Sunday, December 21, 2014

Schools study shouldn't collect dust

There were few surprises in a consultant’s analysis of the Philadelphia School District, but the report made it even clearer that the system needs to undergo radical changes.

Schools study shouldn't collect dust

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan criticized the study by Boston Consulting Group. ( STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer )
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan criticized the study by Boston Consulting Group. ( STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer )

There were few surprises in a consultant’s analysis of the Philadelphia School District, but the report made it even clearer that the system needs to undergo radical changes.

The Boston Consulting Group suggested new labor contracts and a more aggressive approach to closing schools in the sweeping 118-page report to the School Reform Commission, which was made public last week.

Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, called the report a “boilerplate menu of silver-bullet education reform ideas” that was put together without input from actual school workers. But the report is a guide, not policy. Policy will be set by the SRC and, as Jordan suggests, it should do so only after all the education stakeholders have had a chance to be heard.

The 146,000-student district faces a $218 million deficit for the coming school year, which had already prompted the SRC to consider some of the same ideas in the six-month study.

Now, newly appointed schools chief William R. Hite must get up to speed as fast as he can so he and the SRC can decide where and how they can pick up the pace in implementing changes that need to be made quickly to ensure the district’s viability.

Some suggestions made in the study have already been rejected by the district, such as privatizing its facilities services. The district has instead negotiated a contract with the union that represents its 2,700 maintenance, cleaning, and transportation employees that includes work-rule changes that will save millions of dollars.

The study proposed changes in the teachers’ contract, including eliminating seniority, which would be a major hurdle to get over. Extending the school day and school year would likewise require extensive negotiation.

The study includes a proposal to close as many as 57 schools in the next five years. But that nearly mirrors a proposal already before the SRC to shutter 40 school buildings in 2013 and six more annually through 2017. With 70,000 empty seats citywide, closing schools is necessary to operate more cost-effectively.

The consultant’s report also raised concerns about the charter-school movement, projecting that by 2017, 40 percent of city students would be in charter schools. The study recommended converting existing schools into Renaissance charters, rather than creating free-standing charters, which come at a higher cost to the district.

Adequate regulation of charters also should be stressed, not only to make sure they actually do a better job in educating students trying to escape mediocrity, but also to prevent any repeats of charter operators’ being charged with improperly pocketing money that should have been spent in the classroom.

The Boston Consulting Group was paid $4.4 million by the William Penn Foundation, whose former president is SRC Commissioner Feather Houstoun. The report noted the district’s loss of $300 million in federal and state revenue. Both the state and city could do more to fill that hole. But the fiscal crisis is forcing the district to do what it needed to do — find ways to spend its limited funds more wisely.

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