The state's takeover threat arose out of two long-standing crises in the Philadelphia schools: financial problems and low academic achievement. The fiscal crisis came to a head this August when the School District lacked enough cash to meet payroll.
Philadelphia's financial crunch can be directly attributed to a state school funding formula that is one of the most inequitable in the country. Legal and political efforts to address issues of funding equity in Pennsylvania have so far failed. A federal civil rights suit against the state is on hold while the state and city negotiate.
The state stepped in with extra cash in August to bail out the district as part of a deal between then-Governor Tom Ridge and Philadelphia Mayor John Street. That deal says that after a period of study and then negotiation, the city and state must reach agreement on a solution to the district's academic and financial woes by Nov. 30, or the state will take full control of the 210,000-student district.
It was no surprise that privatization was part of the ensuing package put forward by the state. The governor's views were well known. While he failed in three efforts over two terms to establish a voucher program, then-Governor Ridge was relentless in promoting nonpublic education and free market strategies for school change.
Pennsylvania, for example, adopted a charter school law in 1997, and with support from the state there has been a charter school boom in Philadelphia. There are currently 40 charter schools in the city, half the state's total. Last spring the state legislature passed a law that, in one measure, established a tax credit for corporate contributions to private school scholarships, began a "voucher" plan for students in low-performing schools to purchase after-school tutoring, and established a new creature - "independent schools" - that are even freer from public oversight and regulation than charters.