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This is do-or-die week at the Philadelphia School District.

This is the week that will decide whether the reforms sought by Superintendent William Hite will be put in place or go by the wayside, as so many efforts have in the past.

The superintendent has to move quickly because this is the week principals across the district engage in the process called “leveling,” filling vacancies that have occurred since the school year began. It is an annual dance that results in the shifting of a thousand-plus teachers.

Under the old contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, principals had to pick those teachers on the basis of seniority.

The district is seeking to end seniority-based assignments and replace it with a system where the principal and sometimes school committees get final say over who fills vacancies.

The old PFT contract expired on Aug. 31. Under Act 46, the state takeover law, the School Reform Commission has the power to impose a new assignment system, plus make changes in other work rules.

Ironically, the importance of these work rule changes has gotten overshadowed by the furious debate over school funding, layoffs, levels of state aid and lack of key personnel in the schools. This is where all the heat, the harsh rhetoric — and the ink — have been focused.

Take one step back from the fracas, though, and two issues emerge: one temporal and one structural.

The temporal problem is a serious one: lack of money. A steep and sudden decline in state and federal aid that began in 2010 swamped the district and nearly sank it. “How to Get Hit With a $700-million Deficit and Survive,” would be the title on this chapter in the district’s history.

And a long chapter it has been.

Mostly, the district has downsized to erase the deficit.  In 2009, the year before the deficit arrived it had 22,670 employees. Today, it has under 17,000.

The district has also sought help from government entities, with little luck. The city of Philadelphia has raised taxes three times in the last three years to raise additional money for the district.  The state, which provides the largest share of aid, has been less than helpful.  The administration of Gov. Tom Corbett has shown little interested in filling the money gap it created with major cuts in education subsidies it made statewide in 2010.

The district also has turned to its employees to give at the office by agreeing to wage-and-benefit reductions.  It got blue-collar employees to ante up, mostly under the threat of out-sourcing their jobs to contractors.  It has asked the district’s teachers to take a 10 percent pay cut plus begin pay a portion of their health care, but they have steadfastly refused.

That three-paragraph summary of pain and suffering tells only half the story.

The district also has serious structural problems, far more damaging in the long run than its financial difficulties.

The way schools operate has changed little in the last 30 years. Every aspect of life within the schools is governed by either contract restrictions, court agreements or long-established tradition, which combine to thwart attempts to take action –whether that be to discipline a student, to fire an incompetent teacher, to change the length of the school day, even down to how subjects are taught and who has role in ensuring safety in the hallways.

Hite is seeking to deal with the structural problems by changing the work rules that govern school operations. The details are many, but the ideas behind them are not: he wants to give more power and more flexibility to the principal. At the same time, he wants to make the principal responsible for the school’s performance.

Right now, principals can point to restrictive structural impediments as an excuse for why his or her students are not doing well.  Hite wants to remove those impediments, at least those under his power to change.

There is a bigger idea behind these proposals, one that — once again — gets lost in the din of rhetoric.

Hite wants to make the schools more competitive.

He believes that with these changes district schools can begin to offer themselves as viable, even desirable, alternatives to the growing array of other educational options out there, ranging from bricks-and-mortar charter schools, to Catholic schools, to cybercharters.

Regardless of what you think about charters — and most public school advocates despise them — you have to admit they have eaten the public schools’ lunch. Since they began to open in the early 2000’s, parents have flocked to charters. The 84 charters in the city now enroll 56,000 students, most of them refugees from district schools.  There is pent up demand for more charter seats — there are 30,000 names on waiting lists — that has been stymied by the district’s financial crisis.

By trying to implement these structural changes, Hite actually is the best friend the public system has. He is seeking to save it from itself and the gravitational forces that could, within the next decade, reduce the district to a small island of district-run schools set in a vast sea of competitors.

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished. Hite has been vilified as anti-union, anti-teacher, and a tool of dark forces seeking to destroy public education.

The conspiracy theorists overlook the fact that public educators really don’t need outside help in undermining confidence in the schools because they have done such a good job of it themselves.

The most recent evidence, according to scores released last week, is the lackluster performance of district schools on the latest state standardized tests. Performance was down from the previous year. Less than half the students were ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in reading and math, which means that more than half have only a tenuous — or even no — grasp of basic skills.

My feeling is that Hite, who is new to Philadelphia, has been propelled by a belief that if he tries hard enough he can convince the PFT to agree to the changes he is seeking.  That he can get the tools he needs at the contract table, at least when it comes to the work rules, without going through the messy politics of imposing.

If he believes that, he is kidding himself. The PFT is not built for change. Union President Jerry Jordan has already show a willingness to sacrifice his laid off members rather than make any economic concessions.  His core constituency — the 20 to 30 percent who show up and vote in union elections — are hardliners who would rather deny the new reality of competition rather than deal with it. To them, compromise is treason.

That leaves Hite with two options: use the powers granted him under Act 46 and impose the work rule changes or try to get the union to agree to the needed changes across the bargaining table. He may see Option B as a realistic hope.  I see it as a delusion.

He should impose now.


Cover Photo: Superintendent William Hite.

Source: The Associated Press