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Overview and Introduction to the Education Reform in the 21st Century PDF Print E-mail
April 2011

Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Reform Efforts

This issue of PSIJ also pays careful attention to education reform on the local level. Chris Bravacos, a political insider who has been at the table for much of the Pennsylvania-based reform effort over the past two decades, provided valuable insights into the reform process in the state during this time period. Bravacos traced the movement from the first push for school vouchers in 1991 by State Senator Hank Salvatore to Governor Ed Rendell’s accomplishments of increasing state funding for public education. During this time period, legislative action and public discourse oscillated between the introduction of a voucher system and increased support for public education.

The first wave of voucher legislation was denied as a result of constitutionality issues, but reappeared in 1995 because of efforts made by then-Governor Tom Ridge. However, this round of legislative reform brought a broader agenda that included mandate reform and the first proposals for charter schools in the state. Voucher proposals ultimately failed because of enormous pushback from teachers unions and vitriolic public debate. However, the first charter school law was created in 1997, opening the door for the state’s charter explosion. Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) legislation also passed in the state, allowing businesses to receive a tax credit for funding scholarships to private schools. Bravacos attributes the passage of these reforms to their original non-threatening nature. Vouchers were viewed largely as a right-wing conspiracy, while charter school legislation and the EITC program hovered below the surface of public discourse. These reforms have had an enormous impact on Pennsylvania’s educational landscape. Over 70,000 students currently attend charter schools, and 33,000 students currently receive financial support from the EITC program.

In the late 1990s, the Philadelphia School District was running out of money, and Mayor John Street warned the district would be “out of business” without new state aid. Governor Tom Ridge used the district’s precarious financial situation as an opportunity to increase state control over its most delinquent school system. The State Legislature passed Act 46 as law in April 1998, and the act granted the state the ability to take over Philadelphia schools if the state declared the district financially distressed. Act 46 further gave the state the ability to name the School District CEO and to create the five-member School Reform Commission (SRC) consisting of the state Secretary of Education, three members appointed by the governor, and one member appointed by the mayor (Baer 2000).

In 2001, Governor Mark Schweiker moved to take over the Philadelphia School District. Following negotiations with Mayor Street, the SRC would now be composed of three members appointed by the governor and two members appointed by the mayor. The takeover gave the SRC great powers, including the ability to hire for-profit companies to manage some schools. Initially there was strong pushback to this privatization approach, particularly because an education management organization, Edison Schools, was going to be given control over 60 schools. A compromise was reached in which multiple organizations could manage the schools. This “diverse provider model” led to seven private sector organizations taking over 46 Philadelphia schools. The diverse provider model has evolved in the past decade, with private providers coming and going, and university partners and additional charter school operators being added to the mix (Gold 2006).

The Current Problem

Today, Philadelphia’s schools are not producing employable American adults who can compete in a global economy. Over 50 percent of Philadelphia’s adults struggle to follow written instructions or complete routine paperwork, and they greatly need enhanced reading, writing and math skills (Green 2010: 5). No matter how one analyzes the data, American students in general are not doing well compared to their international peers. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a system of international assessments that focus on 15-year-olds’ capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics literacy and science literacy. Out of 34 participating countries, the United States ranks 12th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math according to the latest PISA results (Education Trust 2011).

Unfortunately, the only place in which America ranks high among countries is in our inequality. The United States currently has the fifth largest gap between highest-achieving and lowest-achieving students. We have some of the largest gaps between highest- and lowest- achieving students in math, science and problem solving. Today, African-American and Latino 17-year-olds do math and read at the same level as white 13-year-olds (Education Trust 2011).

If the comparison of the United States to other countries is bad, then Philadelphia’s comparison to other urban American cities is worse. Out of over a dozen cities, Philadelphia’s students rank near or at the bottom in terms of reading proficiency (Education Trust 2010: slides 69-74). In Philadelphia, fewer than half of the school system’s students can read at grade level, and only slightly more can perform math at grade level. The majority of these poor-performing students are minority African-American and Hispanic students, and the racial academic achievement gap is mostly wider today than in the late 1980s and 1990s (Education Trust 2010: slides 9-11). Philadelphia’s four-year graduation rate remains a dismal 57 percent, and the majority of those students not graduating are poor and minority students (Green 2010: 6).

These academic achievement gaps begin before the children even start school, but rather than organizing our educational system to improve this problem, we organize it to intensify the problem. On average, high-poverty school districts in America get $773 less per student than low-poverty school districts, and high-minority districts get $1,122 less per student than low-minority districts (Education Trust 2010: slide 33). Moreover, students in poor schools receive A’s for work that would earn C’s in more affluent schools (Education Trust 2010: slide 36). Lastly, minority students are less likely to be enrolled in a full college prep track, and high-poverty, high-minority schools are more likely to have inexperienced teachers and teachers without a major or minor in the field for which they are teaching (Education Trust 2010: slides 38-42). In essence, the students who come into school a little behind leave a lot behind.


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