School-manager funding OK'd

PHILADELPHIA School District officials yesterday decided to continue their private-school management experiment for at least one more year, a decision that caused some critical parents to accuse the officials of rewarding failure.

The district's governing School Reform Commission had been set to reduce the number of schools under the managers from 38 to 26, but ultimately decided to keep all 38 where they are.

While school district officials yesterday made plans for next year's curriculum, these children play in the water in a West Philadelphia park.

The commissioners said during their regular meeting that continuing the experiment would help them launch a more comprehensive reform plan for 2008 that would include some of the schools under private management.

That plan, which is labeled "Breaking the Cycle of School Failure," will include schools that have failed for five or more consecutive years to reach their math and reading performance goals under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

A major goal of the new plan, officials said, is to close the academic achievement gap that has African-American and Latino students lagging behind others.

School officials unveiled a preliminary list of 54 schools that are "highly likely" to be subjected to major academic reforms for fall 2008 under the plan. More schools may be added based upon the latest round of state reading and math test results that will be released this summer, officials said.

Those reforms include converting some schools into public charter schools to be run by existing successful charters, and replacing some schools' entire faculties.

"The School District of Philadelphia has done something unlike any other urban school district," reform commission Chairman James Nevels said. "We are going to target and apply resources to the lowest quartile of performers in an effort to address the racial and economic achievement gap that exists in Philadelphia."

Over the next year, decisions will be made on which schools will get which reforms, district Chief Academic Officer Gregory Thornton said.

In the past, he said, the district has used one-size-fits-all reform approaches. He said the new plan will be characterized by matching schools with reforms that make sense for them. "This allows us to really tailor, or CSI-look at the needs of individual schools," he said.

Some parents said they feared the new plan would not live up to their expectations, similar to the private-management experiment.

"I just think the whole thing is sinister. I think they have lost the trust of the people [to consider] the most educationally sound options," said Helen Gym, a parent. "I think they are considering what's politically viable."

Regarding the private-management vote, three reform commissioners voted to keep 38 schools under private management for one more year, one voted against the plan and one abstained.

Chairman Nevels and commission members James Gallagher and Martin Bednarek voted to keep all schools under private management. Member Denise McGregor Armbrister abstained from voting.

The lone "no" vote was cast by Sandra Dungee Glenn, who said five years was enough time to determine which private managers had improved their schools and which had not.

Keeping all 38 schools where they are - minus three schools that are closing - she said, "to me begged the question of us doing our work and due diligence. I didn't want to send that message."

During their deliberations, the commissioners expressed concern that reducing funding to the private managers could cause the state Legislature to withhold $25 million in extra funding that has been provided for the last five years under the state takeover of the system.

As part of $100 million in budget cuts, the reform commission has cut funding to the private managers from $18 million to no more than $12 million for the fiscal year that begins next week.

Of that $12 million, about $9.9 million will go to the managers of the 38 schools, with the rest going to administration cost. The managers' funding is based upon $500 for each child in their schools.

Critics of the managers cited several studies that showed the managers' schools did not outperform district schools over the five years despite receiving $107 million in funding.

The managers are: for-profits Edison Schools Inc. and Victory Schools Inc.; nonprofits Foundations Inc. and Universal Companies, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania. *