Ten years after the School Reform Commission was established to pull the School District out of a financial tailspin and accelerate academic progress, the current panel is trying to rebuild credibility with new personnel and a new commitment to transparency.
The five-member volunteer body replaced the local nine-member Board of Education as part of a state takeover of the perennially beleaguered district. It presides over a $3 billion budget and is the third largest public entity in Pennsylvania, after the state and Philadelphia governments.
The SRC was created in late 2001 during a Republican administration in Harrisburg with a mandate to open up a centralized public school system to outside providers, primarily by authorizing more charters and hiring private companies to operate low-performing schools.
Three of the five members are appointed by the governor and two by the mayor. Their terms were deliberately designed to outlast their appointing authority so that they would not be swept out when a new party took control in Harrisburg.
To date, it has operated under three governors, Republican Mark Schweiker, Democrat Ed Rendell, and Republican Tom Corbett, and two mayors, John Street and Michael Nutter.
In the past decade, the SRC has had three chairs. James Nevels, a Republican and enthusiastic proponent of privatization, served the longest, from December 2001 to August 2007. Sandra Dungee Glenn, a Democrat and privatization skeptic, who had been on the SRC since 2002, was elevated to chair in August 2007 by Rendell and stayed until March 2009. Attorney Robert Archie served from March 2009 to September 2011.
In that period the SRC hired two permanent superintendents, Paul Vallas and Arlene Ackerman, and appointed two interims, Thomas Brady and Leroy Nunery.
As a school governing body, the SRC is unique in the state, and possibly the country. Despite its responsibility for the education of more than 200,000 children (including charters), it has no ability to raise taxes or other revenues, relying completely on the state and city for funding support.
For the last 10 years, the SRC has faced a funding roller coaster. When creating the SRC, the state intervened to stabilize District finances. Later, Rendell rewrote the state education funding formula to direct more funds to Philadelphia and other poorer districts. But then Corbett slashed education spending just as federal stimulus funds dried up, leaving the District this year with the biggest budget hole in its history, more than $600 million.
While SRC members have always pointed to the steadily rising test scores under its watch, progress on critical indicators like graduation rates and college attainment has been modest. Still, there is no doubt that in the past decade, a new educational reality has been created in the city. There are 80 charter schools educating more than 40,000 students, including more than a dozen low-performing public schools ceded to charter organizations for "turnaround." In addition, Vallas opened dozens of new, small high schools.
In an effort to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the SRC in its first decade of governance, the Notebook interviewed several longtime observers of the city education scene. They were asked to evaluate the performance of the SRC in three areas: fiscal stewardship, educational quality, and accountability to the public.
On fiscal stewardship
Maria Quiñones-Sanchez: "Philadelphia has made important improvements over the last decade, and test scores bear that out. But I think the recent fiscal crisis and the ones preceding it indicate that the SRC hasn't lived up to its potential."
Helen Gym: "Because they are politically appointed, they are all silent about issues of adequate funding. In other school districts, superintendents and school board people join in on the broader school funding equity campaign. Our people are silent. We need to have more public school funding advocates, articulate champions for public education, and I don't know if we can do that with a politically appointed SRC."
Shelly Yanoff: "They've been lambasted for overspending and didn't have a guarantee the [federal stimulus] money would continue. But I have trouble being as angry about it as many of my colleagues. Yes, it was temporary money, but temporary money can make a big difference in two years of a child's life."
Jerry Jordan: "Under Rendell additional money was put into the School District, but we still have schools where kids don't have a full-time music teacher, a full-time art teacher, a full-time nurse. There are schools where libraries have closed. …We have to make it known we don't have enough to offer our kids."
On academic quality
Debra Kahn: "Nevels was in the trailblazing era, trying out the diverse provider model. He deserves credit for not following through with the original plan of having Edison [a for-profit company] run the entire system."
Brian Armstead: "The positive under Nevels: Test scores rose. The negative: It focused on EMOs and neglected proven efforts such as the Office of Restructured Schools that showed promise of significant results. Test scores continued to rise under Dungee Glenn, and one of her important actions was the requirement of all students to take African-American history. But although test scores continued to rise under Archie, the SRC displayed no real oversight of Dr. Ackerman's educational agenda, rarely challenging or requiring explicit explanation of [her] theory of action and budget decisions."
Helen Gym: "The EMO experiment was a disaster, an ideological gambit that had little basis in educational research and practice. The charters were a risk, but overall they have rebuilt some measure of engagement with public schools. The issue now is how to make them be the kind of expansive educational vision they should have been. Under Nevels and Vallas, the School District built all these small schools and massively expanded high school options."
On accountability to the public
Brian Armstead: "Nevels' SRC was perceived as extremely arrogant and unresponsive. Dungee Glenn spoke directly to the audience and made them feel a part of SRC meetings … and displayed empathy and respect towards parent and community speakers. Archie's SRC was opaque. Public requests for insights were unmet and back-room deals led to his undoing."
Shelly Yanoff: "The last SRC, when people were really crying for explanations of decisions made, I think it was not responsive in most ways to the community. People would cry, 'Please don't close our school; please don't end our program; it has made a huge difference in the lives of students.' The response, most of the time, was, 'Next.'"
Helen Gym: "Archie refused to answer questions from the media, rarely ventured out to visit many schools or meet with the public, and oversaw an SRC where minimal dialogue was the order of the day.
Maria Quiñones-Sanchez: "I believe the information-sharing agreement that was reached with the Nutter administration was an important step in allowing us to hold the School District more accountable."
Interviewed for this article
Brian Armstead, director of civic engagement, Philadelphia Education Fund
Helen Gym, board member of Asian Americans United and the Notebook; co-founder of Parents United for Public Education
Jerry Jordan, president, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers
Debra Kahn, former Board of Education member and city education secretary
Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, Seventh District city councilwoman
Shelly Yanoff, executive director, Public Citizens for Children and Youth