Mark Gleason testifies before PA House Democratic Policy Committee and calls for funding and policies that produce outcomes

Today, Mark Gleason, executive director of PSP, testified before the PA House Democratic Policy Committee at the invitation of Representative Brian Sims. Here is his full testimony:

Good afternoon. I would first like to extend my appreciation to Representative Sims and the other members of the Committee for holding this hearing today. There is no more important issue than education in the 21st century. It is the civil-rights issue of our time, it is the economic issue of our time, and it is the global peace-and-understanding issue of our time.

My written testimony includes some background on me, and on the Philadelphia School Partnership, a three-year-old nonprofit where I am executive director. To save time, I’m going to skip that part in my oral remarks, but I will point out that the biggest thing PSP has done so far is to contribute $29 million to create, expand or transform 26 schools in this city, which we in turn expect will create better educational opportunities for 14,000 students per year. Our critics, some of whom will speak here later today, find it suits their agenda to say we’re privatizing public education. But the truth is that $26 million of the $29 million has gone to public schools, nearly $10 million of that to district-run schools. Collectively these schools serve higher percentages of low-income, minority and special-needs students than the School District overall.

Here in Philadelphia, we are having the wrong debates about education. There is too much effort being expended to preserve a system that has failed hundreds of thousands of poor and minority students. And I mean really failed them. I mean higher dropout rates, higher rates of not going to college, lower graduation rates… all adding up to unequal economic opportunity. The saddest thing about the city where the Declaration of Independence was drafted, about the state where Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous address, is that our public education system is not giving poor and minority students an equal chance at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Here’s this past Sunday’s New York Times. “The Great Stagnation of American Education.” The article notes that for the first time in America, parents cannot expect that their children will be better educated than they were. And yet look at the political energy that has gone into stopping or slowing down change in Philadelphia. Stopping the closure of schools that parents and families have almost completely abandoned. Lambasting the superintendent for wanting to bring guidance counselors back to schools where students know them and they know the students, rather than recalling them according to seniority, as a decades-old policy called for. Calling the SRC a failure in governance even though graduation rates have risen steadily (although not nearly high enough) since it was formed.

The big question for Democrats and all Philadelphians is whether we will continue to fight to preserve a legacy system that graduates only half of its black and Latino students from high school. (By the way, that data is for Philadelphia, and it’s from the year that was the high-water mark for state funding to our local schools, under Governor Rendell.) Or will we fight to reinvent public education so that it truly produces the necessary education that all students need?

Change is hard. But we have an educational system whose results are indefensible and whose financial model is unsustainable. Change is the only option. We may not fully know which changes will make the most difference, which will transform outcomes for poor and minority students. But we have some good clues-we even have some proof points right here in Philadelphia-and we know the status quo is most definitely not working for disadvantaged students. The debate we should be having is about which changes are worth trying-not about saving a failed system.

In other fields, we have accepted the evolution of institutions. As President Obama noted in his debates with Mitt Romney, America’s army and navy look very different today than they did 40 years ago. The delivery of health care has changed dramatically. We deregulated the airline industry, and millions of fliers have benefited from the resulting competition. We deregulated the telephone industry, and accelerated the information revolution. Why in education do so many advocates continue to fight for the preservation of the behemoth school districts that have been lagging in performance relative to international benchmarks for decades now?

Teachers are, or should be, professionals. The ways we manage teachers, the ways we pay teachers, have barely changed in the last 40 years. Consider other classes of professionals, who have had to accept dramatic changes in the way they get paid. Doctors, for example, have seen dramatic changes in how they get compensated … because of costs that had become unsustainable and care that wasn’t delivering for patients. The introduction of HMOs and other evolutions in health insurance were painful for the medical profession and haven’t been universally successful, but can anyone imagine going back to the system we had 30 years ago?

Saturday I was at a picnic held at one of Philadelphia’s brand new high schools. It was an inspiring occasion: A new high school, where students will learn mainly in labs and workshops by working in teams on design and science projects, rather than in traditional lectures and classrooms. A new high school being launched for minimal financial cost, in part by being housed in an under-utilized School District building. A new high school where every student I saw was black, and where the freshman class filled up quickly even though the school didn’t start enrolling kids until June-where dozens more students are pleading to enroll but having to be turned away because the school is full. The Workshop School is a school of the future. Every single 12th grade student in the pilot version of the school last year has a job, is in the military or is in college now. We need more Workshop Schools, and the job of politicians goes way beyond providing the funding for them. We need funding and policies that take aim at the future rather than the past … that produce real-world, equal access to outcomes rather than the appearance of equal inputs that do nothing to change the disparities we see in outcomes.

  • So what are those policies? Pennsylvania needs an entirely new education funding formula:
  • One that flows money according to the needs of students, not institutions or adults
  • One that is fair and sensitive to the differing degrees of need that student populations have in different jurisdictions
  • One that doesn’t create perverse incentives to fail, that contributes to a system of holding adults accountable for helping kids learn
  • One that ensures a predictable flow of revenues to schools so that they can plan, hire and train before mid-summer, before the state legislature resolves the annual budget, for the coming school year
  • One that flows funds directly to school operators, whether they are district or charter schools

Most important, this funding formula must be phased in so that there are no big winners or losers at the start. It must be built for fairness in the long run. A formula that is hell bent on dramatically redistributing resources in the early years is doomed to die on the floors of the General Assembly.

Secondly, Pennsylvania needs a much stronger commitment to, and investment in, early childhood education. Urban schools cost so much because the majority of students enter kindergarten too far behind, and catching up is hard and expensive. Urban legislators who want better outcomes for students and suburban legislators who want to control education spending should be able to agree on the long-term merits of ensuring every child enters kindergarten ready to learn.

Finally, staffing policies for schoolteachers and administrators need to evolve. Our current policies protect adult interests-but they also contribute to inequities the same way our current funding structures do. If current policies were working, we’d see many of the city’s best, most dedicated teachers in the poorest schools. But that’s not the case. The School District’s current amalgam of staffing policies, many based on seniority and dating back 35 years or more, put schools in the toughest neighborhoods at a huge disadvantage. Ask a principal in these schools how hard it is for them to recruit the best teachers under current policies. Their answer will tell you a lot about why nearly every charter school in Philadelphia has a waiting list, and why the overwhelming majority of those charter schools is filled with low-income and minority students.

I should note that it’s not just students who leave district schools to attend charters. The majority of charter schoolteachers and leaders came there from … the School District. That’s right, many teachers voluntarily leave the district and the union in search of schools where:

…policies don’t impede teacher collaboration and strategic planning

…where teachers receive the data on how their students performed the prior year before the new school year starts

…where a union contract doesn’t protect the teachers who don’t prepare lessons and thereby make the work harder for all of their colleagues

…where bureaucracy doesn’t make routine matters like getting enough copy paper or pencils a Herculean task

…where outstanding teachers can advance in pay and responsibility even if they’re not at the top of the seniority scale.

How do we achieve important policy changes? Ours is a purple state, and that means bipartisanship is the only path to a new funding formula. It’s the only path to great preschools and early learning centers for all children. And it’s the only path to school staffing policies that provide necessary protections for adults but always keep student needs first.

Demonization will not get us there. Pushing for instant redistribution of resources-although it might appear fair-won’t get us there, because it will create political hurdles that are insurmountable. And trying to hold onto the status quo even after its expiration date has become obvious, because the unknown future scares us, won’t get us there, either.

Our kids need good schools. They need different schools. They need change, and they need it from all of us.