Street tells tales out of school

Mayor John Street couldn’t help grinning when he talked about the protracted negotiations between the School Reform Commission and the company set to take over 45 schools next month.

He called it "the ultimate destruction of the myth."

The two sides ultimately reached a $37.5-million deal July 31, but not before the private education managers got a taste of running urban schools on a shoestring budget, Street said.

"It was all right for the district to be criticized for not being able to educate a student body of 220,000 children that speaks four different languages and almost 80 percent of which is eligible for a free lunch," the mayor said. "It was all right when people held the district to a standard of accountability."

On Friday, Street, SRC commissioner Sandra Dungee Glenn and Secretary of Education Debra Kahn held a roundtable discussion with a small group of media members on the state of Philadelphia’s public schools.

The School District of Philadelphia is "light years ahead today" of where it was a few months ago, or even a year ago, Street proclaimed. He also showed excitement about the hiring of new school district CEO Paul Vallas. Yet the mayor tempered that optimism with a prediction of doom and gloom for Edison Schools, Inc. — the education management organization set to run 20 of the city’s schools — as well as the state’s ability to fund the system.

The mayor went so far as to predict Edison could be out of business by the end of the year because of financial problems, "not because of the Philadelphia contract, but because of its various activities all around [the country] … the poster child for privatized profit-making education is going to be out of the picture."

Street seemed to gloat at this prospect. He referred to the stand he took last November against Gov. Mark Schweiker’s plan to let Edison run the whole district. In what some perceived as a bizarre move at the time, Street relocated his City Hall office to the school district administration building at 21st and Winter streets and vowed to single-handedly "fight privatization from this building every single day."

He called it "one of my uglier speeches in life," but still feels it was effective.

"We were a whisker away from signing a huge contract for Edison to be running our schools," Street said. "To my dying day, I will take credit for having stopped it in its tracks."

A spokesperson for Edison said the mayor is "absolutely wrong" about the future of the company.

"That [negative] attitude has been prevalent with the mayor for quite some time," said Edison’s Adam Tucker. "It is of no surprise. I think he and others who are hoping for Edison’s demise or simply don’t want us there will be pleasantly surprised throughout the year."

As of Tuesday, the company’s stock had reached an all-time low of 46 cents per share. The company is concerned about its market value, Tucker said, but he added that it’s only one indicator of the financial health of a business.

Beyond the financial issues, the U.S. Department of Education announced last week it would begin an investigation into how Edison was awarded its contract to operate 20 schools. U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah sent a letter to acting Inspector General John P. Higgins requesting the federal government review last month.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Bob Casey Jr. is conducting a separate review into the process through which former Gov. Tom Ridge paid Edison $2.7 million for the company to conduct a 60-day review of the School District of Philadelphia a year ago.

"Frankly, I wish people would stop focusing on Edison," Tucker said, "and focus on the kids of Philadelphia."

The SRC agreed on a contract with Edison and the other education management organizations to take over some of the district’s lowest-performing schools last month. Prior to that agreement, Edison already was busy preparing for the coming school year, Tucker said.

The company will have trained 500 teachers and more than 120 administrators and principals by the end of this month. Edison is also in the process of delivering computers and textbooks to the schools, Tucker said.

Edison will run two South Philly schools beginning Sept. 5 — James Alcorn Elementary School, 32nd and Dickinson streets, and Norris S. Barratt Middle School, 16th and Wharton streets.

Should Edison fold, there is a backup plan.

"The district will continue to run those schools like we have every year until now," said SRC commissioner Glenn.

Aside from his shots at Edison, Street did not have many kind words for the state either at last week’s roundtable.

"The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania does not do a good job of funding public education," he summed up.

Philadelphia is one of 18 to 25 school districts in the state that will face serious financial problems without more funding from the state, the mayor maintained. He blamed state politicians for creating the funding gap over the course of many years by implementing what he believes to be a flawed formula of subsidizing schools.

Street commended Schweiker’s efforts, however. He praised the governor’s ability to squeeze $75 million for school funding from the Harrisburg politicians, especially during a gubernatorial election year.

"Ten years from now … I will be thanking Governor Schweiker for giving his word and keeping his word," the mayor said. "He never for one second retreated from his commitment to the children of Philadelphia. He treated them like children of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

Street also took some comfort in promises from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed Rendell to make statewide tax reforms happen and reduce differences in state funding among school districts. But Rendell has to be elected first.

One tax reform Street does not want to see is a state-imposed cut in the city wage tax. There are currently two bills in the state legislature that would reduce the Philadelphia wage tax. The prime sponsor of one of those bills is state Sen. Vince Fumo.

Fumo introduced the legislation in April while the mayor was battling City Council’s own plan to cut taxes. When the mayor acquiesced and signed the bill, Fumo backed off his legislation briefly, only to begin pushing for it again over the summer.

Fumo’s proposed 23-percent tax cut is greater than City Council’s. He contends Philadelphia can afford the loss in revenue because the city is underestimating its tax revenue for the coming fiscal year and the city budget returned a $36-million surplus last year.

The bill passed the Senate on June 26 by a 45-4 vote. The House of Representatives will consider the bill next month.

Street suggested such legislation is shortsighted and an election-year ploy. He made an ominous prediction if the cuts become law.

"If those bills are passed and implemented," he said, "my advice to you is, move. This city cannot survive it."