Philly May Embrace the Hollywood Model — and Other Districts Should Do the Same
Perhaps Philadelphia School District boss Thomas Knudsen and the state-controlled school board read the proverbial writing on the wall — or merely checked out Dropout Nation‘s commentary earlier this year on the traditional district’s flagging fortunes. But the district’s proposal this week to effectively dismantle the district bureaucracy and move toward a decentralized system of schools akin to the Hollywood Model of Education is the right thing to do for the City of Brotherly Love’s children. And other districts should consider doing the same.
Forced largely by the prospect of deficits of as much as $292 million a year by the 2016-2017 school year, Philly plans to shut down 104 failure mills and schools that have lost students over the past decade. The remaining district schools would be essentially transformed into public charter schools by handing them over to a collection of “achievement networks” similar to what is being proposed in cities such as Cleveland. As for the central bureaucracy? it would be reduced to a “lean” office charged with working with charter school operators and networks to achieve cost savings by more-efficiently providing bus services and managing capital resources. The control over school budgets (and, more importantly, the assignment of teachers whose incomes and benefits consume most of those dollars) would be controlled by the schools and the organizations that manage them.
As one would expect, the American Federation of Teachers affiliate there and other groups that support keeping the traditional model in place aren’t too thrilled by the plan. There is also no guarantee that Knudsen and the School Reform Commission will actually turn the plan into reality. The Los Angeles Unified School District proved how easy it is to turn ones back on reform efforts within the past two years as it abandoned plans to hand off some of its schools to charter school operators and community groups; same with Detroit, which has offered up several similar plans.
But this time, the conditions are ripe for Philly to follow through — and not just because there’s no elected school board in place. For one, Pennsylvania state officials are likely tired of the embarrassment of its two decade-long control of the district, which has included the presence of now-former superintendent Arlene Ackerman. For current Gov. Tom Corbett, who has struggled to push for expanding school choice throughout the Keystone State, allowing Philly to use a model similar to that of the Recovery School District that has proven to be successful in New Orleans could end up making it easier for him to push for launching vouchers and expanding charters elsewhere. More importantly, there is clear recognition by all but the most-obstinate education traditionalist that the traditional district model no longer works for either taxpayers or children. As Dropout Nation noted last month in its look at Philly (and Fairfax County, Va.), few poor and minority kids are getting the strong college preparatory curricula, high-quality teaching, and cultures of genius they need for lifelong success.
Knudsen and the school board deserve credit for recognizing reality. Other districts should follow. As Dropout Nation has made clear ad nauseam, the traditional district model is not only ineffective, it is obsolete in helping all children — especially those whose futures have been squashed by the districts charged with educating them, but want to get back on the path to high school and college graduation. It’s not just about those districts that have been failing kids for decades. Even those districts that are providing high-quality education should consider ditching a model that does little to allow high-quality teachers and school leaders to do great work and foster cultures in which all children can learn. Abandoning the traditional district model would allow for the transformation of American public education that would allow all children to access schools fit for their lives.