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Election Results Could Bring Relief to Phila. Schools; Leadership Stability to D.C.

By guest blogger Madeline Will

Education was a big issue this election cycle, and last night's results were particularly significant for two big school districts: Philadelphia and the District of Columbia. 

In Pennslyvania, Democrat Tom Wolf defeated incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, after an expensive campaign that hit heavily on Corbett's deep spending cuts to public education (the opposition valued the cuts at about $1 billion, although that's been disputed by Corbett). According to the Associated Press, Wolf won with 55 percent of the vote compared to Corbett's 45 percent—the state legislature is still controlled by Republicans.

A major spotlight in that race has been on the financially-strapped Philadelphia school district, which has turned to layoffs and school closures over the years to staunch the bleeding. The district has an $81 million budget deficit. 

Revenue from a $2-per-pack cigarette tax is supposed to help fill the budget hole for the district, but this summer, state lawmakers went on recess without first agreeing on the deal—leaving the district wondering if it would be able to open on time and considering massive layoffs. To help, Corbett advanced $265 million in funding to the district—which the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers criticized as being too little, too late. (The cigarette tax later passed.)

Teachers' unions worked hard and spent a lot to get Wolf elected. The American Federation of Teachers launched a six-figure radio ad campaign in Philadelphia that criticized Corbett for his education cuts and for meddling in teacher contract negotiations in the Philadelphia district.

PFT president Jerry Jordan said in a statement after Wolf's victory that the union plans to work with the new administration.

"This is a victory for the students and parents who rely on Philadelphia's public schools," he said. "Pennsylvania will now have a governor who will make funding public schools a priority and work to undo the damage to education wrought by Tom Corbett."

 And American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said in a statement that Wolf's victory was a "clear and resounding rebuke" of Corbett and politicians who have cut school funding.

Elsewhere Tuesday night, City Council Member and Democrat Muriel Bowser became the District of Columbia's next mayor—meaning that Kaya Henderson will remain as chancellor of the city's school system. Bowser was at first noncomittal about keeping Henderson on, but later said she'd keep the school chief in place. 

This puts Henderson on track to be one of the longest serving school chiefs for D.C. in recent memory. Under her leadership, the district has been aggressive in implementing the Common Core State Standards. More students have reached proficiency in reading and math on the city's annual exams and the National Assessment of Educational Porgress, but less than half of all students were proficient across both math and reading in both subjects on the city's common-core aligned tests. 

She also continued one of the efforts launched by her old boss, controversial former chancellor Michelle Rhee—a teacher-evaluation system that consists of multiple classroom observations and a test-score-based measure of student progress. It has led to the dismissal of several hundred teachers as well as paid bonuses to the teachers deemed most effective. Earlier this year, however, Henderson announced that the district would not use its "value added" test-score-based algorithm for measuring teacher effectiveness for the 2014-15 school year to make sure its transition to new, common-core-aligned tests goes smoothly.

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