Philadelphia School District leaders are questioning the need for a potential new state law that would require the state to take drastic intervention at five "persistently low achieving" Philadelphia schools per year.

The provision passed Pennsylvania's Senate in a bipartisan 42-9 vote Thursday evening.

"I'm not sure of the point," said district Superintendent William Hite. "We're all for accountability and turning around our low-performing schools. I would much rather have the flexibility to make these decisions locally."

The "opportunity schools" provision gives the state secretary of education discretion to choose the five schools from a list of chronic low performers on the state's school performance profile index.

The schools would then come under the purview of the Pennsylvania Department of Education for a minimum of three years. A maximum of 15 schools could be under state control, and the provisions would apply only to Philadelphia.

The department would have five intervention options:

  • turn over operations of the school to an outside education management organization;
  • convert the school to a neighborhood-based charter;
  • close the school and facilitate transfer of students to higher performing schools;
  • authorize a new charter and guarantee admission preference to any students who reside in the catchment of the low performing school;
  • or replace the principal and at least half of the school's staff.

The bill does not mandate additional resources to support the interventions – leaving the Legislature to decide.

"It feels like it's another layer of oversight, and I'm not sure how that's helpful. We have a good relationship with the department of education," said School Reform Commission Chairwoman Marjorie Neff. "I don't see a need – since we're already involved in turnaround work and we're focusing on our lowest performing schools – to have that extra layer."

The provision passed with the support of seven senators, all Democrats, who represent Philadelphia.

$100 million sweetener

Sources say the votes were a necessary tradeoff in order to secure the more than $100 million funding boost that would come to the city as part of the budget framework agreed to by Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican legislative leaders.

Gov. Tom Wolf's office says it is "still reviewing" the school code as passed by the Senate.

"There are several items that were inserted into the codes by the Legislature that we did not support," said spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan.

When asked if Wolf would sign the code despite opposing some of it, Sheridan said, "Right now what the governor wants is a budget. And he wants the budget that was agreed with by House and Senate Republicans to pass soon."

Both Hite and Neff fear that the funding boost will be eclipsed by the long-term costs associated with the potential charter conversions.

"I'm very worried about the financial impact on the remaining schools in the district," said Neff. "I worry that this is going to be similar to the cigarette tax in terms of the financial dynamic that it sets up for us ... gives us money, but puts us in a situation where more money will be going out."

The Philadelphia School District was compelled to begin accepting new applications for charter schools in 2014, after years of moratorium. This change came based on a tradeoff made among state lawmakers in a piece of legislation that allowed the city to hike its tax on cigarettes to fund schools.

Hite also questioned the effectiveness of state-directed school turnaround efforts.

"This work has to focused, intentional, specific, and it has to be targeted to the specific needs of students," Hite said. "You can't willy-nilly just designate large numbers of schools for turnaround and think that providers are just going to drop out of the sky to take those on."

The Senate's plan also drew the ire of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

"The political gimmicks and regressive education reform ideas included in this school code bill offset many of the benefits of additional education funding because they set our schools up for failure," said union president Jerry Jordan.

Duplicated authority?

Philadelphia's public schools have been under the purview of the School Reform Commission since 2001.

The SRC, with a majority of its members appointed by the state, already has the unilateral power to pursue all of the interventions listed in the bill.

It's actively exercised many of them in recent years.

It's shuttered more than 30 schools since 2012. Since 2010, it has converted 20 of its chronically underperforming schools to neighborhood-based charters through the renaissance program.

And in addition to its "promise academy" in-district turnarounds – which languished for lack of funds – the district authorized aggressive internal reforms at two North Philadelphia elementary schools last year.

As far as charter turnarounds, only Mastery Charter Schools -- which runs seven of these conversions and is vying for an eighth -- has been able to make and maintain significant gains on state tests.

In October, the district unveiled a plan it said would positively affect 5,000 students that includes a slate of closures, mergers, and conversions -- both in-district and charter.

This legislation would simply mandate more of those as overseen by Harrisburg.

"If this is so good for low performing schools across the state, shouldn't it be applied across the state?" said Neff, puzzling over the fact that the legislation only pertains to Philadelphia.

In a telephone interview, state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera embraced the pending legislation.

"I'm very, very proud that we're taking a new role in supporting our struggling schools," he said. "That is an opportunity I absolutely accept and look forward to engaging in."

Rivera emphasized that the department could help Philadelphia implement statewide and national best practices for school turnaround.

"I don't see us as the enemy. I don't see us as beating anyone into compliance," said Rivera. "I do see us as a resource. I see us as leaders. And I see us as the lead educators in the commonwealth and we can provide that support to Philadelphia."

Rivera worried, though, about the fact that additional resources aren't tied to the reform efforts.

"It's important that the Legislature work with us to not only write legislation, and enact bills into laws, but to understand what the ramifications are of those laws," he said.

The legislation appears to be a compromise of a bill forwarded by State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, earlier in the year modeled on Tennessee's "achievement school district."

Smucker's plan called for the state to make drastic interventions in the bottom 5 percent of schools on the school performance profile – affecting 147 schools, nearly 100 in Philadelphia.

A report released this week found Tennessee's state interventions to be "ineffective." Leaders there have asked for patience.

Smucker's office did not return a request for comment, nor did a spokesman for the Senate GOP leadership.

"I understand the concerns expressed about this program and believe many to be valid," said State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, the minority chair of the appropriations committee. "Simply put, I do not agree with every part of the bill. However, it was necessary to achieve compromise to get additional funding for Philadelphia's public schools through a Republican-controlled legislature and end the budget impasse."

Hughes vowed to ensure the provisions of the bill were implemented in a way that "protect[s] the integrity of our public school system."

Some of Philadelphia's most fervent champions of school reform say the bill does not go far enough.

Mike Wang – executive director of the Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, a wing of the Philadelphia School Partnership – said it was "deeply concerning" that the state wasn't putting the city's chronically underperforming schools on a much more aggressive turnaround schedule.

"Philadelphia has 83 schools that need intervening," he said. "This bill offers no relief for those families."

The school code bill will next head to the state House of Representatives -- where members have pushed back against the tax increases implicit in the larger budget framework agreement.

A House spokesman also said there was significant pushback to the school code bill among caucus members because it distributes education funding in a way they feel disproportionately aids Philadelphia.

"It's not that people are necessarily anti-Philly. But when you're voting to send a largesse to Philly ... you're asking a member to vote against their own district to send money there," said spokesman Steve Miskin.

The estimated $100 million boost that would come to Philadelphia in the framework agreement nearly equals the annual funding  lost when the state eliminated the "charter reimbursement" line-item – one that helped the district cover the added, systemic costs of charters. That was cut in the first budget passed during former Gov. Tom Corbett's tenure.