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July 31, 2014, 9:34 am

Consultancy offers no new info to District

The Boston Consulting Group — the firm hired by the School District of Philadelphia to perform a forensic-level examination of the district’s finances and operations — has released its findings, which only confirm what many education experts have said all along: The public education system, as currently constituted, is broken, and drastic fixes are necessary to ensure its survival.

Chief among those fixes is the BCG’s support for the District’s Facilities Master Plan — which calls for the closure of dozens of schools, incorporating a “decentralized portfolio management model” and procuring more support for charter school authorization.

“The number of students enrolled in District-operated schools has decreased from approximately 193,000 students in 2003 to approximately 152,000 in 2012 (a decline of roughly 21 percent). Meanwhile, enrollment in charters has increased by more than 150 percent, from approximately 20,000 in 2003 to 52,000 today. Yet the District’s facilities footprint has remained largely unchanged,” read in part the findings by the BCG. “We estimate that the School District of Philadelphia could close 40–50 schools in the near-term. This would increase its facilities utilization from 72 percent to 90 percent or greater and would save $32 million to $40 million a year in operating costs, depending on the size and types of facilities closed.

“In addition, these analyses are based on today’s utilization level. Over the next five years, the number of seats in free-standing, lottery-based charter schools and cyber charters is anticipated to increase by roughly 21,000,” the report continued. “If students switch from District-operated to charter schools at rates similar to the past, SDP’s enrollment is likely to drop by another 15,000 students. To maintain utilization at 85 percent would necessitate the closure of an additional 15 to 20 schools over the next five years.”

Those numbers generally jibe with the number of closures suggested in the five-year Blueprint for Transforming Public Schools, in which Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen reported the district will need to close as many as 60 schools to remain operational.

The findings from the BCG will fuel the public–charter school debate, as it reports that charter school enrollment is trending upward while traditional public school attendance is plummeting. The BGC says it would be in the district’s best financial interest to embrace this trend by further expanding the charter school program.

“Charter Schools Office predicts that the charter sector will grow by another 32,000 seats by the 2016–17 school year, at which point charters would educate about 40 percent of Philadelphia’s public school population,” read BCG’s findings. “Without major changes, this expansion would create more than $500 million in cumulative incremental costs over the next five years. Given the fiscal impact, SDP needs to take a more strategic approach to the charter school sector.” BCG suggested the district do this by moving students from low- to high-performing schools and utilizing methods such as catchment areas to limit the financial burden on the district.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan disagrees, and sees charter school expansion as a direct threat to traditional public schools — which is where Jordan believes the support is most severely needed.

“Yet, despite (barely) acknowledging that charter school proliferation is bankrupting our school district, the Boston Consulting Group’s recommendations for Philadelphia’s schools suggests that we stay on the current course,” Jordan wrote on his blog. “For $4 million, the School Reform Commission received a boilerplate menu of silver bullet education reform ideas that are heavy on school closings, charter conversions and personnel strategies, but make little to no mention of what it will actually take to educate our children.

“The BCG’s plan is quick to point out schools’ low student performance (by the standards of the district’s rather unreliable Student Performance Index), but ignores key contributing factors,” Jordan continued. “There’s no recommendation for a strategy to address the extreme poverty many of our children are living in, and how that affects classroom performance.”

School Reform Commission members were unavailable for comment as of Tribune deadline.

However, BCG’s report seems to unintentionally confirm Jordan’s viewpoint, as it calls for severe austerity measures — the creation of a lean district center and the establishment of an “Achievement Network” which will privatize many school operations and services — that appear to put finances before academics.

“A system of Achievement Networks would provide customized, responsive support and guidance to smaller groups of District-run schools,” the BCG suggested. “They would serve under a performance contract with the District that would spell out the expected improvement of each network. The teams operating each network would be selected through a competitive proposal process, in which teams would describe their plan for each network.”

The BCG also suggested the District could save $28 million per year by contracting vendors and an additional $22 million a year by modernizing its operations.

“While there’s plenty of tough talk about teacher work rules and changing the compensation structure, there are no thoughts about what is needed to support, develop and retain our teachers. To be fair, the BCG didn’t actually interview any classroom teachers for its recommendations, so we shouldn’t be surprised that there are no substantive ideas to improve teaching and learning,” Jordan wrote. “The recycled education ‘reforms’ proposed by the Boston Consulting Group have been given plenty of time and freedom to work their magic in other cities. They haven’t worked, because real education reform must go way beyond tweaking a few work rules or reconfiguring the district’s organizational chart.

“The challenge of fixing our schools won’t be solved by handing the keys over to a few charter providers and private interests,” Jordan continued. “We’re seeing how that turns out.”

 

Contact staff writer Damon C. Williams at (215) 893-5745 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .