A five-member team called the School Reform Commission (SRC) is now in charge of making sure that more than 200,000 Philadelphia public school students get the education they deserve. Not an easy task, considering the angry debates and media hoopla which has dogged the issue of what to do with the city’s poor-performing schools. Sitting on the commission as one of two citizen volunteers appointed by Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street is Michael Masch, vice president for Budget and Management Analysis at Penn. (The other three SRC members are appointed by Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker.)
A Philadelphia native, Masch knows the school system well. He not only served as a member of the former Philadelphia Board of Education, but he also graduated from and sent his two sons to Philadelphia public schools. In the early ’90s he served as city budget director in the administration of Mayor Ed Rendell.
Still, with all of his know-how, Masch has a challenging job ahead as all eyes now track the progress of the SRC, which was formed by Schweiker and Street after much controversy.
We asked Masch what’s ahead for the newly formed SRC, which had by then already met twice. And we wanted to know the difference between running the city’s and the University’s budget.
Q. What is on the SRC’s agenda?
A. The story is this. Half of our kids cannot read at grade. Two-thirds of our kids cannot do math at grade and the results get worse the older kids get, the farther they go along through the system. Plus, we have significant dropout rates in the upper grades. So some of the worse performing kids are not even in the sample. That is the fundamental challenge that we face in running the School District of Philadelphia. How can we improve academic achievement? And that is fundamental because in our society…there is no economic opportunity without academic achievement. The two are absolutely linked to one another.
We need to hire a new chief executive officer to lead the system, and we’re committed to doing that as fast as we possibly can. But this is a $2.5 billion public corporation with an enormous challenge in front of it, so recruiting the right person is not something we can do overnight.
Also, while we’re not certain of all the details yet, it’s clear that we’re committed to giving parents a more diverse set of choices in terms of where and how kids can get a public education in Philadelphia. One of the new choices that we’re looking at is having the School District directly contract with educational management organizations, which might be nonprofit or for-profit, to run specific schools. It may be new schools. It may be some of our existing schools, particularly those that have not been performing that well.
Q. How will you decide what contracts go to whom?
A. In Philadelphia we have certain parts of the government where services are delivered primarily by employees. In other departments, much of the service delivery is performed by nonprofit organizations—and sometimes by for-profits—that contract with those departments. So the School District is not starting out with a blank slate in terms of figuring out how to contract with private entities to deliver public services. There are very elaborate mechanisms already worked out that can help determine who you contract with, what the contract should look like, [and] how you [should] evaluate the performance of contractors. The School District is now moving to a model in which it will have staff expertise and sound procedures for the contracting of services as well as for the direct hiring and supervision of staff. We do that in lots of other places in the government already. We know how to do it.
Of course I recognize that there are people who care deeply about our kids and our schools who think that no school operation should be contracted out, ever, to anyone. But in fact, this change in public education has already happened in Philadelphia. We already have 39 charter schools operating in Philadelphia. Each of them is basically an independent public school, funded with taxpayer money, [and] open to all kids in the system. We also have—it’s not generally well-known—we have running for two years now in the School District a school run by a private, for-profit company. It’s a special school for high school kids with disciplinary problems, …and the results have so far been very good.
Q. Any hesitation in stepping into such a highly politicized role?
A. If I thought it was going to be political, then I wouldn’t have agreed to serve. I think that the School Reform Commission has some very exciting potential to model a new way in which the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and City of Philadelphia can relate to each other. It has not been good for Philadelphia or Pennsylvania that our political leaders have been in conflict with one another rather than be in common cause.
I am well aware that some people are cynical and don’t think that the kind of partnership I’m describing can succeed. But I also know that many, many elected officials in Harrisburg and in City Hall are deeply and sincerely troubled that our urban public schools are failing to reach so many of our young people. If we can earn their confidence that we are serious about change and tough enough and competent enough to make change happen, I believe we will have their support.
Mayor Street often notes that the Philadelphia school system is nowhere near as bad as its critics say, but it is also nowhere near as good as it needs to be. [This is] a very important statement because it recognizes that there are many classrooms today in Philadelphia where magic is happening. There are many, many dedicated and talented teachers. There are thousands of kids who want to learn and who are learning, sometimes overcoming great obstacles in order to do so.
So on the SRC we have to observe the Hippocratic Oath. First, do no further harm. We need to preserve everything good that is happening and build on it.
There were things that cynics in Philadelphia believed in the past were impossible. They didn’t believe we could have a balanced budget, they didn’t believe we could cut city tax rates, they didn’t believe that quality of life in the city could improve. But in the Rendell administration we proved those cynics wrong, so I will be very happy to prove the cynics wrong again.
Q. How do you compare working with Penn’s budget and the city budget?
A. Figuring out how you’re going to help people who would otherwise be homeless on the street is different from making the next breakthrough on research in genomics, but both are incredibly important in terms of the advancement of society.
The challenge in the city is dealing with great human needs and very limited resources. The challenge at Penn is a very different kind of challenge. How can we collectively realize as many of our aspirations as possible? Judy [Rodin] will always say, Can we do this? I say, You can do that, but you have to choose. We’re a growing institution, growing in size and complexity and quality. That’s what the Agenda for Excellence is all about. Not bigger, but better.
Q. Can you explain your loyalty to the city of Philadelphia?
A. Like many people who grew up in Philadelphia, I can’t find many reasons why I want to leave. It’s got enough culture and vitality to be interesting. It really is a city of neighborhoods. For someone like me who’s lived in the same neighborhood for over 30 years, I have an immense network of enormously close friends who are an irreplaceable community who I would not want to be without.
Originally published on February 21, 2002