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Plan for schools can be improved

There are enough questions about a radical plan to restructure the Philadelphia School District to make everyone involved apprehensive. The district needs dramatic action to achieve more than incremental progress toward academic success. But too much drama risks damage rather than improvement.

The best advice for the School Reform Commission is to proceed with caution. In particular, don't let the need to address a looming $218 million budget deficit force decisions affecting the quality of education that will be regretted later.

The plan calls for closing up to 40 schools by 2013, but Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen told the Inquirer Editorial Board that the caliber of education each school produces won't be ignored in considering their physical condition. That's the right approach to take.

Critics raise valid concerns that this transformation appears to be driven more by financial needs than by academic concerns. The district hopes to save $33 million by 2017 with the school closings.

Also of concern is the rapid pace, within roughly 16 months, at which many of the children from closed schools are expected to be enrolled in charters. Will there be enough seats in quality charter schools at the time they are needed?

More than 50,000 students have fled to the district's charters in the past decade, but many of them have landed in schools that may be more attractive and safe but aren't producing discernibly different academic results.

If the SRC is going to rely more on charters, it needs to give the public greater assurance that it can provide the oversight needed to prevent a repeat of the past mismanagement and poor academic performance of some city charter schools.

Perhaps the biggest concern about the plan's success may be its reliance on major concessions from labor unions that will be difficult to negotiate. Teachers union president Jerry Jordan has already called the plan an abandonment of public education.

Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon has developed a reorganization plan that gives the individual schools more autonomy, with principals given more freedom to choose curricula and teaching styles. That makes a lot of sense in a system that has suffered from a top-down management structure that has stifled innovation.

The district's central office, already about half the size it was last year, would further shrink. Most school-related services would be shifted to "achievement network" groups of 25 or so schools, which nonprofits and individuals may bid on to operate. Such an arrangement, if implemented, will require close monitoring — something the district hasn't done too well.

Philadelphia has become accustomed to experiments in public education, and this one may be the boldest yet, which explains the angst among educators, union leaders, and parents. The SRC must make sure all those voices, as well as the voices of students, are heard.

There are no guarantees that the ambitious plan will work. But it is also clear that the current system doesn't educate most children and must be fixed.