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D.C. Schools Takeover

Susan Snyder and Martha Woodall
Reporters, Philadelphia Inquirer
Monday, April 2, 2007; 1:00 PM

Tuesday, the D.C. City Council will vote on a proposal to hand control of the city's schools to the mayor's office. In 2001, the state of Pennsylvania enacted a similar takeover of Philadelphia's public schools.

Philadelphia Inquirer education reporters Susan Snyder and Martha Woodall were online Monday, April 2 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss how that city's schools have changed since then, for better and for worse, and what lessons D.C. can learn from Philadelphia's experience.

A transcript follows.

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Susan Snyder: Just wanted to give everyone an idea of where we stand here in Philadelphia: When I started covering the school district in 1998, the entire nine-member school board was appointed by the mayor, but there were staggered terms. The mayor could only appoint three new members every two years, so it took an incoming mayor years to have a school board filled with his appointees. In 1999, that local law was changed by voters and an incoming mayor was permitted to appoint all nine members to the school board upon taking office. So in that sense, there was true mayoral control. Mayor Street, who took office in 2000, was the first to use the new law.

But the district's financial woes continued, and that led to the state takeover of the district, also seen as a state-city partnership by some, in 2001. The takeover established a five-member commission to run the district: Three members are appointed by the governor and two members by the mayor.

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Washington, D.C.: Overall, would you say Philly public schools are better or worse off than they were before the state takeover? What's been the biggest improvement?

Susan Snyder: I think you would find different opinions on that. What I can say is that overall, the district has seen some significant increases in test scores. For example, last spring, 41.6 percent of the district's fifth graders scored at proficient or advanced levels on the state's reading and math test, up from 17.5 percent in 2000-01. But the high school test scores have continued to lag. Violence also continues to be a problem, despite CEO Paul Vallas' focus on this problem. And the district once again faces a deficit. One of the main purposes of the state takeover or state-city partnership was to give the district a chance to right itself financially. While things aren't as bad as they were, problems continue. But the district has made some impressive strides in breaking down its large high schools into small units, which are showing better results. And there are more thematic schools, giving parents more choices.

Martha Woodall: The concern among many parents and educational activists is that worsening budget problems could undue the recent gains in the school district.

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Washington, D.C.: If D.C. could learn one thing from how Philly's schools are run, what should it be?

Susan Snyder: I would say that the major lesson is a change in governance can't in itself solve the problems in a large urban school system. I just wrote a story Sunday a week ago that talked about how the district seemingly has tried it all -- different types of governance, privatization, etc. -- and still it doesn't have enough money to do the job. The district is planning major cuts in its proposed budget. And while student achievement has improved, it remains to be seen if that improvement will continue. A lot of times, you'll see big improvement when a new administration takes over and then a leveling off. And I think we're starting to see some of that leveling off here in Philadelphia now. Also, the district launched a major $1.5 billion capital program, which caused excitement in the city. The district has had some success with that, including the opening of a high school in partnership with Microsoft, a real jewel of a school. But the district has had a lot of trouble securing land for some of its other school construction projects. Relations between the mayor and CEO Vallas also have hit some snags in recent months.

Martha Woodall: School funding problems remains a major problem in Philadelphia, despite the change in governance.

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Washington, D.C.: There have been many reports written siding with both mayoral control and school board control of the school' s here in D.C. I wanted to get your impression of which situation is better and why. Also, my opinion is that one of the most important factors in improving student performance is parental involvement. In an urban setting such as Philadelphia or D.C., what are your thoughts on how best to increase parental involvement.

Thanks

Susan Snyder: I don't know that I've actually seen true school board control here in Philadelphia. As I said, when I first started, the school board was appointed by the mayor, but in staggered terms. So the mayor always had a hand and a voice on the board. I have covered other school districts before coming to the Inquirer and they have had elected school boards. I think politics have a way of entering into it, no matter who is in control. If you have good people doing the job - no matter the structure - that's what counts. I think the public probably has a little bit of an easier time holding an elected board accountable. Of course, you can vote out the mayor, but schools would only be one thing to consider. As for parental involvement, that's a major issue in Philadelphia as well. The School Reform Commission has made it a goal to develop parent associations at every school. The Vallas administration also has tried to hire parents to work as truant officers and to run help desks in the schools.

Martha Woodall: Although the district has tried to increase parental involvement, I think Philadelphia school officials would concede they have a long way to go.

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Washington, D.C.: What type of safety nets where established to maintain balance with the takeover?

Susan Snyder: The negotiated agreement allowed the mayor to maintain a say on the board. With two of five appointees, it assured that the city and mayor wouldn't be locked out of the decision-making process. Also, all of the commission members except for the chairman live in Philadelphia. And it also set up a process for return of the schools to the mayor. There's been some talk of when that might occur, and it's become a major issue in the mayor's race underway in Philadelphia right now.

Martha Woodall: The commission also is also trying to decide whether to renew the contracts of the educational managers that are running many of the district schools, including Edison Schools. The commission held a series of public hearings to ensure that parents and citizens would have opportunities to express their views on whether the experiment in privatization should continue.

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Washington, D.C.: Was there a cost comparison of pre-takeover expenditures to post-takeover expenditures? My concern is the D.C. mayor simply says it's a management issue. When I look at the issues ahead for DCPS from facilities to improving the education of the students, I see the expenditures increasing. In my opinion, they cannot go forward without acknowledging past mistakes and trying fix them through additional tutoring or remedial classes.

Susan Snyder: The budget has grown considerably over the last five years. In 2001, the district operated on a $1.7 billion budget. This year, the projected budget is $2.1 billion. The state takeover did bring in hundreds of millions more in state funding and more city funding for new programs. But clearly, there continues to be arguments over how the money is spent. Some say the district has spent too much money on outside contractors and consultants.

Martha Woodall: In fact, the district expects to release the results of its own report shortly that will consider the cost-benefits of the arrangements with the private educational providers.

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SE, D.C.: Challenges of public education are multifaceted. but the solution is still often one size fits all which leaves many under-served. As I look at DCPS, they have an overwhelming challenge of a special ed population, and then kids from low-income backgrounds that may not have had the parents invest time or money in teaching the basics even before they came to school. Both groups need additional services help them along the way. How do schools fund these challenges? How do schools balance these challenges to assure all needs are met?

Susan Snyder: That's a very difficult question with no easy answers. Philadelphia also has a large special education population. Short of coming up with a better way to fund schools, I don't know.

Martha Woodall: Pennsylvania is still trying to find a better way to fund its public schools. As Philadelphia grapples with its budget deficit, it has had to cut services that had helped low-income students.

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Arlington, Va.: Why do you think Philly schools fell in such disrepair the state felt it needed to takeover? Was there anything the city could have done to recover without the state takeover?

Martha Woodall: Using property taxes to fund public schools was one of the main reasons Philadelphia's public schools fell on such hard times. Despite the state takeover that provided some increased aid for Philadelphia's schools, Pennsylvania has not yet figured out how to fund schools equitably.

Susan Snyder: I would agree with Martha. But some, including CEO Vallas, have said that the city also has failed to fund the schools properly. We've had a lot of finger-pointing here in Philadelphia, the city at the state and the state at the city. That continues.

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Anonymous: What are the drivers of the deficit in Philly? Are they typical cost centers for public schools or are they unique? is it unaccounted for labor expense, bad estimates, etc. I know in DCPS they budgeted about $10M for security and the contract came in close to $13M or so.

Susan Snyder: The district unveiled a $73 million deficit last fall that they said resulted from increases in charter school costs, unanticipated retirement costs, late school-construction cost reimbursements and more money being spent at the local school level than anticipated. The district has launched lots of new programs and initiatives in the last five years and basically has been spending more money than it took in for several years.

Martha Woodall: The district essentially has been spending more money that it has been taking in. The Philadelphia School Reform Commission recently made some oversight changes and brought in some outside financial experts to make sure there are no more budgetary surprises like those that cropped up in the fall of 2006.

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Arlington, Va.: Good Afternoon,

How long or what do you estimate is a good enough time line to really start to see improvements from the takeover? It's been six years in Pa., anything more substantial to report as a report card as we anticipate a time line for D.C.? Secondly, has parent involvement increased since the take over? Finally, has the budget been maintained per what was originally promised in Pa. or was there a decline?

Martha Woodall: Philadelphia has seen test score improvement across the board, although the gains have not been as impressive at the high school level. Parental involvement has increased in Philadelphia, but a lot more is needed. Although the state Legislature has threatened to stop providing the additional aid that was promised in the takeover, the district has continued to receive the additional funds. Yet, the district is still facing a deficit this year and in the future.

Susan Snyder: I would just add that we recently ran an editorial that said the district has made some major improvements in the last five years and that more time is needed. The newspaper is basically recommending that the current structure has shown enough promise that it should be allowed to continue.

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Washington, D.C.: One of the primary reasons for the school districting system is to insulate public education from partisan politics. By allowing the Mayor to have direct authority over its daily operations, the city is sort of putting it into the fire. I don't think the Mayor has neither the experience nor the acumen to be non-partisan. His energy will not help him with this radical change in educational policy. The only way this radical approach shall be successful, it has to be a Mayor that has the ability to be evenhanded and non-political across the city in policy making. I think that he is going to be held to higher standards than the current school board and that is why the city's success is unlikely.

Martha Woodall: Since the take over of the Philadelphia public schools in December of 2001, the district has been run by a five-member commission. Three are appointed by the governor; two by the mayor. Politics still enter into it.

Susan Snyder: I would agree. I don't know that it's possible here on earth to find a mayor that will deal with things in a completely "non-political" way. And I think the same applies to school boards. Some of the school boards I've covered in the past aren't as locked into the Democrat/Republican thing, but there are still alliances and politics of a different sort.

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Springfield, Va.: There seems to be an increasing wave of discontent among parents and taxpayers lately about the way our schools are run. For too long the NEA and school superintendents have brainwashed parents into thinking that all is well. Why can't School Boards act independent of the school districts and do what is best for the kids and parents? Even when they are elected, as they are in Fairfax County, I am constantly seeing them just going along with the school heads and not demanding accountability and asking tough questions as they should.

Susan Snyder: Some school boards do act independently. In recent months, there have been some major clashes between the Commission and CEO Vallas, especially after the deficit came to light in the fall. Two members wanted to launch a national search for a replacement about a year ago. What I've seen over the years is that school boards tend to work very closely with a new superintendent or CEO. Then as time goes on, relations break down and you'll start to see some differences. One observer once said that a new CEO or superintendent comes in like a saint and goes out like a devil, or something like that.

Martha Woodall: After it became clear in the fall of 2006 that the Philadelphia schools were facing a deficit this academic year that would grow in the future, the School Reform Commission tightened fiscal controls and brought in outside experts to monitor the district's finances.

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Annapolis, Md.: Hello,

Do you feel that mayoral control will help D.C. get a handle on the facilities problems (i.e. dilapidated buildings) facing schools here in Washington? Does having the SRC in Philadelphia help resolve these issues?

Thanks.

Martha Woodall: I'm not sure what the impact will be D.C. Paul Vallas, the Philadelphia school district's CEO, has come up with a major capital plan to upgrade facilities and build new schools, but the School Reform Commission decides what happens.

Susan Snyder: In Philadelphia, the school district launched a major capital campaign under Vallas, but there have been some snags in that.

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Washington, D.C.: Does the city of Philadelphia match up with D.C.'s governmental structure? In what ways would this benefit or hurt the city?

Martha Woodall: We're not very familiar with D.C.'s governmental structure. As we mentioned elsewhere, Philadelphia's School Reform Commission is unusual. The governor appoints three members; the mayor appoints two.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello. Did most or all of Philly's school boards members have kids in private schools or in Philadelphia public schools?

Martha Woodall: A few board members, including the board president, had kids in the public schools. Others sent their children to private schools. None of the members of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission that oversee the schools has a child currently enrolled in the Philadelphia public schools.

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Washington, D.C.: Many of Philly's schools are now under the management of private firms. Where the people who pushed for a state takeover upfront that they would turn the schools over to be run by businesses, or did it happen after the fact?

Martha Woodall: The state officials, including the governor at the time -- Mark Schweiker -- were very upfront about their interest in having the schools run by outside providers. They were especially interested in Edison Schools Inc., the for-profit company based in New York. In fact, initially, state officials expressed interest in having Edison run the entire school district. The five-member Philadelphia School Reform Commission, however, decided to try a smaller experiment. Edison received 20 schools to manage. six others, including nonprofits and two universities, were brought on to manage 25 other schools.

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Susan Snyder: Thanks for having us. Hope we helped.

Martha Woodall: Thanks for your questions. I hope we were able to answer them.

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