This proposal has been hotly debated since its release in April, and rightly so: we can't afford to get it wrong. The good news is that Philadelphia needn't look far for important lessons learned. The district embarked on a similar reform in the early 2000s that was, at the time, the nation's largest experiment in decentralizing public education. Forty-five of the district's lowest-performing schools were managed by seven for-profit and nonprofit organizations, including two universities; and an additional 21 low-performing schools were "restructured" by the district. All schools involved in the reform received additional resources.
Results from that era of school reform were mixed. A joint study by RAND and Research for Action (RFA) revealed no effect on reading and math for schools overseen by external providers, while there were significantly positive effects on reading and math in district-run schools. Other large districts have decentralized the governance of schools in ways quite similar to the proposed Blueprint. How can the experiences of these districts, as well as our own, inform our deliberations and actions going forward?
Are adequate resources available? New York City has received an infusion of more than $3 billion since it embarked on its governance overhaul in 2002; Chicago Public Schools increased funding by more than 33 percent from 2002-09 while implementing a similar reform plan.
Philadelphia's five-year projected deficit, on the other hand, is north of $1.1 billion. What is the likelihood of local and state funds coming together to garner the resources needed to successfully implement a reform of this magnitude?
Can an independent, robust accountability mechanism be implemented? How will an accountability office be staffed and supported to provide independent, ongoing assessment of school performance?
Can we ensure equitable access to high-quality schools? Research on school-choice models has consistently shown that choice systems serve some students better than others. The proposed reforms will test the system even further. How will Philadelphia school leaders guard against inequity in enrollment and school choice, particularly in the face of so many public-school closings?
Honest answers to these questions should be a prerequisite to restructuring the School District of Philadelphia. As the new superintendent transitions into office and the options for reform continue to be examined, we urge all stakeholders to carefully consider these issues as specifically as possible.
Kate Shaw is executive director of Research for Action. More information can be found at www.researchforaction.org.