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School Reform in Philadelphia: A Study in Agony

David Oh walked into my office yesterday.  Oh is a city councilman from Philadelphia.  I listened, fascinated and horrified, as he told a gripping story of his city.  Nothing in his story should have surprised me, but this remarkable man has an unusual capacity to see beyond the fa├žade of the daily battles to the larger structural challenges underneath.  He looks at Philadelphia through the prism of the changes taking place in the global economy, and he has an unusually sophisticated view of those challenges.  

In our long conversation, I never once heard him lay blame on one group or another for the city's woes.  His instinct instead is to listen with empathy to each of these forces, looking for ways to help each of them understand that their only hope is to rise above their blinkered aims and strategies to lift themselves and their groups out of the mire into which they have collectively sunk.

That is a giant task.  Philadelphia is one of the nation's largest cities.  Once a manufacturing powerhouse, it was devastated by the rise of low cost producers in Asia and elsewhere.  Though it is still home to some Fortune 500 companies, it is a pending economic wreck, one of the poorest big cities in the nation, a city that leads the nation in crime, a city that is distinguished by some of the highest levels of illiteracy in the nation, a city of a million and half souls that includes 300,000 ex-offenders.

Oh told me that he did not start out focusing on education.  He started by working hard to find a way to turn the Philadelphia economy around.  He has lots of creative ideas for ways to do it, but he told me that, when he tried to persuade companies to relocate in Philadelphia, they told him they were not interested, because they knew they would not be able to get the quality of labor force they needed to succeed.  The appalling condition of the Philadelphia schools is, evidently, a virtually insuperable obstacle to economic recovery in the city.  That is what made David Oh focus on the schools.

He was not in a good position to do anything about this problem.  The City Council has no power over the school system, which is overseen by a School Reform Commission appointed by the state to take over the district in 2001.  But the City Council never had any power over the schools.  The original school board was appointed by a judge, to keep politics out of the schools (a risibly quaint idea, if ever there was one).

The current Reform Commission has five members, two appointed by the mayor and three appointed by the governor.  The mayor says he is not responsible for the schools, because he has only two appointments on the five-member Commission.  The Republican governor says he's not responsible for the schools, because he only got to appoint two of its five members, the other gubernatorial appointment having been made by his Democratic predecessor.  So the top elected officials are avoiding responsibility for the schools.

And little wonder, says Oh.  In fact, he says, no elected official in his right mind would want to be held responsible for the appalling state of the schools, which, as a front page article in the New York Times recently reported, are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.  The city is grudgingly supporting the schools in their quest to borrow $50 million, just to keep their doors open—barely.  As manufacturing jobs fled the city over the last two decades, those who could flee did, leaving behind a largely poor and ill-educated population.  In a state, like most, with a school finance system based on property wealth, the money available for Philadelphia's schools plummeted, because the value of both commercial property and homes sank like a rock, leaving the poor people who could not exit to the suburbs in the lurch.  David Hornbeck, superintendent of schools at the time, threatened to shut down the schools if the state did not do something to respond to the funding crisis, and got his head handed to him by the governor and the legislature.  Disaster is now just around corner.  As Philadelphia borrows more and more to barely keep the doors of its school system open, its borrowing costs will rise, it will pay more and more in interest and there will be less and less available for the schools even as it raises more and more.  The state could appoint another reform commission to take over from the current reform commission, but that does not seem very promising.

Oh knows this.  He thinks, as I do, that the United States should be looking to the countries with the most successful education systems for strategies to lead Philadelphia and the whole country to much higher education performance.  He has conducted hearings designed to get some visibility in his city for those ideas.

So I asked him what the response has been.  The answer is predictable.  Most think that the United States, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia are exceptional, that the lessons of other countries do not apply, for a host of reasons that have no basis in fact.

I asked him whether there was any segment of the community that might provide support for a sound strategy for renewal of the Philadelphia schools.  The answer was sobering.  The press is devoting very little of its failing resources to education.  The best educated, financially better off parents are mainly interested in getting the system to use whatever funds are available to provide resources for their own children and have not been particularly interested in reforms of the system because those reforms could jeopardize the relative advantages their children now enjoy.  The business community is unwilling to get into reform battles that might cost their brand customers.  The unions are battling to preserve whatever they can of the gains they made for their members in the past.  And so on.

I told Oh that our research on the strategies used by the countries with the most successful education systems has given us a bulging portfolio of education strategies almost certain to greatly improve the outcomes for Philadelphia school children.  But none of them will be seriously tried until the governance problem is solved.  What is needed here is not educational ideas but political leadership.  If I had a magic wand, I would pass legislation requiring the mayor to assume responsibility for the schools.  If that failed, I would pass legislation requiring the governor to assume that responsibility.  As long as no one who is politically accountable is in charge, things will only get worse.
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