Philadelphia schools are back in the spotlight with the Pennsylvania Legislature apparently unable to agree on a tax bill to fund a shortfall in the city schools budget. A $2-a-pack cigarette tax is the magic formula being pleaded by Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter and Schools Superintendent William Hite, but it has not been enough to convince the State legislature to vote the measure into law. Philadelphia City Council and Mayor Nutter are Democrats while the State Legislature’s Republican majority apparently is divided over tacked-on amendments to the bill. The mood among some House members does not seem to be one of overwhelming urgency. House Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph said a compromise could be reached “once we’re back in session.” That would be September 15, a week after the official start to the school year.

Would it be a tragedy if schools were delayed a week? Perhaps not, but this seems to be another skirmish on a ship that is not sinking but definitely needs to change course. The city’s schools have been rising and Governor Tom Corbett (R) on Wednesday criticized the city teachers union for not making enough concessions. Schools are being closed but costs continue to escalate. But it goes deeper than just what share of the pie should go to the school system. Philadelphia seems to have become the battleground in the debate over education reform.

One can begin with the fact that Philadelphia city school kids, on average, are performing below national levels. After this point, there is very little agreement between opposing groups on how to achieve a solution. In one corner sits – or stands shouting is more like it – is Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education under Bush padre and Clinton. After being part of the education reform movement, she made an about face four years ago and is now vehemently against voucher systems and teacher merit pay and insists the public school system does well by international standards and when it doesn’t, those standards don’t matter anyway. As you can expect she states “the best predictor of low academic performance is poverty – not bad teachers.” Her opponent is former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. If Ravitch is about collaboration, increasing taxes and hard-nosed teachers unions; then Rhee is about competition and merit, and performance. Both have spoken in Philadelphia in the last year or so, both recognize the city’s schools as a battleground in the debate on how to improve public education. So if the State Legislature takes a few weeks to decide how to fund a school system that seems to be failing, maybe it’s not such a great tragedy if Philadelphia schools open a week late.

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