Education Secretary Arne Duncan is urging Pennsylvania lawmakers to help the cash-strapped Philadelphia school district avert an "educational crisis," although Gov. Tom Corbett said Wednesday he had believed Duncan was satisfied with the state's proposed rescue effort.
In addition, Corbett, a Republican, pressured teachers' unions to accept contract concessions. He also said that if the federal government had kept its funding promises for special education, the state would be able to offer more help to Philadelphia schools.
In a statement Tuesday evening, Duncan said he has instructed his staff to provide any needed technical assistance and that helping students in Pennsylvania's largest district will benefit the state and, in turn, the nation.
“There's no excuse for a public school system anywhere in the U.S. to be in this situation in the 21st century,” Duncan said. “Philadelphia's children didn't create these problems or ask for them.”
Duncan issued the statement a few days after American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten implored him to intervene.
To balance a $304 million deficit, the Philadelphia school district laid off 3,800 employees, or about 20 percent of the total staff, from assistant principals to secretaries. The district, which has about 204,000 traditional and charter school students, has been run by a state oversight board for a decade.
A state rescue package that is awaiting Corbett's signature could total $141 million, but only a portion of it is coming from the state. The city must borrow some funds and collect more in delinquent taxes.
On Wednesday morning, Corbett told a radio interviewer that his staff had been in touch with Duncan in recent days.
“I believed he was satisfied with what we were trying to do,” he said during a regular appearance on the Dom Giordano Program on WPHT-AM in Philadelphia.
Corbett then argued that the federal government is providing less than half the amount for school special educational costs that it had pledged years ago and that if it had kept that pledge, Pennsylvania would be in a better position to aid Philadelphia schools now.
“So I think when federal government officials make those kind of statements they ought to take a close look at the fact that they have not been keeping the promises not that they made, but that their predecessors made,” he said.
Corbett, a booster of public school alternatives who has been heavily critical of teachers' unions, said the state must help take care of Philadelphia schoolchildren, but it also must contend with a Legislature full of people from the rest of Pennsylvania who are looking out for their school districts, too. In the meantime, the school district needs to go on a “fiscal diet” and his administration is dealing with decisions that should have been made over the last 20 or 30 years as the city's public schools shrank in student population, he said.
Corbett said he had sought advice on the rescue package from the businesspeople - notably Pennsylvania's Republican national committeeman Robert Asher, Comcast Corp. executive vice president David Cohen and Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Rob Wonderling - and he characterized it as a three-way effort that will require wage and benefit concessions from the city's teachers to save money.
“We're trying to make sure (students) have what they need, OK? But that requires participation from all three segments,” Corbett said. “From the government, from the schools and school administrators and from those people who consume a lot of school money, and that's the teachers.'”