A well-attended forum on who should govern Philadelphia's schools turned testy Thursday night as parent activists repeatedly disrupted the proceedings to protest poor conditions in city schools. Some of the protesters were family members of School Reform Commissioner Sylvia Simms.
The conversation laid bare just how thorny the issue of school governance is in Pennsylvania's largest city, and the protests reminded all that even if Philadelphians can agree on a governance structure, there are still big issues looming in public education.
The forum, co-hosted by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Philadelphia Media Network, and Drexel University, was billed as a conversation on who should run Philadelphia's public schools. Since 2001, the School District has been overseen by the School Reform Commission, a five-person body comprising three gubernatorial appointees and two mayoral appointees.
The SRC emerged out of a political compromise between the city and the state when Philadelphia schools were on the brink of financial calamity. But in the years since, the SRC has become a frequent scapegoat for the city's educational shortcomings, all the while drawing ire for its lack of direct accountability.
All six panelists for the forum — City Council President Darrell Clarke, former SRC Chair Wendell Pritchett, teachers' union head Jerry Jordan, parent Robin Roberts, Public Citizens for Children & Youth executive director Donna Cooper, and Sarah Galbally from Gov. Wolf's office — agreed that the SRC should be dissolved in favor of a locally controlled body. That's hardly a controversial position these days in Philadelphia.
"From my perspective, the SRC cannot go away soon enough," Clarke said to audience applause.
The debate gets a lot trickier, however, when discussing what should replace the SRC.
Clarke and Cooper argued for a local school board appointed by the mayor, but with City Council approval of nominees. Pritchett and Roberts called for an elected board, a model that is used in most school districts across the country. They also said the elected board should have taxing authority. Philadelphia schools currently must rely on the city, state, and federal governments for money.
"That local school board must come with some sort of revenue-gathering ability," said Roberts. "It is not going to be worth it if we have an election and we have no dollars."
Jordan said his members favored some sort of blend between an appointed and elected school board.
Even if there was some consensus how to run the city's public schools, the panelists didn't all seem to think a governance change would by itself address underlying problems.