Some might call it "starve a school, feed a fever," the fever being some lawmakers' drive to dismantle public schools in favor of private and charter operators. And while we embrace school alternatives like charters, we're leery of the wholesale transfer of one system to another, especially with no public or parental input.
The concept of state takeover of schools is not inherently bad; in fact, in the early years of Philadelphia's state takeover in 2001, the state helped by increasing the district's funding. But both the city and the state should be asking: What impact has the state takeover had in the long term? What measures is the state using to determine whether this is an effective option?
When the state took over the Philadelphia district, the district's deficit was $217 million of a $1.2 billion budget. This year, the deficit is $218 million out of a budget that's twice the size. On that basis, you could say there's been an improvement in 11 years in the rate of the deficit.
But is that good enough? Should a measure of success be the absence of a deficit? How are test scores and student achievement? What is better or worse 11 years later?
The state should be studying these details much harder, especially since at least a dozen more districts in precarious financial straits could be on the takeover list. And if state takeover is nothing more than the wholesale transfer of traditional public schools to charters and private operators, that's not a takeover – it's a shell game.
The other fact that should be considered is what the four districts in question have in common: the most distressed districts are also the poorest. And the cuts that the state has made in the past few years — nearly $1 billion in the last budget — have hurt poorer districts far more than richer districts. This funding pattern — and the new takeover proposal — raises concerns that the state is not only creating a new ghetto of the poorest students but also, in the process, creating a multi-tiered education system — well-funded for the rich, less-funded for the poor.
Poorer students need alternatives to badly performing district schools. Many lawmakers want to give them that option. But the alternatives are not perfect. Private operators and charters can be effective alternatives to the traditional system, but issues like inequitable funding formulas, oversight and accountability need to be resolved. And a recent New York Times report shed light on abuses of a educational-tax-credit system that demand greater controls over this option. Education is a complicated problem; we should be wary of seemingly simple solutions like wholesale takeovers. n