Tucked into a late-night school-code bill passed by the Pennsylvania Senate this week are details that some education-watchers - including the Philadelphia superintendent - say could cripple city schools.
Aimed squarely at the Philadelphia School District, the "opportunity schools" language would remove from local control up to five low-performing schools per year.
The state Department of Education would seize the struggling schools for at least three years, with the option to either turn them over to a charter or outside manager, or close them.
Both Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan on Friday sounded alarms over the provisions - which all Philadelphia senators voted for, seemingly as part of a budget deal that would bring to the district a $100 million boost in state aid.
Long wary of Philadelphia and its schools, some Harrisburg Republicans have demanded increased accountability in exchange for more funds.
Hite noted that Philadelphia has begun turnarounds - including charter conversions - at more than 30 schools in the last several years, despite extreme budget challenges.
"I do question why there is specific legislation just for Philadelphia when probably no one else in the commonwealth has turned around the number or percentage of schools we have," the superintendent said. "There's no proof that there's no will to do this here. What we haven't had is the revenue."
Hite, who said the district had trouble attracting a deep pool of charter organizations to take over three more district schools in the fall, questioned the wisdom of "just willy-nilly designating a number of schools to give to somebody or to do something with." He called it "a recipe for disaster."
Forcing the district to lose five schools per year - and possibly creating that many more charters - would deepen the financial problems that lawmakers have cited as reason to be skeptical of Philadelphia. "I do worry that their requirements will create a larger problem, or larger structural deficit than the one we're facing already," Hite said.
Jeff Sheridan, Gov. Wolf's spokesman, said the "opportunity schools" language was part of the budget compromise that the governor and the legislature had agreed on, but noted that the deal also provides record funding for school districts, including Philadelphia's.
"Not everything in this budget is something we support or like," Sheridan said. "But it's long past time for there to be a budget, and the number-one priority for the governor is the historic increase in education funding - and that will be a huge boost for the Philadelphia School District."
Jordan said at a Friday news conference that it was "outrageous that the Senate has voted to double down on this failed model." The opportunity district is a version of a model that has had mixed success in places like Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan.
The state formally took over Philadelphia schools in 2001, Jordan pointed out. If that move has not worked well, he asked, why gamble that a more intense version of takeover at some schools would work better? "We don't believe that Philadelphia's schoolchildren should be put in another failed experiment," he said.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) said that while he did not agree with all parts of the bill, "it was necessary to achieve compromise to get additional funding for Philadelphia's public schools through a Republican-controlled legislature and end the budget impasse."
City Councilwoman-elect Helen Gym, a public school parent and schools activist, joined Jordan in decrying the Senate's move.
"Harrisburg legislators are going to war with Philadelphia over its public schools," Gym said at the news conference. "The state is on a path, once again, for failure."
State opportunity schools would clash with a rising movement in Philadelphia, Gym pointed out - community schools. In that model, school turnarounds would be driven by concentrating social services and other resources inside struggling district schools.
Mayor-elect Jim Kenney, Council President Darrell L. Clarke, and the PFT have pushed hard on community schools, which they trumpet as a grassroots solution to improve schools that have long failed children. The bill awaits consideration by the House.
Inquirer staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.