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Draft of a Corbett plan for Chester Upland district stirs a debate

As Delaware County's Chester Upland School District descended into insolvency this winter, the Corbett administration was largely mute on its plans for a solution.

As Delaware County's Chester Upland School District descended into insolvency this winter, the Corbett administration was largely mute on its plans for a solution.

A draft legislative proposal from the governor's office made public earlier this month by several state legislators sheds more light on his views.

It calls for state takeovers of distressed districts, starting with Chester Upland and Duquesne City, that would put Philadelphia School Reform Commission-type oversight boards in place.

Those boards could cancel teachers' contracts and turn all district schools into charters.

The proposal, dated Nov. 4, is labeled a "Confidential Draft" for "fiscal distress legislation." No bill has been introduced in the legislature.

In an e-mail, state Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said the draft "was intended to be a starting point for discussions." He added: "The Governor, along with the PA Department of Education, believes all tools from the toolbox should be on the table for possible consideration."

With the recent widespread public discussion of Chester Upland's plight, he said, "we expect the heightened awareness of the problem will help expedite these discussions."

Senate Education Committee Chairman Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin) said Thursday that he hoped to introduce proposed legislation in the next few weeks, though it would not necessarily be modeled after Corbett's draft.

The Chester Upland district, dogged by state funding cuts and payments to charter schools that nearly half its students attend, was on the verge of bankruptcy until a federal judge this month ordered the state to advance it $3.2 million. The district, which was under state control from 1994 to 2010 and is now led by an elected school board, still needs about $20 million to finish the school year.

The Corbett proposal drew angry responses from several Democrats, including Andy Dinniman (D., Chester). "This proposal is designed to destroy public education in the most distressed districts," he said. "It would create a Kmart-style second-class education system in the poorest school districts in Pennsylvania. It would perpetuate a separate but unequal situation."

The suggested legislation would immediately apply to only Chester Upland and Duquesne, but Dinniman said it could become "a template" for other districts that are also running out of money.

Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents Chester Upland teachers, said: "Abrogating contracts and forcing teachers to work for less pay won't improve the academic quality in Chester Upland. If there are no more resources put into the district, it won't solve the problem."

Chester Upland school board president Wanda Mann, a Republican who has jousted with Corbett in recent months over who is responsible for the district's problems, said in a statement: "We've had 16 years of [state control] in Chester Upland and have very little to show for it, academically and financially," except for "a mountain of unpaid bills, among a host of other troublesome financial conditions that we inherited."

Even some of Corbett's staunchest allies had problems with some of the proposal.

One part would set much lower payments for students from distressed districts to the charter schools they attended or to other school districts that took them in.

Lawrence Jones, the president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said that would "risk putting charter schools into distress to bail out a district that has been mismanaged for decades. You can't save one child by hurting another." He added: "It would not be enough to give students an adequate education. This is literally robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Eller said the Education Department estimates that the payment for every Chester Upland student would be $10,000, a figure much higher than the one Dinniman came up with.

The three-person board that would govern the district, Eller said, would have one member appointed by the secretary of education and two by a Delaware County Court judge.