Time to reform Pa. schools

As legislators, we have witnessed, year after year, the tragedy that befalls tens of thousands of children in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania who are trapped in public schools that consistently fail to meet the needs of their students.

It is time to act on behalf of these students and their families, and that's why we are sponsoring legislation designed to help them immediately.

The legislation is known as the Educational Opportunity and Accountability Act (House Bill 1225), and it is a growing, bipartisan effort to provide relief for the nearly 90,000 students - 90 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged - who are stuck in the worst public schools.

First things first: We all agree that our schools need additional funding, and that's why we are working together with colleagues across the city and region to ensure more resources in our schools. But for failing schools, money alone is not the solution. Statewide, there are 150 schools that are, by any measure, not serving their families. And they have consistently underperformed - in many cases, for more than a decade - despite receiving $1.3 billion in public funding last year alone. A total of 95 of these schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide are in Philadelphia.

Money is important, but we also must provide the tools to turn these schools around. If we expect our children to be accountable as adults, if we want them to grow up to compete for jobs and opportunities and to become productive citizens, then we must be accountable to them as well.

Here's how the bill works:

For schools consistently performing in the bottom 5 percent statewide, the bill empowers local school districts with tools to address the problems, including bringing in outside education providers, eliminating the seniority rules for hiring and transferring staff, and, if necessary, converting a school to a charter school.

For schools consistently performing in the bottom 1 percent statewide - in other words, the very worst-performing public schools - the bill creates a new Achievement School District (ASD) to ensure that transformational changes are made. Under our plan, the ASD would intervene in approximately five to 15 schools each year, and no more than 75 schools total. That's less than one-half of the bottom 1 percent of schools per year.

Let's be clear about how troubled these schools are:

For the schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide, only 30 percent of students are on grade level in reading and math. In high schools, only 56 percent of students are graduating. Heartbreakingly, only 1 percent of high school seniors are college-ready.

H.B. 1225 is a targeted approach designed to hold schools accountable for their students' performance, and because this would be coupled with new funding, local districts wouldn't lose any existing resources.

This is an approach that works and one that transcends partisan politics. Our bill is modeled after similar programs that have been launched in several states, led by Democrats and Republicans alike, and the results are extremely encouraging.

Importantly, the bill also eliminates the right to appeal the closure of a low-performing charter school. That's worth repeating: This bill will help school districts close charter schools that don't meet the bar much faster and more easily.

The real debate is not about charters vs. traditional schools anyway. It's about providing children in poverty with a real chance at a high-quality education. And that's why H.B. 1225 is gaining support among Republicans and Democrats alike all across Pennsylvania.

We are well past the time for continuing the same old partisan disputes about public education. The time to act is now. Let's be accountable to those we're counting on to build our future.

State Reps. John Taylor (R., 177th District) and Jordan Harris (D., 186th) represent Philadelphia in the General Assembly.