Read the probing coverage The Patriot-News has given to the foibles and follies that taint and tatter the Harrisburg School Board, and the way the schools have been run reminds of Einstein’s definition of insanity. Review the history of various operating approaches, and it resembles a familiar set of instructions – local control, state takeover, wash, rinse, and repeat.
Time for everyone to acknowledge how deep-rooted and enduring the problems are. This is not a simple misdemeanor of being sloppy in keeping the books. Although in light of administrators fighting doggedly against a full access audit, the financial records must not be pretty. The complaint list of financial irregularities, managerial incompetence, featherbedding, student deficiencies, teacher turnover, and abysmal graduation rates adds up to a sobering indictment of the structure. Contrary to the reflexive standard solution for education woes, this one cannot be solved by backing up the state Brinks truck and dropping off bags of cash. Per pupil spending is already on the high side.
Given the documented challenges in urban classrooms, teacher turnover is no surprise. What is remarkable is the cadre of committed teachers who stick it out in the face of discouraging working conditions and unfair criticism. Honorable mention must also be made of experienced teachers who transfer into the district, despite the negative reviews. Without question, substantial improvements in operations would help with retention of students and instructors.
While the notion of a state receiver is gaining considerable traction among community leaders and commentators, that approach has limitations. A state receiver could straighten out the finances, but how about the persistent low student scores and high teacher turnover, a much tougher recovery road? A generation ago, a city takeover seemed the necessary tonic for improving the schools. Measurable improvements were made in facilities and technology, but desired student progress and financial stabilization went unrealized.
District defenders argue that outsiders have no vested interest, just a misplaced sense of superiority. There is natural tension between those with oversight responsibility and local citizens who aspire to the chance to run things better, such as candidates seeking to oust school board incumbents.
Regaining public trust is imperative. The public has been burned on multiple occasions by city government, by the school board, and by outside experts. Remember the incinerator debacle, which trashed reputations and scorched taxpayers, residents, and commuters? That still haunting nightmare means folks are suspicious of claims any agency or individual truly knows better, is fully committed to the student interest, and is immune to policy malpractice.
People unfamiliar with the peculiarities of Pennsylvania politics might think a promising remedy is merging Harrisburg with one or more surrounding school districts. In theory, yes. In reality, the odds of that happening are equivalent to President Trump praising Hillary Clinton, launching a crusade to counteract climate change, and welcoming immigrants from every nation in a White House ceremony.
Then what about putting more voices in the mix, diluting the petty politics and personal feuds that seem to preoccupy the current school board? Instead of spending more time on the eternal debate over the merits and defects of local versus state control, create a blended board that emphasizes expertise. Declare an educational emergency and put all the interests in the lifeboat. Build off the model of trustee boards for colleges and universities. Create a control board that includes representatives from the city, the rest of Dauphin County, and state government. Everyone has input, and everyone shares in responsibility. From the city, there could be a slot for an administrator, a teacher, a special education advocate, a curriculum designer, a student, a parent, and a businessperson. A parallel lineup would be filled from the rest of Dauphin County. Then three individuals would be designated by the state to provide expert guidance on law, policy, and finance, to referee the discussions, and to round up consensus.
The governor would designate the state members. A panel for screening and selecting local members of this board or commission or educational SWAT team or whatever we care to call the entity could include the mayor, the state senator, the state representatives serving Dauphin County districts, and association representatives from the school boards, teachers, and business administrators.
In each instance, this is just a possible configuration. Such a step does not erase local control, but leavens it with external accountability. Educational politics will replace electoral politics. It recognizes that school problems do not get off the bus at the city line. They clearly spill over into surrounding districts.
History shows this. Back when Governor Tom Ridge was pushing vigorously for Pennsylvania to adopt school choice, resistance was strong in the districts surrounding Harrisburg. While suburban school officials publicly pled no room and no resources to accommodate more students, they were really telegraphing political reluctance to accept an influx of city students. Disingenuous, because they were quietly enrolling city kids, but ones they wanted, rather than ones sent by Harrisburg parents newly empowered.
Non-negotiable in any new entity should be establishing and exercising a high standard of transparency, meaning spirit-of-the-law full compliance with Sunshine and open records requirements. Again, with an eye toward that all-important trust factor.
Of course, education traditionalists will consider any suggestion of a hybrid board as high heresy or insane. But how crazy is it to stick with the standard prescriptions, while another generation of students suffers because the adults cannot get it right?
Somehow, there has never been much alarm over what a disgrace it is to have a shambles of a school district in the state capital. With 500 school districts reflecting regional variables, we ought to recognize that they will not be uniformly manageable and successful. Energy and effort should be poured into initiatives that change the dynamic in the Harrisburg school district toward achievable and acceptable progress, instead of protecting prerogatives and protesting necessary reform.
David Atkinson is an Associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.