Inquirer Editorial: Come clean on Chester Upland

Posted: August 26, 2012

If the latest attempt by the state Department of Education to rescue the ailing Chester Upland School District sounds familiar, there's a reason for that.

The state has been there, done that, and failed miserably. Now it wants another crack at running the Delaware County district. Please, find a better idea to give these children the adequate education they are entitled to.

For 16 of the last 18 years, the district has been operated by several state entities. Yet, it remains one of the worst in the state, not only failing another generation academically, but also unable to get its finances in order.

Chester Upland, after nearly running out of money, was declared financially distressed last week under a new law that gives the state broad powers over school districts in dire straits.

But there is little reason to believe the state will do any better than it has in the past with its poor oversight. A locally elected board had little power or responsibility until two years ago. So the state can't blame all of the district's problems on that panel.

Because Gov. Corbett has been such a staunch advocate of vouchers and charters, it may seem to some people that what is happening to Chester Upland was calculated. The system is so bad that the best option may be to shut it down and either send its 3,400 students to nearby districts or create a New Orleans-type system of mostly charter schools.

Corbett's appointment of Joe Watkins as the district's recovery officer also suggests what he's up to. Watkins, chairman of the Students First voucher PAC, has an impressive resume as a businessman, minister, and television commentator. But he has no record turning around failing schools.

Chester Upland already has the highest percentage of children in charters in Pennsylvania, more than 3,000 students. About 40 percent of its budget goes to the charters. Left behind in the crumbling regular public schools are 3,650 students who are either unable or unwilling to flee.

As recovery officer, Watkins can convert schools to charters or hand them over to education management organizations. He can also call for new labor agreements, close schools, and cancel contracts with vendors. The board must vote on Watkins' moves. But if it doesn't go along with his plan, the state can seek a court order to name a receiver who would have all of the powers of the elected board and likely implement Watkins' plan anyway.

Drastic action is long overdue in Chester Upland, but Corbett and company should be open about their true intentions.

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