State considers new plan to take over poorly performing schools

The state Senate early Monday approved a plan to establish the Achievement School District, which would be run by a board appointed by the governor and Senate and House leaders.

Poor-performing schools would stay in the district for at least five years. Funding would come from the home districts of the students.

The new board would be required to take at least one of several actions, including replacing the principal and at least half of the professional staff; converting the school to a charter school; contracting with an education management service provider; or closing the school.

The bill, called the Educational Opportunity and Accountability Act, is the latest of a series of attempts by the state to address chronically troubled schools.

The latest bill would address particular schools, rather than entire districts.

If approved, in December, the state Department of Education would publish a list of schools that are in the bottom 5 percent of elementary or secondary schools as measured by School Performance Profiles, which provides a score of zero to 100 plus extra credit based largely on test scores.

If a cybercharter school is on the list, then its charter may not be renewed.

The schools that would be taken over would need to be in the bottom 1 percent of elementary or secondary schools for two consecutive years, the bottom 5 percent for three consecutive years. A school could also be transferred to the Achievement School District if more than half of the parents sign a petition asking for the transfer.

The school boards or the School Reform Commission of such schools would be able to contract for education management services, hire professional and senior management personnel who are not state-certified, close or reconstitute the school and suspend professional employees without regard to seniority.

In cases in which schools have poor performance in consecutive years, the intervention schools could become part of the new statewide district.

After a school is selected for the new district, the executive director would establish a volunteer community community advisory committee including local parents and other residents.

The Senate Appropriations Committee fiscal note on the bill said Achievement School District will cost about $1 million in 2015-16, including startup costs and five employees.

The legislation has received mixed reactions.

David Broderic, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the bill contains a “whole laundry list of policy approaches that have been tried and proven to fail in Pennsylvania.”

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said, “I think it has been determined in the past that the state really isn’t in the business of running schools. I don’t think it has worked well. We hope there could be a more positive way to work to improve schools, to work together with the community and the teachers and the students.”

However, Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCAN — the Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now, part of national network 50CAN — which advocates for high-performing charter and other public schools, praised the bill.

“We think this demonstrates a very serious commitment from the Senate that there needs to be accountability for schools that are chronically underperforming. I’m hopeful this will be paired with a new funding formula and more dollars that drive through that formula,” he said.

He said the bill, among other things, makes it easier to close low-performing charter schools.

Source: Eleanor Chute / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette