Twenty-one people have served on the School Reform Commission over its 15-year history. Among them have been a college president, a former school principal, a former city councilman, and a former ambassador. There have been attorneys, community activists, and people who had served previously on the Philadelphia Board of Education. We talked to a few about their experiences.
Wendell Pritchett (2011-2014), an attorney and law professor who has been chancellor of Rutgers-Camden and deputy chief of staff and director of policy to former Mayor Michael Nutter. He is now the Presidential Professor of Law and Education at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
“The two big responsibilities of the SRC are – and were then – to try to maintain the financial viability of the School District while continuing to improve education. Those are the two things we spend all our time on.”
“I agree with the assertion that the job of the SRC was to reform the educational system and produce greater buy-in and money from the state. In the first 10 years, that happened. Under Govs. Ridge and Rendell, the state did provide more funding than it had in the past, and as a result, the School District did make significant progress. There were increased graduation rates, lower dropout rates, increasing test scores, and increasing the number of quality schools by generally accepted measures. And then Gov. Corbett came, and state funding was cut significantly. … What we talked about constantly was where we can cut that is going to cost the least amount of pain.”
His biggest accomplishment? “Bringing Bill Hite to the District. I chaired the search.” He is also proud of the creation of several new and innovative high schools, such as the Workshop School and Building 21, that are run by the District.
What should happen now with District governance? “I believe it should be returned to local control. But if people believe that going from an appointed board that has three gubernatorial and two mayoral appointees to a board of all local appointees will dramatically change the financial or educational situation of the District, they are fooling themselves. What might produce different outcomes is if we have an elected school board. In my investigation, elected boards tend to have higher budgets than appointed boards. That could result in more money.” But he hasn’t yet made up his mind that an elected board is the way to go. “I go back and forth.”
Pritchett conducted a study of financing in other urban school districts to compare where they got their revenue.
“The investment Philadelphia makes in its schools is lower than other large cities,” he concluded. While the state is also not providing enough, “we have to look at ourselves. When we were doing cuts, people came up to me on a daily basis, concerned. I agreed and urged them to call their Council person to say the city should provide more money to the School District and asked if they were willing to pay more taxes. They hemmed and hawed, saying taxes were already too high.”
Sandra Dungee-Glenn (2002-2009), one of the original SRC members, became chair in 2007. She had also served on the Board of Education, appointed by Mayor John Street. She was president of the nonprofit American Cities Foundation from 1995 to 2012 and is now the chief executive officer of Harambee Institute Charter School.
“I got a call asking if I would serve. I felt it was important. We had a contentious and adversarial relationship with the state. We had to protect the School District. I felt what Gov. Ridge was proposing, to have Edison manage the whole school district, we had to stand against that.”
The three gubernatorial appointees were James Nevels, James Gallagher, and Daniel Whelan. Michael Masch was Street’s other appointee.
“Those early meetings were very contentious and vocal. We were a majority and a minority board of directors. We were coming at it with two totally different agendas. Michael and I felt the need to be protective over the District so it would not be viewed as a source of great [business] contracts. I give Nevels credit, as the chair he worked hard to try to knit us together in a more conciliatory manner with some shared goals.”
She fought for giving some low-performing District schools extra resources so they could compete with reform approaches of the privately-managed ones. Subsequent studies showed that these schools actually did better. “That was my initiative.”
“I’ve never done anything so hard in my life. What we did had huge consequences for children. Lives were impacted. It was a very public arena. Everybody was paying attention. We felt, if nothing else, we should do no harm. Nothing we do should make anything worse.”
This SRC hired Paul Vallas as CEO: “What kind of person could we allow to come in who would be innovative enough to bring change, but still make sure at the end of the day we were keeping an eye on what was best for student achievement, … Paul did a lot of big things, in hindsight with some recklessness in financing. He created 13 new schools. But we were talking about teaching kids to 21st-century standards in 19th-century schools. My elementary school, Barry elementary, got rebuilt. It was 100 years old.”
What is she most proud of? “Personally, I take pride in the incorporation of African and African American history in the curriculum. I was personally involved in teacher development and retention efforts and a focus on what it takes to be an effective teacher … but while we got some good things started, some of that got dismantled when we lost so much money under Corbett.”
Michael Masch (2002-2003) has served as the chief financial officer of the city, the state’s chief budget officer, and the District’s CFO. He is now the chief financial officer of Howard University.
Under Superintendent David Hornbeck, the District had contemplated a “nuclear option” of shutting the schools when the money ran out. “Mayor Street chose to negotiate a deal. He said, ‘I don’t want to find out what the Republican legislature and governor will do without trying to come up with a constructive compromise.’
“He sent Pedro Ramos and Debra Kahn to Harrisburg, and they made a deal. And in the end the Ridge administration agreed to do temporary funding to keep the School District going and to do an investigation of why the District is financially unstable and academically unsuccessful. The Ridge administration hired Edison Schools to do the study, and Edison says privatize, fire 300 people, and we, Edison, should be given a no-bid, no-compete contract to run the School District on the part of the state. People went berserk.”
“We tried to do the best we could. We were under no illusions that what we were doing was utopian. We were just trying to keep other worse things from happening.”
Joseph Dworetzky (2009-2013) is an attorney with Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin
and was city solicitor in the administration of Mayor Ed Rendell. In that capacity, he worked on a long-running desegregation case against the School District and learned about school finance, and Gov. Rendell appointed him to the SRC. Two years into his tenure, he moved to San Francisco due to his wife’s job, but came back for a week each month, at his own expense, for SRC business.
When he started on the SRC, Arlene Ackerman had just presented her ambitious school reform plan called Imagine 2014. “I saw my role as how to be helpful to the District in getting this grand and far-reaching and ambitious plan to actually work on the ground. That’s where everything goes awry. We were not able to make [it] work. The day-to-day friction that developed in that period between Arlene’s administration and so much of the community got to be its own world. It was hard to get beyond the drama.”
Then came the Corbett budget cuts. “Instead of thinking, ‘what’s the best decision?’ it was always, ‘What’s the least worst decision?’ It’s a dispiriting way to be involved in governance of an organization. You want to be making decisions to choose the things that will make a positive difference; it’s no fun to be presented with a circumstance choosing what is not as bad.”
What should happen now? “Charter funding is the biggest problem. Decisions made about how the charter law works, the Supreme Court decision [negating charter enrollment] caps, enrollment management and all those things, have created a world that is incredibly expensive. There is definitely not enough money put into education in Pennsylvania to fund where that’s going to take us. Governance is misleadingly attractive to argue about. If we don’t get that funding correct, it will cause such ongoing problems that it doesn’t matter what the governance is. If changes in governance could get that issue resolved, then there is a strong argument for those kinds of changes.”
Should a new governing board be given its own taxing authority? Now, the District has two main funding partners, the city and the state. “These two partners need to figure out a way to fund the District on a stable basis. Changing the taxing authority of one of the partners is not an answer to that question.”