Mayor Nutter Goes Back To School

(January 2012)

Mayor Nutter kicked off his second term by placing a new emphasis on failing schools demanding that the Philadelphia School District focus on the three Rs -- not "Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmetic," but Reform, Restructure, and Replace.  The Mayor has pledged to eliminate 50,000 seats in the lowest-performing schools and utilize charter conversions, and consolidations to improve educational attainment for the students who have too often been failed by public education.  By initiating this bold action, Nutter has attempted to redefine his mayoralty.  In taking on the tremendous challenge of making the system of public education work for Philadelphia, he has the potential to establish an impressive lasting legacy.  However, given the limits of his Mayoral power, his focus on education could end up being long on rhetoric and short on results. 

In recent weeks, Mayor Nutter and school district officials embraced a "Great Schools Compact," demonstrating the commitment of the City of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the School District of Philadelphia, education advocates, and charter school coalitions to work cooperatively to eliminate underperforming schools.  The Mayor and other officials traveled to Denver to learn how schools in the Mile-High City decentralized school operations and promoted cooperation between the school district and charter schools.  The moves have earned $100,000 in grant money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to implement the Compact with the potential for the District to generate millions more from the Foundation to invest in the push for progress.  

The renewed focus on education in Philadelphia could not come at a better time as the School District faces enormous challenges.  Ongoing financial woes threaten to result in calls for more cuts or higher taxes.  Too many school buildings are half-empty or in need of major structural investments.  Long waiting lists for charter-school admission -- even for the ones with lackluster performance -- suggest that too many parents have lost confidence in the District's ability to educate their children in a safe environment in traditional neighborhood schools.  While test scores show slow progress, and while some programs and schools demonstrate true excellence, Philadelphia proves the maxim that no large, urban school district has found a way to deliver a high-quality education to all of its students.

After the turmoil of the last year -- the more-than-$600-million budget deficit, the bait-and-switch-threatened-cuts to all-day kindergarten, the Godfather-like thuggery that killed the contract to run Martin Luther King High School, and the comedy of errors that was Superintendent Ackerman's dismissal -- it appears as if the stars have aligned to make change possible.  The Mayor and Governor have pledged to focus on improvements.  The members of the School Reform Commission that actually runs the schools are engaged in the reform effort.  Outside advocates are involved in a productive manner.  Promising models here in Philadelphia and elsewhere exist to copy or emulate. 

If we can use better indicators, we can identify individual school needs and invest in long-term solutions.  Already, some laboratories of education such as Mastery Charter Schools and others have demonstrated the ability to turn around once-failing schools.  If the commitment to eliminate the 50,000 lowest-performing seats in district schools is real -- assuming we have (or can) properly identified them -- we can make significant improvements, real fast.

But (and you just knew there had to be a "but"), education reform in Philadelphia has proven to be like cold-fusion or the search for a Flyers Stanley Cup winning goalie; a seemingly unsolvable problem that has defied efforts to create long-term positive results.  It is not hard to see why so many Mayors have either failed to deliver promised changes or decided to spend their political capital in other policy areas.

Governance-wise, the Mayor does not control the schools, since the Governor appoints the majority of the members of the School Reform Commission.  Financially, the School District of Philadelphia receives about 60 percent of its funding from the Commonwealth and the Mayor will likely have little success in getting the Pennsylvania General Assembly or the Philadelphia City Council to raise taxes to generate much additional funding.  Negotiating any major changes with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will be another significant challenge for a Mayor who has been so far unable to negotiate transformative contracts with the city's municipal workers.  Time is not on the Mayor's side either, as a search for a new Superintendent is likely to take the rest of the current school year and, as a lame-duck second-termer, the Mayor's power to deliver change ebbs with every passing week.

So will Mayor Nutter's inaugural-speech pronouncement that improving our public schools will top his priority list for his second term herald the coming of an Administration that will focus all of its political and governmental efforts toward real reform?  Or will it end up being a well-intentioned but unattained rhetorical goal more like his first inaugural promise to cut the city's dropout rate in half?  

I was once advised that a Mayor as a strong chief executive can do anything he or she wants, but not everything he or she wants.  If Mayor Nutter chooses to have a singular focus on education reform during his second term -- and, of course, he would still need to have a lot of help from a new Superintendent and so many others -- he has a chance to succeed in a way that could be transformative in a profoundly positive manner for Philadelphia.  But, if history is a guide; if the continuing economic uncertainty is a gauge; and if the Mayor's poor first-term use of his political power is an indicator, Nutter may be about to get a real education about how hard it is to make change in a large, urban school district.