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New Pennsy school chief faces a full plate of issues

January 14, 2003

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell last week appointed the superintendent of the Lancaster school system to oversee the state's education system. Vicki Phillips is an experienced educator, but she'll need all that and more to deal with some thorny issues heading her way in the next year.

Phillips spent five years as head of the 11,500-student Lancaster system. Under her leadership, the system improved student test scores, beefed up teacher training and instituted merit pay for administrators. Prior to that Phillips was head of the Child Achieving Challenge, which funneled more than $100 million in private donations into the Philadelphia school system.

Is $100 million a lot of money? Sounds like it, but perhaps not when compared to the state school system's budget, which tops $8 billion. That cash assists 501 school districts in running local units of a statewide system with 125,000 teachers and $1.8 million students.

Among other things, Phillips and Rendell will face pressure from charter-school advocates, who want a share of tax revenues to try different educational approaches and parents of home schooled students, who want less state oversight.

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And then there's the federal "No Child Left Behind" law, which will mandate a series of new tests and record-keeping, with sanctions for those schools that don't measure up on Uncle Sam's yardstick.

But money will be the biggest challenge Phillips faces, as the governor attempts to keep a campaign pledge to increase the state's share of local school funding, even as it reduces the system's reliance on property taxes.

Changing a system that relies on property taxes to one that depends more heavily on income taxes sounds simpler than it will be. During the current economic downturn, most states have seen a dip in income-tax revenue, while property values have stayed strong.

That suggests this question: What happens to the revenues needed to fund the school system during a period of rising unemployment? Phillips will need all her experience and more to answer that question.

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