School Superintendent William Hite's Big But

(February 2014)

As a public-school product and public-school parent, I am deeply concerned about the state of Philadelphia schools and the fate of my children -- and all Philadelphia children -- in them.  So it was with hope and some finger-crossing that I reviewed Superintendent William Hite’s recently released Action Plan v2.0.  The aspirational blueprint outlines steps to make our schools great, and I join so many students, parents, teachers, administrators, employers, and others in saying it can’t happen soon enough.  However, in laying out the tangible inputs required to achieve greatness, Hite confesses that success is possible BUT cannot happen with the resources he requests.  That is a big "but" and when it comes to my children’s future, I’ll break it down for you, old school -- I don’t like big buts and I cannot lie.

I do not need to list the well-chronicled troubles of public education in Philadelphia.  After decades of reform efforts, financial crises, governance schemes, leadership changes, and demographic shifts, Philadelphia schools are -- despite pockets of excellence -- generally underperforming and underfunded; less-than-safe and less-than-satisfying.  Action Plan v2.0 lays out some bold goals that would bring welcome changes:  all students graduating ready for college or careers; all 8-year-olds reading on grade level; all schools having great principals and teachers; and all funds being spent wisely.  Who could argue with such a vision?

To reach those goals, the Plan lays out strategies and areas of action to guide steps moving forward.  They may, indeed, be the exact steps required to lead Philadelphia schools to greatness.  For a policy wonk like me, the most frustrating part about considering educational reform efforts is that there is no true model of success for Philadelphia to emulate.  There are plenty of classrooms that work and schools that succeed -- nationwide and here in Philadelphia -- but when it comes to an urban district that has ALL great schools and ALL great students, there is no best practice to follow.

Maybe Philadelphia can be the first district to figure it out and achieve across-the-board greatness, or maybe not.  I will leave it up to experts in the educational arena to critique the strategies and the action areas themselves.  However, when it comes to Hite’s plan, I can’t stop staring at the but.

Greatness, of course, comes at a price, and Superintendent Hite details the cost of greatness in the Action Plan v2.0 Financial Supplement: Getting to Great.  The document lays out the case for additional support and shows how little is invested in Philadelphia students compared to other Pennsylvania districts.  To provide "a minimum amount of improved and sustained educational opportunities for our students and families" Hite seeks $320 million in recurring revenues going forward.  (Yes, that is on top of years of local tax increases to fill past school budget gaps.)  Of that new money, approximately $80 million would be used to pay increasing costs of pension and charter-school growth.  About $240 million would go toward additional supports to schools.

It’s not enough.  That’s Hite’s big but.

In the Financial Supplement, Hite concludes, "However, to be clear, the additional $320 million in new recurring revenues will not provide the District, our schools, our students, or the charter sector the sufficient resources to fully implement the activities identified in Action Plan v2.0.  It does not allow us to do all of the hard work necessary to turnaround each school and get to great.  Getting to great requires more."

How can you show us a plan and then tell us that you already know that it cannot succeed as written?

If Action Plan v2.0 is not a workable blueprint for success, then we need to know how to move forward.  Of course, money is not the only input required to improve our schools, but as one cannot make bricks without straw, I’m inclined to believe that additional financial resources can make a positive difference.  If that is the case, we need to know the price tag.  We need to know how we might have to change our civic priorities as expressed through public budgets to make the plan succeed.  We need to know what it’s going to take to make all our schools great and we need to know what we have to do to make it happen.

Urban planner Daniel Burnham famously admonished, "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized."

In a political system where so many competing needs fight for funding, there has never -- ever -- been a funding request where advocates have asked for a little and then received a lot.  It is much more common for advocates to lay out the ideal only to have that "wish list" pared down.  If Hite asks for $320 million, he is likely to receive much less and if the true need is many times that ask, then what he is likely to receive might be totally ineffective in moving schools to greatness.

Show us what it will take to be great and what it will cost to get there.  It's the only way to stir our blood and move us to action.

Don’t show us a big but.