Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Cynical, realistic or hopeful about Nutter's school accountability pact?

If you want to be cynical about the Educational Accountability agreement the mayor introduced with fanfare yesterday, you can ask why it’s only happening now. The school district will be opening its books and cooperating more with the city and state. The city and state, of course, put a lot of money into the schools, and have a lot riding on their success. Why haven’t they been watching the unelected SRC closely for the last decade?

Cynical, realistic or hopeful about Nutter's school accountability pact?

If you want to be cynical about the Educational Accountability agreement the mayor introduced with fanfare yesterday, you can ask why it’s only happening now. The school district will be opening its books and cooperating more with the city and state. The city and state, of course, put a lot of money into the schools, and have a lot riding on their success. Why haven’t they been watching the unelected SRC closely for the last decade?

If you want to be a grounded realist about it, you can wonder whether the district’s partners will put the necessary effort into providing real oversight. It’s not good enough to open the district’s books; someone actually has to read them. You can also point out that for all the hoopla about cooperation, neither the city nor state have cooperated their way into a solution to the district’s budget gap (that wll be the main event today).

Or maybe you want to be hopeful. There’s good stuff in the agreement: The district will be required to create a five-year plan, which is clearly a good idea. And it will be required to cooperate with the mayor and Council’s inquiries, which could help bring the district budget into the relative light of the city’s public budget process. (The Council piece wasn't in the letter the mayor sent last weekend.)

The agreement creates an opportunity for elected officials to take ownership of Philly's schools. Maybe that means looking closely at their budget and making smarter cuts. Maybe it means feeling confident that new revenue measures are necessary. Either way, it means it’s harder to make excuses about the schools being someone else’s problem.

That could be a positive result of the school funding fiasco, if it really takes shape.

Meanwhile, as long as the state is feeling cooperative, here are two steps it could take to strengthen the city’s hand in monitoring the schools:

1) Require that the revenue assumptions in the district’s five-year plan be approved by an independent body, the way the city’s is approved by PICA. In other words, if the district says, “We expect to have $3 billion in 2014,” someone outside the district should say, “That sounds about right.”

2) Let the city get out of the state’s “maintenance of effort” requirement, which makes it impossible for Philadelphia to reduce its contributions to the district. State Rep. Michael McGeehan introduced an amendment to end the requirement entirely earlier this week, but the state doesn’t even need to go that far. The city could just be allowed to request a waiver from the requirement under certain conditions, like a temporary fiscal emergency – or, perhaps, a breach of an accountability agreement.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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