Philadelphia Metropolis


Ackerman's Final Days?

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The gossip about  Arlene Ackerman's fate is so much fun, I hate to step into the matter with some facts.

For starters, it is clear that Ackerman is on her way out. Having worked assiduously over the last three years to piss everyone off, she has succeeded in backing herself into a corner even with the School Reform Commission, which hired her and has the power to fire her.

That body, finally awakening from its comatose state, is said to be negotiating a buy-out package  Ackerman is rallying the troops and has vowed to stay and fight for the children, God bless 'em.  But my guess is she is kicking and screaming as a bargaining point, so as to increase her severence. She is likely to leave with $1 million plus, and a lot of folks in town will be happy to pay it just for the privilege of seeing her depart. with the school superintedent.

The instant cause of the SRC's unhappiness was an Ackerman plan to continue her process of taking the lowest of low-performing schools and turning them into something called Promise Academies, where additional resources and staff would be deployed to improve student performance.

Promise Academies were the central part of Ackerman's plan for Philadelphia.  And for this school year she wanted to designate 11 schools as such.

The SRC had a problem with that.  They felt that since the district had taken a $650 million hit on its budget that it could not afford 11.  It scaled the number back to three.

Ackerman was not amused.  Used to getting her way, she was AWOL from a recent SRC meeting and the explanations as to why varied.  Officially, it was because she was sick. Unofficially, it was because she was sick of the SRC.

Behind this spat are legit questions: Should the district continue the program it devised to improve performance in the worst schools or scale it back in the face of district-wide budget cuts? Should a relative handful of schools not only be exempt from the cuts all other schools will be facing this year, but actually see an increase in their funding?

Would a continued expansion of Promise Academies be done at the expense of other schools?

There is no denying that Promise Academies are expensive.  I took a look at the budgets of the district's high schools for last year (2010-2011 before the budget cuts and found disparities between what Promise Academy high schools got versus regular and special admissions high schools.

That analysis showed that neighborhood high schools were allocated an average of $9,198 to spend per pupil, compared to an average of $6,884 for the special admission schools.  Meanwhile, University City High School, then in its first year as a Promise Academy, was allocated $16, 986 per pupil.

(This analysis does not include money for sports, most extra-curricular activities or new textbooks, which are centrally allocated by the district. Click here for a list of the high schools and their 2010-2011 per pupil allocation.)

Naturally, these numbers will change in the upcoming school year - with most of the allocations going down due to shrinkage of the district budget.

When you have the luxury of surplus, as the district did for the last six years or so, questions about fairness of allocation of resources don't have the edge they do today, when the district's budget has taken a 20 percent hit.

Let me add one caveat: the budget figures quoted above are based on school district documents relating to funding for each school.  In those documents, the district allocates a set amount for each teacher -- $75,000 - but what teachers are actually paid varies.

Schools with teachers with more seniority (you could use Central High School as an example) actually spend more money on their teachers than a school such as University City.)

But, even accounting for those differences, University City still got more money per pupil than Central. A lot more.

There is cheaper alternative to district-run Promise Academies.  Lately, Ackerman has been "charterizing" some public schools, handing them over to willing charter providers to run.  It did it last year at Stetson Middle School (with very promising results, as you can see by clicking here).  It is doing it this year with Olney High School.

Charter operators run these schools for less than district schools. This is an option a new superintendent, whoever is crazy enough to take the job, might want to examine as a way to boost performance among low-performing districtschools without breaking the bank in the process.

-- Tom Ferrick





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