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Pennsy school takeovers: Is there a real plan here?

May 16, 2000

How much time should a failing school system get to turn things around?

In Pennsylvania, the short answer seems to be: It depends on how much money is at stake. Those state lawmakers who are voting to surrender local control of systems in exchange for additional cash should spend just a little time thinking about the consequences of their actions.

The takeover of local schools will be made possible under a bill signed last week by Gov. Tom Ridge. It cites 11 school districts which have performed poorly on basic skills tests for the past two years and will provide for additional cash to raise those scores. It also provides for removing local control from at least two of those systems by as soon as this summer.

And then what? It is one thing to identify a system that is failing its students, but finding a way to turn that system around is an entirely different matter.

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In Maryland, for example, after years of threats, the state school board finally decided it was time to take over some failing Baltimore schools. But the board itself will not run the schools, but will hire private contractors to do it for them, under a plan that is anything but clear at this point.

The danger we see here is that without a well-thought-out plan that's based on real experience as opposed to educational theories, Pennsylvania may waste millions on strategies that don't work.

Perhaps worse, by ending local control of troubled systems, the parent involvement many educators feel is crucial to student success may be discouraged instead.

None of this is to say that the lawmakers involved don't have good intentions. They do, but sometimes good intentions that aren't backed up by knowledge can be dangerous.

For example, after an auto wreck, an untrained passerby might be tempted to yank victims out of the vehicle as quickly as possible. In most cases, that would be a mistake, since it could make spinal injuries worse. We hope that those who would rescue Pennsylvania's schools will make sure that the treatment they propose will do more good than harm.

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