Philadelphia school “recovery” officials have announced a radical restructuring plan that calls for:

* closing 40 low-performing, underutilized schools in 2013 and a total of 64 more by 2017

* organizing “achievement networks” of about 25 schools that would be run by outsiders who bid for management contracts

* increasing the number of charter schools, which now educate about 25 percent of the city’s roughly 200,000 students

* effectively shutting down the central office, which is already half the size it was last year

* phasing out all academic divisions now in place by this summer, with pilot achievement networks in place as early as this fall.

This plan, spelled out in the Philadelphia Inquirer, sounds like an especially desperate Hail Mary pass with no more chance of succeeding than previous efforts to improve the city’s ailing public school system.

If you have any doubt this plan is meant to blow up the district of 249 schools, consider that the man who recently announced the proposal, Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen, didn’t refer to the Philadelphia School District as the Philadelphia School District.

“We are now looking at a much broader definition of education in the city that includes not only district schools but other schools as well,” he was quoted as saying by the Inquirer.

After successive waves of reform attempts in Philadelphia — each of them, by the way, hailed as the answer by city leaders at the time they were being implemented — the school system finds itself in deep financial and other trouble.

It is heavily in debt; standardized test scores are lower than in many other urban districts; and more families are turning to charter schools — even though studies show those schools don’t do better, and in many cases do worse, on test scores than the traditional public schools. School officials had already been on a track to expand charter school enrollment to about 40 percent of the city’s students by 2017, and this plan will move that forward.

But any move to increase charters ignores some of the big questions about charter schools in Philadelphia, including about how strong the boards that run them really are and how money is spent.

In an article titled “Follow the Money: Charter Schools and Financial Accountability,” which will soon be published in the Urban Lawyer, a journal of the American Bar Association’s Section on State and Local Government, author Susan L. DeJarnatt details a number of concerns about Philadelphia charters, including the fact that the “Philadelphia School District Charter Schools Office has a staff of four to provide oversight to 81 schools.” She goes on to note that at the time she was writing, 19 of those schools were under investigation by federal authorities, according to the Inquirer.

She also writes: “Many of the Philadelphia charters are related to another non-profit that either exists to provide the facility for the school, that provides other support for the school, e.g. fundraising, or that developed the school in the first place. Many of the schools and their related organizations have overlapping boards. The board members are in a complicated position where it may be hard to keep straight to whom they owe primary loyalty.”

The Philadelphia plan appears to be driven largely, though not entirely, by financial considerations, as it is expected that closing schools can save many millions of dollars. It has to be approved by the School Reform Commission, but there’s no mystery about the panel’s opinion; it worked on the plan with Knudsen and others. Mayor Michael Nutter has expressed support for it, saying that it would push control over education down to the school, according to the Inquirer .

That’s why some parents are so wary of the proposal that they describe it as a way for public officials to essentially wash their hands of the schools. By allowing parents to choose the schools their children attend, they say, officials can blame failure on the parents and the individual schools or network, rather than district leadership.

Philadelphia officials say that the traditional district structure, with a superintendent in charge of all public schools, has been shown not to work and that it is time for a change.

Supposing that were true, a plan that entails people bidding for a chance to run an achievement network hardly seems like a way to run a civic institution, as the public school system should be viewed. Schools are not businesses, students aren’t widgets, and test scores aren’t a product.

There is no question that too many schools in too many cities fail American children. But the way the adults are moving ahead to “fix” things seems guaranteed to make them worse.

Correction: An earlier version said 19 staff members at charter schools were unde federal investigation. It is not the staff members but 19 schools being investigated.


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