Superintendent touts latest District reform blueprint

Called Action Plan 3.0, the proposal would reorganize schools and allow some charter expansion. It calls for a new state charter funding formula.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Superintendent William Hite has delivered his third annual reform blueprint, saying he intends to focus on bringing more equity to a system that still doesn’t serve all students well.

Hite’s Action Plan 3.0, unveiled in early March, comes at a time when the District has hope for finally attaining more secure funding, but also in the midst of continuing battles with the teachers’ union and with the charter sector over who and what most deserves any influx of resources.

“What we’ve had to do for three years was really about stabilizing the District,” he said.

For the first time since he arrived in 2012 in a district beset by crippling budget problems, Hite said he hoped to change direction from relentlessly slashing personnel and services to targeting new investments in early literacy and social and emotional supports for students.

For instance, the District plans to hire about 60 additional specialists in reading and early literacy to work in grades K-3 in selected schools. Having all students read on grade level by the end of 3rd grade is one of the “anchor goals” of Hite’s vision for improvement.

He also proposes to reorganize schools into three more networks than exist now. The new networks will be organized based on school type. One would emphasize innovation for schools that are pioneering new approaches, another would provide “opportunity” in alternative settings for disengaged students and near-dropouts, and a third would focus on turnaround for schools mired in low achievement. Hite says this reorganization will allow for more focused support of schools based on their needs.

Most schools would stay put in one of eight neighborhood networks, the backbone of the system. Hite said that he would find ways to redirect more District funds to these schools through a form of weighted funding, in which each student would be allocated an amount based on specific characteristics, such as poverty and the need to learn English. The money would follow them to whatever school they attend. The District plans to pilot such a system in 2016-17.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about diminishing resources, what we’ve had to cut, what we had to eliminate, who we have to lay off, what sacrifices individuals have to make. [But]… during a time of diminishing resources, it requires a greater commitment to equity,” Hite said.

Charters and contracting out

His blueprint proposes strategic charter expansion in underserved neighborhoods and an openness to contracting out more services in schools, short of turning them over to charter providers.

Hite was asked what he meant regarding contracting out – and why his plans might be different from the District’s ill-fated experiment with private managers like Edison Schools after the state took over the District in 2002.

Hite cited the example of YouthBuild, which runs a charter for over-age high school seniors to get them diplomas and puts them in work settings. He also mentioned Camelot, which already has contracts with the District to run alternative schools for over-age students and those with special emotional needs.

Details “need to be worked out,” he said, but “we’re not doing that for contracting’s sake; we are looking for providers that can deliver” in specialized areas like school climate.

Budgets proposed by Gov. Wolf and the outgoing mayor, Michael Nutter, came close to offering the amount of additional funding Hite requested for his agenda: $306 million next year. Hite wants $900 million in annual, recurring funds by 2019.

Wolf’s plan would send about $180 million more in state money to Philadelphia next year. Nutter would raise property taxes 9 percent to raise $105 million for schools.

Hite realizes that these proposals, both of which call for new taxes, still face the gauntlet of the General Assembly and City Council. “The glimmer of hope here is that it’s been proposed, and that is a far sight better than where we’ve been in the past several years,” he said.

Labor battles

Several factors beyond the usual Harrisburg horse-trading will play into whether these budgets have a prayer of being enacted.

The District is still fighting the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, seeking the state Supreme Court’s blessing for its decision to nullify the union contract and unilaterally force members to pay into their health benefits, while redirecting more funds into schools.

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has already overturned the SRC’s action on that matter, as well as in another case in which the commission sought to use its special powers to unilaterally reduce the role of seniority in teacher transfer and placement. In February, the SRC announced it was filing an appeal to the state Supreme Court on the benefits issue.

Meanwhile, negotiations have been at an effective standstill for nearly two years.

Wolf was elected with the union’s support, and he demoted School Reform Commission Chair Bill Green, a PFT nemesis, shortly after taking office. Wolf installed another commissioner, former Masterman principal Marjorie Neff, as chair in Green’s place.

Green had voted to approve several charter schools, against Wolf’s wishes, and he continues to be the SRC’s most vocal critic of the PFT. He abandoned plans to fight his demotion in court but has taken every opportunity to challenge the union. At the first meeting after his demotion, he reiterated his belief that the union must agree to significant work rule changes, particularly around the role of seniority, if the District is to make progress on needed reforms.

The SRC’s voting to approve just five of 39 charter applications also set up a confrontation, as many of the rejected charters vowed appeals. Leaders of the Republican-controlled state legislature said they were disappointed in the votes.

Hite’s Action Plan calls for strategic charter expansion, including turning over underperforming District schools to charter operators. No District schools have been converted to charters under the Renaissance initiative for the past two years.

In touting his plan, Hite emphasized that charter expansion should concentrate proven providers in areas where the the neighborhood schools are low-performing.

“We will advocate focusing any charter growth on our Renaissance charter turnaround schools, which maintain our legacy of neighborhood schools that are open to all,” Hite said.

He repeated that he is “agnostic” on the type of school between District-run and charter, but also emphasized that there should not be “charter expansion for the sake of charter expansion.”

Hite also is calling for changes in the state charter funding formula. Distribution of resources should not be “advantaging one sector at the expense of another,” he said. The District estimates that the current formula leaves the District with a net cost of $7,000 for each student who moves to a charter, although charter proponents say the figure is much less. The District has hired an outside company to do a new analysis.

Weighted funding and autonomy

The proposal to revise how funds are distributed to schools through “weighted student funding” is potentially controversial, because it could result in less money for schools deemed less needy. The District has already announced changes in how it distributes federal Title I funds in a way that result in steep reductions for schools with less than 65 percent poverty.

Hite said he wants to give the most successful schools “charter-like” autonomy – partly through the student-based funding formula – but offered no timeline for this. These schools would get per-pupil allocations and have greater leeway in budgeting and staffing. Details are sketchy.

While both the weighted funding and school autonomy proposals come with many unanswered questions, most of the criticism of the plan has come from advocates concerned that Hite hasn’t promised to restore most of the thousands of school positions slashed over the last few years.

Activist and retired teacher Diane Payne told the SRC in March that the plan “ignores the real issues” of schools lacking sufficient personnel, especially counselors, librarians, and nurses, to adequately serve all students. Hite should also go on the offensive against standardized testing, she said.