Crisis opens a window to school reforms

Patrick Kerkstra
Patrick Kerkstra
Posted: May 04, 2012

The notion that you should never waste a good crisis is virtually political dogma, and for obvious reasons.

In normal times, public bureaucracies change slowly, if at all. The public must be convinced. Opponents must be overcome. Ideas must be tested and debated.

But in a crisis, well, the usual rules don't apply. You can do big things fast.

Today, the School District of Philadelphia is in an undeniable crisis. And sure enough, its leaders - and I include in that cast Mayor Nutter - are using a fiscal emergency to enact sweeping education reforms that, in normal times, might be an impossible sell.

In short, they want to blow the district up. They'll do it by closing public schools en masse, enrolling about 40 percent of all students in charters by 2017, and busting the district up into 20 to 30 networks, which would operate largely independently and be run by an assortment of nonprofits, charter operators, and former principals and teachers.

And what fiscal savings can the district expect from this unprecedented reorganization? Approximately nothing.

"The academic reorganization is completely cost-neutral," said Lori Shorr, Nutter's chief education officer and his executive adviser to the SRC.

Or, put another way, much of the creative destruction the district unleashed this week actually has nothing to do with the fiscal crisis. The rush to charters, the achievement network - they're not actually part of the fiscal recovery at all. Rather, they are massively ambitious reforms that have been tacked on to a budget plan that, so far at least, is extremely light on details.

Nutter obliquely acknowledged as much this week. "There are two key things going on here. The district has to save money while stabilizing its finances, while at the same time providing a high-quality education," Nutter said. "It's not one or the other, and it's not serial. It's simultaneous."

But it doesn't have to be. True, the fiscal emergency demands an immediate response. The educational emergency? That crisis is decades old already.

I get that Nutter, the SRC, and Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen want to make the most of the straits they are in. Indeed, the fiscal situation is so bad that there will be misery and mass disruption even if the academics were left entirely alone. Dozens of schools would still have to close. Union givebacks would still be necessary. Popular programs would be cut.

The thinking seems to be, if you're going to alienate the public and your employees either way, why not get something big done while you're at it?

For many, the appeal of blowing up such an underperforming system is obvious. And mass charter enrollment and decentralization may well be the best options available.

But making such huge changes on such a short timeline comes across as reckless, given that the proposed new system was ginned up in a few months by an outside consulting firm with a history of recommending the same solution regardless of its client.

"We got the bait and switch," said Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education. "We were promised a fiscal plan, and we got a complete academic overhaul."

Shorr said there is more time to massage the academic plan than is generally understood. The achievement networks wouldn't roll out until the 2013-14 school year, for instance, and because the academic reforms are cost-neutral, the district isn't necessarily locked into its plan, Shorr said. That suggests there's some opportunity for more meaningful community engagement than it appeared when the plan was rolled out.

But if anyone is mindful of the risks community engagement poses to bold plans, it's Nutter. Back in 2009, when it was the City of Philadelphia in fiscal crisis, the mayor was criticized for not taking full advantage of the emergency. Tax-cutting and small-government enthusiasts wanted him to use the recession as an excuse to lay off tons of workers, get more favorable union contracts, and close city facilities. None of that happened, at least partly because the mayor was hectored repeatedly at town hall meetings by audiences that didn't want to see city services reduced in the slightest.

This time, though, Nutter does not seem inclined to waste a good crisis. At a Tuesday news conference, he linked the educational reform directly to the necessary budget cuts.

"If we don't take significant action now, the system will collapse," he said. "Grow up and deal."


Patrick Kerkstra is a freelance journalist and former Inquirer staff writer. He can be reached on Twitter @pkerkstra.

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