Philadelphia school closings plan seems to dwarf previous troubles in a troubled district
December 13, 2012By Dave Davies
For years I've watched the Philadelphia school system steer a heartbreaking path through history that somehow reminds me of Afghanistan -- moments of peace and promise, followed by conflict and crisis, leaving far too many parents and kids without the educational opportunity they deserve.
But the plan presented Thursday to close one-sixth of the district's school buildings strikes me as more dramatic and game-changing than anything I've seen in the 30 years I've worked as a reporter, and it prompted me to call a few old hands to talk about battles past.
I started with former Mayor Bill Green, who provoked a 50-day teachers' strike in 1981 when he refused to fund a contract the district had agreed to, because he said taxpayers couldn't afford it.
Green told me he'd inherited a desperate financial crisis from the previous mayor, Frank Rizzo, and that the city simply couldn't afford the teachers' contract.
"You know, the patient was sick and the doctor had to administer the medicine," Green recalled. "It was sort of like, `lie still now, I'm going to give you a needle,' and I had to stand up and fight a system that was taking the whole school system down with it from a financial point of view."
Labor leaders no doubt remember it differently. Green said he went to high school with John Murray, the fiery leader of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and it was tough to tangle with him. But he did.
The strike led to demonstrations, fist fights in City Council, and the formation of a parents union which became a forceful advocate.
Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said the labor turmoil took a toll on what was then a larger school system.
"It seemed every year there was another strike going on, and of course the 50-day one was the most extreme," Yanoff said. "But it really exacerbated the situation that a lot of families would move out of the city because of the schools."
The savior arrives
Another critical juncture for the district came in 1994, when Ed Rendell was mayor and nationally prominent educator David Hornbeck was hired as superintendent. Former school board member Debra Kahn recalls his plan, "Children Achieving."
"It was really ahead of its time," Kahn told me. "It was a really comprehensive and sweeping approach to improving educational outcomes for all students."
It was also expensive – the price tag was an extra $1.3 billion over five years.
There was political momentum for educational reform at the time, and some private help – a $30 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
Hornbeck made some headway, implementing full-day kindergarten and other changes. But his zeal made him enemies in Harrisburg and eventually he lost the credibility he needed to lead.
Making the state step up
A financial crisis in the early 2000s led to the district's next seismic shift.
John Street was mayor, and prepared to forcefully make the case that the city simply couldn't educate its kids without more state funding. Republican Gov. Tom Ridge wasn't exactly moved, so the district's finances got worse and worse. Phil Goldsmith was the district's interim superintendent.
"You know, I was CEO at the time and we had to go through, vendor by vendor. to decide who we could pay and who we couldn't pay," Goldsmith told me. "And once we stopped paying the charter schools, the Ridge administration said, 'Well, come on up to Harrisburg.'"
Street then played his hand well with Ridge and his successor, Mark Schweiker. Street negotiated a new governmental structure; some called it a state takeover.
Gone was the nine-member school board appointed by the mayor, replaced by the new School Reform Commission, with three of five commissioners appointed by the governor
Goldsmith said it was a positive change, because it gave the state skin in the educational game.
"It brought the state closer in, gave them more accountability and responsibility for the school district," Goldsmith said. "And they could see firsthand how difficult it is with urban education in Philadelphia and places elsewhere."
The structure remains in place, but didn't prevent the financial crisis that has now led to the most dramatic changes the district has seen in generations.