Moscow on the Delaware

With two months to go in the election, can Democratic Party candidates rise above the mediocrity of one party rule?

by Jeremy Nowak



What is the incentive to do things differently in a one party system that too often rewards loyalty over performance?

Can the next mayor rise above the accommodations of one party rule to change the basic operating assumptions of government? Or will we read about the transgressions at Licenses and Inspections ten years from now, just as we did ten and twenty years ago?

First, let’s be clear: The Republican Party in Philadelphia has no chance to win a citywide election based on party registration and the national brand of the party, particularly with African American voters. The city’s Republican establishment seems fine with losing as long as it maintains a small share of patronage through the parking authority and the courts. Moreover, the two most competitive Republican candidates during the past fifty years were former Democrats: Frank Rizzo and Sam Katz. If Katz or Bill Green ran as independents this fall, their chances of winning would increase dramatically if the Republican Party disappeared. But it won’t; a reliable but diminishing number of Republican votes will siphon votes from an independent.

The Democratic Party decides who is next. Political reform is now less about new ways of doing things and more about bringing new constituencies into the fold: LGBT voters, new immigrants, the bicycle lobby.

One party rule is not unusual in urban politics. Chicago and Boston have had Democratic mayors for 85 straight years. That’s a run that would make Mexico’s PRI, which held national power for a mere 71 straight years, blush with envy. But in Philly, we excel at it. During the past 138 years, Philadelphia has had two streaks of one party rule. The Republicans ran the city for 75 straight years between 1884 and 1951 and from 1952 until today we have been a Democratic town: 63 years and counting.

Philadelphia’s Democratic Party reform movement led to the election of Joseph Clark as mayor in 1952 followed by the estimable Richardson Dilworth. This ended a Republican patronage machine with a colorful and often corrupt history.

But the golden era of reform was short-lived. By the late 1960’s the reform-minded Democratic Party was becoming a more insular ward- based system. Mayors Tate and Rizzo represented the rise of row home Philadelphia, with heavy support from working and middle class neighborhoods that felt cut out by the Republicans, but were also alienated from the seemingly more well-heeled good government Democrats.

Then came the emergence of African American political power in the 1970’s, a disruptive force to the party of Tate and Rizzo. In fact the first serious African American candidate for mayor, Charles Bowser, bucked the party in the 1970’s and ran as an independent.

Through Bowser, African American leaders signaled that the party better make room. African American wards and electoral power became increasingly mainstreamed; three of our  past four mayors have been African American.

Since those days, the battle within the Democratic Party has been about the distribution of appointments, nominations, and contracts among social groups bound by neighborhood, ward loyalty, money, and ethnic or racial affiliation. Continue reading


The Citizen Recommends…The Storm: Philadelphia 1765-1790

The latest installment of Sam Katz’s documentary on the history of Philadelphia airs Thursday, April 2 at 7:30 pm on Channel 6

The newspapers still contain speculation about Sam Katz’s political future, and he’s lately been given to weighing in on pressing contemporary issues. But it’s when you engage him on his hometown’s past that Katz comes most alive.

The latest short film from Katz’s History Making Productions captures a city at war with itself during the struggle for independence. Characters including Thomas Paine and Betsy Ross wrestle with the meaning of phrases like “all men are created equal” as they try to rebuild a city and found a nation at the same time. As with the series’ other installments, Katz and his team bring our city’s history to life by combining academic rigor with gripping storytelling. Kudos to Channel 6 for preempting the ever-profitable Wheel of Fortune for such a local history lesson. But Katz the documentarian—and maybe Katz the once (and future) politician— understands that his films do more than look in our rear-view mirror: “You can’t envision where you want to go, if you have no idea where you’ve been,” he says.Unknown


Kill The Property Tax

The way we fund schools is fatally flawed. It’s time to find a better way.

By Dr. G. Terry Madonna and Dr. Michael Young

Editor’s Note: In their most recent Politically Uncorrected ™ column, Dr. G. Terry Madonna and Dr. Michael Young argue that the Pennsylvania property tax should be eliminated. Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Young is an author, pollster, and speaker, and was Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University. They can be reached, respectively, at and

Governors propose and legislatures dispose.

That particular political adage could be one that Governor Tom Wolf might ponder as he begins the likely lengthy process of steering his budget and tax proposals through the state’s Republican dominated legislature.


Dr. G. Terry Maddonna

Wolf’s budget proposes major tax restructuring designed to reduce Pennsylvania’s property tax burden by 50 percent on the average taxpayer.  But if 50 percent, why not 100 percent? Why not get rid of the property tax for school funding altogether?

Is that a radical idea, an extreme idea, an unrealistic idea?

Actually, no!

Dr. Michael Young

Dr. Michael Young

Many legislative Republicans would like to do so, and Wolf is certainly moving in that direction. Pennsylvanians widely favor it as well.

Moreover, the argument for abolishing the property tax as a source of public school funding is compelling. Doing so would comprise one of those rare moments in government where officials have the opportunity to do something that is not only good politics, but also good policy and good economics.


Pennsylvania’s property tax, like property taxes in many other states, is a fossilized artifact from the 19th century that faltered badly in the 20th century and failed spectacularly into the 21st century.

Pennsylvania is dead last in terms of the inequality between how wealthy and poor districts are funded. This embarrassing outcome is mostly the result of using the property tax to fund education.

There is not much good to say about it – and few do. Economists and public finance experts have produced entire libraries documenting the foibles of the property tax. It’s a very long list.

  •   FAIRNESS – the property tax is regressive, unfairly falling on seniors and others with fixed incomes or less means to pay it.
  •   COST- the property tax is enormously expensive for government to collect compared to modern “broad based” taxes like income or sales.
  •   EFFICIENCY – the property tax is “inelastic;” economist-speak for a tax that fails to raise enough revenue to pay the bills.
  •   COMPLEXITY – the property tax is unreasonably complex, relying on arcane metrics like “millage” and wildly disparate valuations that make it byzantine and baffling to taxpayers.
  • UNPOPULAR– finally, the property tax is repugnant to most taxpayers, deeply resented and widely unpopular.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently revealed that: “The state of Pennsylvania is 50th, dead last, in terms of the inequality between how wealthy school districts are funded and poor districts.” This embarrassing outcome, prejudicial to poorer school districts, is mostly the result of using the property tax to fund education.

Among all the major taxes Americans pay, including income and sales taxes, property taxes are the worst by any measure used. Taxpayers loathe them; politicians deplore them; economists condemn them. Continue reading


New Blood: Has Allan Domb Lost His Mind?

Condo King Allan Domb shocked the establishment by running for City Council. He hopes he’s just the first business macher to get off the sidelines.

By Larry Platt

Allan Domb ticks off the names, and the list reads like a heavy-hitter who’s who of Philadelphia. He’s committed the names to memory, all of those nice and uber-successful friends he sees on Rittenhouse Square every day, all saying some version of the same thing to him: “Have you lost your mind?”

Allan Domb

Allan Domb

When the 59-year-old real estate tycoon and restaurant owner (he’s partnered with, among others, Stephen Starr on numerous projects) announced what seemed to be his quixotic run for City Council, the establishment took note. For a long time, the business community in Philadelphia hasn’t done politics. They’ve been a part of our transactional culture—donating to campaigns, seeking favorable policies for their business interests—but they have shied away from wading too far into the cesspool and trying to help fix things. Power has long been outsourced here to elected officials.

That may be changing. Philly 3.0 is a PAC put together by a group of prominent businessmen, intent on altering the makeup of City Council. (In a sign of just how scared the business community is of the cutthroat pols that hold sway here, 3.0 is not releasing the names of those bankrolling the independent expenditure venture). And now comes Domb, unafraid to step out from the shadows and seek to make a difference in a very public way.

Has he lost his mind? Or is Domb some master Machiavelli? A recent news report floated ungrounded speculation that he’s a Darrell Clarke stalking horse; by exceeding $250,000 in self-funding donations to his campaign, he can trip the “millionaire’s provision” which would ease fundraising limits for other candidates, something that is of great value to Clarke’s favored incumbents.

Domb came to Philadelphia in 1977 and started working at Phelps Time Lock Service, selling and servicing mechanical locks for $14,000 per year. At night, the belching of his muffler-less ’63 Impala announced his arrival at Howard Johnson’s, where he’d wash dishes. Meantime, he started attending real estate classes at Temple.

“What is that?” Domb asks of the cynical press speculation. “How does that come to be printed?” Welcome to the world of Philly politics, Allan. Ironically, it turns out, Domb’s entry into the race did come about from a conversation with Darrell Clarke. But it wasn’t one about some backroom deal. It was, instead, a discussion that reignited his inner idealist.

Two years ago, when the city was shuttering over 20 schools, Clarke asked Domb, president of the Board of Realtors, if he could hazard a guess as to how much those buildings would fetch on the open market. Domb said he doesn’t shoot from the hip. So he spent some time doing due diligence. He visited each school, walked around the neighborhoods, talked to residents. He ventured into areas of the city he’d never seen, and was aghast. “I told Darrell, some of the schools were saleable, some were usable, but a good many were disastrous,” he says.

Domb took his assignment one step further. He suggested an innovative solution for the neighborhoods that were suddenly on his radar screen. He advised Clarke to create a Keystone Opportunity Zone and offer the shuttered schools to companies for free if they’d hire 10 percent of their employees from the 10 blocks surrounding the school.

“The idea didn’t go anywhere, but it made me say to myself, ‘You’ve got to get more involved with the city,’” Domb recalls. “My grandfather served in World War I. My father was in World War II. Philadelphia has been very good to me over the past 35 years. I said, you know what, what have I really done in terms of community service?” Continue reading


Young, Drunk, and In Defense of the PLCB

Why privatizing liquor in Pennsylvania will leave us with a hangover.

By Jim Saksa

A wise man once called alcohol the cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems. There may be no place where that’s more true than Pennsylvania these days, where alcohol is once again the cause of a fight in Harrisburg, and where privatization supporters herald it as the solution to a whole host of the Commonwealth’s problems.

The case for privatizing liquor and wine sales is devastatingly simple: The state shouldn’t sell booze. I get that. I hate having to stop at two different stores when I’m in a boilermaker makin’ mood. And I think a lot of Pennsylvania’s liquor laws are stupid, like the weird minimum volumes at beer distributors (which are changing) and our ludicrous liquor licensing system.

When it comes to privatization and the promise of better booze choices, my heart and gut say yes. But my head and liver say no.


Like a barrel-aged bourbon, my views on this matter have matured. We’ve inherited today’s system from our Old Granddad-drinking great-grandparents. This is a system no one would have ever designed on purpose, not unless they hated drinking and wanted to make it as difficult as legally possible to get drunk. Which is exactly what happened: When prohibition ended, Pennsylvania was governed by Gifford Pinchot, an outspoken dry who famously said the new PLCB’s mission was to make acquiring alcohol “as inconvenient and expensive as possible.”

When it comes to privatization and the promise of better booze choices, my heart and gut say yes. But my head and liver say no. Like a barrel-aged bourbon, my views on this matter have matured.

As a result, we’re one of two states—Utah, full of tee-totaling Mormons, is the other—that controls the retail and wholesale distribution of liquor and wine.

But there are another 17 so-called “control” states where a government agency controls the wholesale distribution of liquor and wine. And 13 of those also handle the retail side of liquor sales. So if you want some hard booze in Virginia, you have to head to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, or ABC, store.

Until recently, Washington was one such state that controlled distribution and retail for hard liquor (but not wine, which you could get by the bottle at bars and grocery stores). In 2011, they privatized their liquor stores. To compensate for the lost revenues from hawking hooch, the “No, not DC” State imposed annual fees and charged large sums for retail liquor licenses.

As a result, liquor prices actually rose in Washington. One-third of the stores that opened under the first 167 licenses auctioned off by the state have since closed, unable to pay off the loans they took out to afford a license. Washington’s overflowing fees soaked up all the newly-privatized stores’ profits, leaving the owners there high and dry. Continue reading


Wanted: A More Powerful Philadelphia Foundation

Foundations in Kansas City and Tulsa have surpassed ours in terms of reach and influence. How can we get our philanthropic Mojo back?

By Jeremy Nowak



In 2014 the Cleveland Foundation celebrated its 100th anniversary. It was a landmark celebration for the $2 billion philanthropy. The Foundation is not only important to that city but it was the founding institution of the community foundation movement.

In 2018 the Philadelphia Foundation will celebrate its 100th anniversary. It has done wonderful things for the city and region but its endowment is only $365 million – in a city that is four times the size of Cleveland. In fact, its size and its influence are a great deal less than that of other community foundations in almost any other city in America. Is this a problem that we can fix or has the clock run out on the local community foundation model?

Here is some historical context. The Cleveland Foundation was founded in 1914 by Frederick Goff; a prominent Cleveland lawyer. Goff had a long association with John Rockefeller and admired Rockefeller’s philanthropy, through the General Welfare Board in 1902 and then the Rockefeller Foundation, launched in 1913.

Rockefeller was one of a number of late 19th and 20th Century industrialists along with Sage, Carnegie, and Mellon, who pioneered privately endowed philanthropies.

Foundations in Cleveland, Chicago, and New York have more than $2 billion in assets, and Boston recently reached the $1 billion mark. Philly has trailed far behind with a $365 million endowment.

The big innovations of private philanthropy at that time were organizational and legal: Private endowments could now function in perpetuity with favorable tax treatment; hire professional staff; and stay aligned with original donor intent, rather than the whims of later heirs or executives.

Goff organized smaller donors to have the clout of the emerging private endowments. As a multi-donor trust, The Cleveland Foundation became a public charity, accountable to a broader representation, taking in money from many donors and focusing its endowment on charitable purposes.

Just as Rockefeller had a global vision for his Foundation, Goff’s vision was for one city and one region. While Carnegie was thinking about a national library system and Rockefeller was providing research dollars for innovations in agriculture, the Cleveland Foundation was worrying about conditions in the immigrant east end.

One year earlier Cleveland was also the birthplace of another democratic experiment in philanthropy: the community chest, later known as the United Way. Its structure was based on an interfaith charity in Denver 25 years earlier.

Community foundations and the United Way became the two mass philanthropies of the industrial age: the Vanguard gift funds and Kickstarters of a very different era. They organized donors at different levels of wealth and from different sources to invest in local civil society.

Immediately after the Cleveland Foundation was founded, prominent trust bankers and civic leaders followed suit in other cities: Chicago and Boston in 1915, Philadelphia in 1918 and New York in 1924. Today there are about 800 community foundations in the United States and a similar number around the world.

Where Philadelphia diverged from other big city community foundations is in asset growth and civic influence. Whereas Cleveland, Chicago, and New York have more than $2 billion in assets (Boston recently reached the $1 billion mark) Philly has trailed far behind.

Asset growth is not everything; effectiveness and influence can happen outside of larger pools of capital. They often do. But scale provides one important pathway to social impact, which is why a public foundation should exist.

The other way to be influential is by how you do things: through pioneering funding strategies, convening civic partners to work on problems together, becoming a warehouse for city and regional data and progress indicators, or creating technology platforms for donors and grantees so as to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

Philly Foundation’s small asset base has always been a bit of a mystery. Is it a question of leadership over many decades, long before the current President? Is it a question of the interests and capacities of the trustees? Why is the place so seemingly sleepy and content in comparison to others around then nation? Continue reading


From Balancing Checkbooks to Coding Video Games

Tuesday night’s Citizen Speaks panel featured unique perspectives on partnerships between public schools and private businesses to enhance learning and grow the workforce.

By Rosella LaFevre

“When you design a school, you need to understand that students learn outside those four walls.”

With those words, Building 21 co-founder Laura Shubilla introduced—and summed up—the Citizen Speaks event Tuesday night that delved into a paramount issue for Philadelphia: The importance of engaging city corporations in the business of educating students.

Allan Domb, Jeremy Nowak, Jeff Benjamin and Laura Shubilla

Allan Domb, Jeremy Nowak, Jeff Benjamin and Laura Shubilla

Shubilla was joined on stage by Citizen columnist (and the evening’s moderator) Jeremy Nowak; Vetri co-owner Jeff Benjamin; and realtor (and Council-at-large candidate) Allan Domb, whose idea for how to bring more Philadelphians into the workforce prompted the evening’s discussion. Domb’s big idea: Encourage businesses to create technical training curricula in local high schools.

The panel’s discussion was followed by comments from the crowd of educators, business and civic leaders and interested citizens, including School Reform Commissioner Bill Green, who said that we can fix our schools within 10 years with the right resources and focus—even, perhaps, by authorizing more new charter schools this year.

Here are some of the other highlights:

Domb noted the city’s 26 percent poverty rate, and the fact that businesses struggle to find qualified workers. By giving businesses a say in how future workers are trained in high school, he said, both businesses and students benefit. He posited that such a plan might entice businesses from out of the city to move here for the chance to develop curriculum and train future workers. “All I want to do is make sure these kids get a job,” Domb said. Continue reading


Citizen of The Week: The George Costanza of Philly Politics

Jared Solomon is governing by fighting crime and helming community revitalization projects in Northeast Philly’s 202nd state legislative district. Now all he has to do is get elected

By Larry Platt

There was an unusual political gathering in Northeast Philly a couple of weeks ago. On a frigid, rainy weekday night, about 65 residents of the 202nd state legislative district showed up at Casa Brazil, a popular Brazilian steak house, on Bustleton Avenue. They were there for a free buffet dinner of grilled meats, plantains, beans and rice—and to receive the warmhearted thanks of their host, 36-year-old Jared Solomon.

jmic1Solomon, a Center City lawyer, last year turned his mom’s basement into a headquarters and waged an insurgent primary campaign against longtime state representative Mark Cohen, losing a nailbiter by a mere 200 votes.

It was a classic matchup between old guard and reformer. Cohen, who has served for 40 years, has long been the local face of political entitlement. One year, Cohen hit the taxpayers up for $39,000 in per diem expenses, often for days when the legislature wasn’t even in session. Unlike pols who have a sense of shame, he expenses his annual trip to the Pennsylvania Society gala in New York and, over one two-year period, had the gall to bill taxpayers for $28,000 in book purchases, claiming that staying informed makes him a better legislator. (Does that explain the biography of Mark Twain we put on his bookshelf?)

“I may have lost the election, but I am serving,” Solomon said recently. “That’s what I’ve always done in the Northeast. I want to make government real for people, show them that, through public/private partnerships, we can make change in the neighborhood.”

Solomon had been a local activist; the grassroots neighborhood association he started, Take Back Your Neighborhood, took on nuisance crime and hosted after school basketball leagues for kids. After the close loss last year, he wanted to thank his supporters by treating them to the dinner at Casa Brazil. But he also wanted to update them. Because, it turns out, Jared Solomon is the George Costanza of local politics. You remember Costanza, right, from Seinfeld? The guy who, after being fired from his job, simply kept showing up at work? Well, Solomon may have lost the election…but he’s been governing nonetheless. The dinner at Casa Brazil was also a de facto town hall meeting. Continue reading


Profiles In (lack of) Courage

City Council has once again decided to stare down a hard decision…by running the other way

by Larry Platt

A couple of weeks ago, on the heels of Governor Wolf’s calling for an array of tax increases and a spending hike of 16 percent, Michael Nutter was not to be outdone. He announced his budget for the city, and it included a 9.3 percent hike in property taxes in order to generate $105 million for city schools.

Clearly, judging from the priorities outlined by both Wolf and Nutter, something new is in the air: a sense that funding our schools is job number one. That’s pretty cool, even if the way the mayor gets there—raising property taxes for the third time in his mayoralty—isn’t particularly innovative. But for seven years now, Nutter has proven unable to get his priorities through City Council. So, how would this play out?

Darrell Clarke

Darrell Clarke

Last week, we got our answer. City Council President Darrell Clarke announced the schedule for his august body’s budget hearings, and I’m feeling a bit like Captain Renault in Casablanca: Shocked, just shocked, to learn that Clarke’s hearings on the school funding component of the budget won’t take place until after the May 19 primary. Clarke and his minions (and they are all minions, not a truly independent voice among them) are all up for reelection. They don’t want you to know how they’ll vote on this matter until after you’ve safely ensconced them once again in the best, most lucrative and most perk-laden job any of them will ever have.  Welcome to Democracy, Philly-style, where votes of conscience are the stuff of dreams and where seizing and holding onto power for its own sake is the pro-forma playbook.

How’d Clarke construct this? In the past, budget hearings have started as early as March 10. (Last year’s started on March 19). This year, they won’t start until March 31, pushing any debate on Nutter’s tax increase beyond the electoral window. When asked by the Inquirer about the suspicious timing, Clarke’s spokeswoman Jane Roh said the delay this year was because the administration needed more time to submit its department-by-department report to Council. The administration, in turn, said, Uh, not so much…the books are right on schedule. Then Roh declined further comment.

Add this to the list of the ways City Council exhibits disdain for democracy in the city where it was born. I don’t want to bore you with the litany yet again, but the list is here and here —everything from a stunning lack of transparency as to its own spending, to the shame that is Councilmanic Prerogative.  One local mover and shaker, when the subject of City Council recently came up, said, “I’m a CEO and there’s not one person on Council I’d want for my Board of Directors.”

He’s right; these are small men and women who have been elected to these cushy seats by perhaps 4 or 5 percent of the city’s population, and they want to cling to power by any means necessary. The notion that they are morally obligated to include you in a conversation about how we save our schools before you hold them accountable at the polls would be met with blank stares.

This is why we’ve printed those “I’m Voting for a City Council That Doesn’t Suck” T-shirts, folks. Because in its torpedoing of the Philadelphia Gas Works sale, in its refusal to tackle big issues like pension reform and school funding, and in its dissing of its employer—you!—City Council embarrasses those of us who love this city. That’s why we’re publishing our New Blood series here on the at-large candidates, because these times call for fresh eyes and new ideas.

So here’s a two-part game plan for you. First, here’s Darrell Clarke’s email address. Reach out to him, copying, and speak some truth to power. Tell him just what you think of this backdoor move to avoid accountability. Keep it respectful and constructive, because we really do want to help Council get to a place where it works for all of us. We’ll publish your emails to him here under the headline “Dear Darrell.”

Second, let’s drink about this! Join us for a New Blood happy hour on Monday, March 30 from 5 to 7 pm at Midtown Village’s Charlie Was A Sinner. (RSVP here). We’ll invite the at-large candidates we’ve profiled thus far; we’ll have some of those T-shirts to give away; and we’ll commiserate about this arrogant, non-responsive legislative body. Hell, let’s even invite Darrell and see if he can fit it into his election season schedule.


The Schools Plan No One is Talking About

The headlines are all about funding Philly schools. But Superintendent Bill Hite’s plan is about innovating when it comes to how the District spends its money

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

The last few weeks in Philadelphia have seen a dizzying array of bold plans for funding the Philadelphia School District, from Gov. Tom Wolf’s first budget proposal, to Mayor Nutter’s last, to once (and maybe future) mayoral hopeful Sam Katz’s in-depth analysis of the city’s needs. The funding issue is fraught politically, so it gets the bold headlines. But how the School District plans to spend the money it’s given may just be more important than what it spends.

Bill Hite

Superintendent Bill Hite

While the dueling funding plans garnered the headlines, Superintendent Bill Hite released his Action Plan 3.0, which comprehensively lays out just what the District would do with all of its newfound wealth. The plan will not satisfy everyone—yes, there will be charters; no, there will not be dozens—but it has ambitions to appeal to school advocates all along the spectrum—innovation, fiscal, curriculum, community. “I look at this as a plan for the whole city,” says Ami Patel Hopkins, Vice President of Teaching, Learning and Innovation at the Philadelphia Education Fund who previously worked in the Mayor’s Office of Education. “It considers the wide variety of schools that exist within the system, and makes clear that the District is driving to get to equal options for all students. That’s important for everyone in the city to understand.”

In the coming weeks, The Citizen will delve into some of Hite’s ideas in greater detail. (We’ve already addressed some, including the District’s innovative high schools and the success of the Renaissance schools). For now, these are the highlights that showcase a new, or refined, approach to educating Philly’s schoolchildren:

  • School autonomy. For the first time, the District is promising to give certain principals, at certain schools, a lump sum of money for the year, the way it does with charter schools. This is huge. It acknowledges two things: That the District no longer has the personnel to micromanage all of its more than 200 schools; and that good principals have become much more than just instructional leaders. “The role of principal has changed considerably in the last couple of years,” says Danielle Wolfe, Senior Analyst of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, and policy committee co-chair for PhillyCORE leaders, a consortium of young Philly educators. “Now they are also crisis managers, administrators, fundraisers and community organizers. They are capable of making decisions based on the needs of their schools.” The District will still have to honor contracts, so it doesn’t mean principals will be able to hire and fire at will, the way non-union charter schools can. But it may mean they can use their allocated funds to buy more computers, or more arts programming, or more social services—the way charter schools do. The criteria for which schools would qualify is not set yet, so there is no sense of how widespread the autonomy will go. Schools like Meredith and Masterman are bound to be on the list. But what about schools with lower test scores that show great promise under their current leadership? Don’t know.

The breadth of this flexibility seems to depend on another bold, if less flashy-sounding, proposal:

  • A fee-for-service model for non-academic purposes. It’s not entirely clear how this would work, but the idea seems to be that the District would let schools decide which non-academic services they receive from the central office—like food, transportation and maintenance—rather than sign citywide contracts with vendors for services that not every school needs or wants. The District has also proposed offering these services to non-District schools. It’s another sign of a willingness to modernize the District’s bureaucracy, and could be a cost-saver and revenue-generator—though how much is unclear. Like with the autonomy piece, this won’t happen right away. The Action Plan—which mentions a similar program in Denver—says it will start with a pilot program “over time.”

Continue reading