at odds, reached a contract agreement in June after a four-year stalemate. Teachers had worked without raises since 2012, the last time a pact was signed (there was a one-year contract extension). Raises were frozen for all PFT members during that time, and younger teachers got no credit for their accruing experience, losing tens of thousands of dollars more in expected income. Morale was low and frustration was starting to boil over when Superintendent William Hite prioritized reaching a settlement. An op-ed by teacher Bryan Steinberg on why he was quitting was one of the most-read articles on the Notebook website in 2017. The new contract did not make the teachers whole, but it did start the process of making up for lost wages, causing concerns about whether the District could afford it. Relieved teachers approved the agreement overwhelmingly. Despite the District’s balanced books for now, the best estimates show a $700 million shortfall in the District by 2022 using current projections of revenue and anticipated expenditures. The contract ushered in an era of labor peace after settlements with unions representing principals, school police, and blue-collar workers. Pennsylvania Supreme Court agrees to hear school funding lawsuit
For decades, Pennsylvania courts, unlike those in other states, have kept their hands off school funding lawsuits, ruling repeatedly that the allocation of education dollars is a political, not a judicial, matter. But in the proportion that Pennsylvania contributes to education costs compared to the local share, Pennsylvania has slipped to the bottom of the list. Meanwhile, its inequality gap – what rich districts spend per pupil compared to what low-income districts spend – is the biggest in the nation. Low-income districts such as William Penn are faced with soaring property taxes and still don’t raise sufficient funds for schools due to depressed property values. In this latest lawsuit, filed on behalf of six school districts (not including Philadelphia) and several parents, the state Supreme Court ruled in September that the case could proceed. It was remanded to Commonwealth Court for arguments on the merits. Advocates behind the litigation, including the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center, hope it can be used as leverage to reach a legislative solution in Harrisburg to the longstanding inequities in allocating state education dollars. Focus on early literacy shows results
State test scores for students in District schools, for the most part, remained steady or fluctuated slightly, but the biggest gains were in 3rd- and 4th-grade reading and language arts, indicating that Superintendent Hite’s focus on early literacy and the citywide Read by Fourth campaign may be yielding a payoff. The gains are small and the numbers are still sobering – 3rd-grade reading proficiency went from 30 to 35 percent, while 4th-grade proficiency went from 28 to 31 percent. This was also the year that universal preschool started, so there is hope for even greater gains in the future.
Problems in district buildings
In January, the District released a Facilities Conditions Assessment showing more than $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance on its massive inventory of school buildings. In February, officials discussed their difficulties in prioritizing the needs. Throughout the year, the magnitude of the problems and the consequences of the District’s inability to respond immediately kept manifesting themselves. The District responded more quickly than the state of Pennsylvania by testing for lead in all school buildings; students and other activists including members of City Council were instrumental in the response. The discovery of mold nearly delayed the fall opening of Muñoz-Marin Elementary School, and the John B. Kelly school in Germantown closed for several days in October after mold was brought to the attention of authorities. More innovation in District schools
Parkway Center City, opened as an innovative school-without-walls nearly 50 years ago, took on a new mantle this year as the city’s first middle college high school, where students can earn college credits while in high school. And under the umbrella of the Innovation Network, Vaux Big Picture High opened as the fruit of an unprecedented partnership among the District, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and the teachers’ union. The national Big Picture Co., known for its project-based, inquiry-learning model, is operating the school in the old Vaux building as the Housing Authority works to revitalize its North Philadelphia neighborhood. But it is not a charter school; the faculty are all members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Parking Authority cheats schools out of nearly $80 million in revenue over five years
An audit by the State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale found that rampant mismanagement and lax collections cost the District $77.9 million in revenue. The state, under Republican control, took over the Parking Authority from the city in 2001, using as its political rationale a promise that it would send tens of millions to the School District each year. Money instead went to a bloated payroll, inflated salaries, and executive perks while millions in fees went uncollected. DePasquale was blunt: He helpfully itemized what that money could have paid for during a time when school budgets were being slashed and nurses and counselors laid off: 1,322 teachers, 779,600 textbooks, or 155,920 tablet computers. The age of Trump
Donald Trump’s election rocked the education world and stirred the masses over his nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos. People mobilized who were outraged by DeVos’ lack of qualifications and alarmed by her advocacy for charters, private schools, and vouchers. In the spirit of the new administration in Washington, Republican legislators in Harrisburg started talking about reviving voucher legislation, expanded the tax credit programs that provide scholarships to students for private schooling, and moved bills that would eliminate the property tax as a source of school revenue. Congress passed legislation that allows use of 529 college savings plans for K-12 private school tuition. Two of our most-read stories this year were about DeVos’ nomination and the role of Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey on the confirmation vote and whether Trump would target the school lunch program. New and controversial equity agenda
Superintendent Hite made two decisions late in the school year that stirred controversy. One was to co-locate Science Leadership Academy in the sprawling Benjamin Franklin High School, putting together two extremes of Philadelphia public education. SLA is a much sought-after special admission high school with an inquiry-learning model, a national reputation, and a student body that is integrated both racially and by income. Ben Franklin is a struggling neighborhood school, with a student body that is almost entirely poor and African American. The decision was greeted with caution and concern. The other decision was to remove most admissions requirements from the District’s four flagship Career and Technical Education schools – Dobbins, Mastbaum, Randolph, and Swenson. A lottery system would be used instead. Now, principals can weed out students with poor grades, discipline records, or attendance. But Hite said that interest, not “mistakes made when students are younger,” should govern who gets to attend these schools. Alumni, especially at Dobbins, vowed to fight the move. Hite took action after a long-awaited study from the Pew Charitable Trusts showed vast disparities in access to more selective high school options based on race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Whites, Asians, and females were more likely to apply, be admitted, and attend than blacks, Latinos and male students.