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Should it stay or go?

Some say it's time to abolish the controversial School Reform Commission and switch to local control.
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  • p16 feather houstoun marjorie neff and hite darryl murphy
    Darryl Murphy

Like three dozen other speakers, Antione Little had just three minutes to speak his mind at a recent meeting of the School Reform Commission.

And soon enough, he got to his main point — the very existence of the SRC.
“We want local control,” said Little, a public schools advocate and laborers’ union official.  
“We want a voice like people in every other community in this state have. No more colonial rule. The 15 years of state control have seen our schools go from bad to worse. Enough is enough!”
Dozens of teachers, parents and activists joined in, shouting: “Enough is enough! Enough is enough! Enough is enough!”
In the months after the SRC was set up in 2001, there was lots of shouting, too. The move was a compromise between then-Mayor John Street and the Republican-controlled legislature, which had wanted to turn over management of the District to a private company.
The District got $75 million from the state, $45 million from the city and a $317 million bond issue to weather an ongoing financial crisis. In return, the city’s nine-member school board, appointed by the mayor, was disbanded and replaced by the SRC. Three members were appointed by then-Gov. Mark Schweiker, a Republican, and two by the Democratic mayor.
The body now oversees a $2.8 billion annual budget, with 55 percent state funding.
Nationally, states have intervened in the last 25 years to varying degrees as urban districts struggled with funding and academic performance.
A Pew Charitable Trusts brief published in January 2016 noted that the Baltimore, Detroit, and Newark districts also have been subject to direct state intervention, while state directives turned over management to mayors in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and New York.  
Since 2001, education advocates like Little have continued to press for a return to local control, and that effort has gained momentum. Gov. Wolf endorsed the abolition of the SRC in his 2014 campaign, and the politically powerful Philadelphia Federation of Teachers  union strongly favors disbanding it, as do most City Council members.
A March 2015 Pew poll of city residents showed only 11 percent favoring the SRC, with 48 percent preferring a local school board (41 percent had no opinion). Sixty-one percent favored an elected board and 11 percent an appointed board.
Joyce Wilkerson, the newest SRC member and its chair, said upon her appointment in November that she favors local control, though she was vague on a timeline for that to happen.
On the other hand, Mayor Kenney has expressed reservations, given the District’s dependence on a perpetually Republican legislature for the bulk of its funds.
“I do not think that pursuing that option is in the best interest of our students, teachers and families at this time,” he said recently.
And the GOP-controlled Senate, which must vote on Wolf’s recent nominee to the board, Estelle Richman, likes SRC governance just fine, according to published reports.
As the Pew report stated, “State takeovers offer some assurance to legislators, who provide a large share of school funding, that the officials running a district will be directly accountable to them, if not to school district residents.”
At the same time, research suggests mixed results in takeovers, according to a 2014 report by Research for Action, a local independent research group. Interventions improved district management in some cases, but had “limited impact on student achievement in the long term,” the report said.
The group found that among the large systems surveyed, Philadelphia’s SRC had the fewest members, at five. The average number of board members was eight.
There’s no evidence that the 2001 takeover was intended to last into perpetuity. The legislation did not stipulate an end date for the SRC or the circumstances that would merit its dissolution. The authority to disband it rests with the SRC itself, by majority vote.
The options
So what could replace the SRC?
In an essay in the Inquirer in October, four City Council members – Council President Darrell Clarke, Council members at-large Helen Gym and Blondell Reynolds-Brown, and Council member Jannie Blackwell – called state oversight “a failed experiment” and argued in favor of a board appointed by the mayor and approved by City Council.
It’s time to make the District “a truly public institution, both transparent and accountable,” they argued.
Having an appointed school board, they said, “is consistent with the design of our city government. Such bodies are accountable to the public but at a remove from campaign politics. The first few years of this new school board surely would be the bumpiest, which is why elected members of Council and the mayor should bear the brunt of outside pressure.”
Earlier in the year, City Councilman David Oh laid out a plan for local governance. Oh’s board would have 13 members, with two elected at-large, one picked by the charter schools consortium, and the others appointed by either the mayor or City Council.
Mayors who run the school systems in cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and Cleveland have had some success, according to a 2013 study by researchers Kenneth K. Wong and Francis X. Chen.
“Our findings clearly suggest that urban districts can make significant progress when a mayor is willing to lead and ready to act” by implementing a strong system of accountability, they said in the report. At the same time, they advised, “education mayors need to form specific coalitions with key stakeholders in their communities to raise school performance.”
Public forum
On Dec. 8, Wong and other members of a panel of education, civic, and community leaders will discuss the options for  School District governance in Philadelphia at a public forum sponsored by the Notebook, Philadelphia Media Network, and Drexel University’s School of Education at the Creese Student Center on Drexel University’s campus. For more information, visit thenotebook.org.
According to the 2014 RFA report, effective boards appear to share some characteristics, regardless of how they are selected. These key features include a focus on student achievement; attention to policy rather than day-to-day operational details; alignment between resources and district goals; and strong relationships with both district leadership and the community.
That report also found “tradeoffs” with either elected or appointed boards. Having voters elect the board gives “the public a voice in local education and can help facilitate community buy-in to the decisions made,” the report said. But voter turnout in off-year elections is low.
Taxation powers
Little, the advocate who spoke to the SRC, espoused local control and “ultimately, an elected school board with the power to raise revenue.”
The SRC does not have the power to tax, but neither did the mayor-appointed school boards before 2001. Only elected bodies can levy local taxes, according to a 1936 state Supreme Court decision. It’s worth noting that the 500 other districts in the state have elected school boards that levy taxes to raise revenues for local education.
Lisa Haver, a retired teacher and cofounder of Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, doesn’t buy the argument that elected school board members would do the bidding of party bosses or special-interest groups.
“I don’t see why the people of Philadelphia should be the only people in the entire state who are disenfranchised when it comes to making decisions about their schools,” Haver said. “We shouldn’t be a colony of Harrisburg. With the SRC, you can get up and speak, you’ve got your three minutes, but that’s not really power.
“I’m not saying it wouldn’t be somewhat of a political system, but at least we would have a way to say: ‘If you’re doing things that are wrong, if you’re not looking out for the interests of the people of the city, we’re voting you out.’”

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Connie Langland

Connie Langland is a freelance education writer.