Low-achieving schools could be turned into charter schools or handed over to outside management. Underperforming charters could be closed. Elected boards would be replaced by appointed ones in failing districts.
Hundreds of Pennsylvania's public schools could be affected by these measures if legislation introduced last month by State Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola (R., Dauphin) is enacted.
Piccola's Education Empowerment Act is the latest legislative attempt to improve low-scoring schools. It would replace a more limited law of the same name that expires in June.
The legislation is part of new efforts to recalibrate how states and districts overhaul struggling schools. It would not apply to the Philadelphia district or its charter schools because a 2001 state-takeover law gave the city's School Reform Commission similar powers.
The current empowerment act, an early effort at identifying the most academically and financially distressed schools and putting the worst under state control, provides extra funding to the most troubled districts. Piccola's proposal would not do that, but would focus on giving local boards more power to change how schools operate.
"We have assessments and curriculum and data systems in place. Now we need to apply these new tools to districts that are struggling," said Piccola, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "The opportunity to get something significant accomplished is at hand."
There's no timetable for when his proposal might get to a vote, but hearings in the Republican-controlled state Senate are already under way. While the bill has drawn criticism from the state school boards association and the largest teachers union, all sides say they are hopeful an accommodation can be reached. James Roebuck (D., Phila.), chairman of the House Education Committee, said he might introduce his own version of the bill.
Piccola said much of his proposal builds on academic gains in Philadelphia during the last decade, which he attributed to opening dozens of charters and turning schools over to education-management organizations.
But Timothy Allwein, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said, "I don't think you will find a whole lot of research that turning a school into a charter or turning it over to a management company has led to a lot of progress."
Several studies say children in Philadelphia charters and schools run by management groups scored no better on tests than those in district-run schools. Supporters contend that charters and management companies often work with the lowest-performing children and have helped them make big gains.
Jim Testerman, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, also has problems with Piccola's proposal.
"The law overreaches," he said. "I think it will end up being disruptive in communities and school districts where good things are already happening for kids."
Among the law's provisions is a ban on strikes in districts failing to meet state academic standards for two years or more. That would now apply to 19, including Southeast Delco, Norristown, William Penn, and Chester Upland. Philadelphia is the only Pennsylvania district without the right to strike.
In districts or schools failing to meet state math or reading targets for even one year, school boards could turn schools into charters by a majority vote. That would now apply to 31 districts and about one in five of the state's 3,115 schools, some in high-achieving districts like North Penn, Wallingford-Swarthmore, and Wissahickon. Under current law, more than half a school's teachers and parents have to vote for turning it into a charter.
In districts failing to meet state standards two years in a row, boards could hire a nonprofit or for-profit education-management organization to run the whole district or some schools. They could also install performance-based pay for teachers, offer extra money in areas with teacher shortages, and assign teachers to schools or classes regardless of seniority.
Those and other provisions could be put in place only if they did not violate a district's union contract.
If a school fails to meet state goals for five consecutive years, parents could petition for it to be closed, turned into a charter, or run by an education-management organization. The state Education Department would make the final call. There are 90 such schools outside Philadelphia statewide, including 18 in the city's suburbs.
Charter schools outside Philadelphia failing to meet state test targets four years in a row could be immediately closed by a school board vote. That would apply to 11 of 70 charter schools now.
Lawrence Jones, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools, said he liked much about Piccola's proposal, but objected to closing charters based only on test results.
"To take this blanket action without looking at other indicators or giving the schools a chance to show what educational options they provide would be mistaken," he said.
Boards in districts failing to meet state standards for eight years or more would be replaced by a three-person appointed commission, with the governor and local officials picking members.
Chester Upland and Harrisburg would get new boards immediately; Norristown, William Penn, and a half-dozen others would get them if they failed to meet benchmarks for a few more years.
Charlotte Hummel, president of the William Penn school board, said her Delaware County district's schools needed more resources, not new governing rules.
"I can't tell you how distressing it is to look at a kid whose future is being determined by his zip code because of inadequate funding," she said, "and then they come back and hit us with a hammer because the child is failing."