Philadelphia public schools are on the operating table, reeling from a knockout blow of heavy state budget cuts. It was too much to bear after decades of underfunding and mismanagement at the hands of shortsighted Philadelphians and mean-spirited politicians in Harrisburg.
So the District is today announcing that it's going to call it quits. Its organs will be harvested, in search of a relatively vital host.
“Philadelphia public schools is not the School District,” Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen told a handful of reporters at yesterday's press conference laying out the five-year plan proposed to the School Reform Commission. “There's a redefinition, and we'll get to that later.”
He got to it: talk about “modernization,” “right-sizing,” “entrepreneurialism” and “competition.”
Forty schools would close next year, and six additional schools would be closed every year thereafter until 2017. Closing just eight schools this year prompted an uproar.
Anyhow, the remaining schools would get chopped up into “achievement networks” where public or private groups compete to manage about 25 schools, and the central office would be chopped down to a skeleton crew of about 200. District HQ has already eliminated about half of the 1,100-plus positions that existed in 2010.
This is all aimed at closing a $218 million deficit for the coming year, part of a $1.1 billion cumulative deficit by 2017. Charter schools will teach an estimated 40 percent of students by 2017.
And this rosy picture is premised upon City Council agreeing to fork over $91 million in additional property tax revenue. If not, things are even worse.
There will be $156 million cut from personnel costs and $149 million from payments to charters. (Looks like everyone was eating from the same shrinking pie after all.)
And Knudsen threatened to outsource all custodial, maintenance and transportation work to private companies unless union workers could underbid them.
"There are other people out there who do these things, if not better, then at least less expensively."
This seems to now be the theme song for public education in cities like Philadelphia: other people do these things maybe not better, but cheaper.
I asked if the five-year plan would address the District's core problems: severe teacher understaffing, too few school police, too few counselors, too few extracurriculars, too few libraries, too few everything? Is this just triage?
“The things that other networks do in other parts of the country,” said Knudsen, “is that these networks attract resources.”
What he meant was a startling admission: like some high-end charter schools, Philly schools would panhandle for donations from rich people.
Dale Mezzacappa from The Notebook asked a follow up: In response to Dan's question, are you saying that philanthropy will pick up the shortfall?
Not just that, Knudsen conceded. The economy could also get better.
I almost felt bad asking the question. Knudsen didn't run the state government that has for decades failed to provide Philadelphia students with access to a decent and equal education. This is triage, and triage is ugly. But critics will surely charge that the District plan only makes a horrible situation worse. Stay tuned for more in a few weeks.
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