Fifteen speakers at Thursday's School Reform Commission meeting called for that body to dissolve itself by December, and dozens more in the audience roared their approval. The passionate opposition to this body has everything to do with its history and the role it plays as an institution.
In our state, we have a system of educational apartheid. If you live in an affluent, predominantly white community like Lower Merion, you have access to a high-quality education. If you live in a city where people of color are the majority and many people live in poverty, most children get the bare bones. In Lower Merion, there are Advanced Placement classes, a rich program of arts and music, and advanced technology. In Philadelphia, we have to worry about toxic buildings and whether there is enough toilet paper in the bathrooms.
The SRC is the institution charged with administering this colonial relationship here in Philadelphia. It was created by an angry state legislature dominated by representatives of white, rural communities to punish Philadelphians and their uppity school superintendent for demanding equitable funding. As one of them said, giving more aid to Philadelphia was like “pouring money down a rat hole.” This view rests on the racist stereotype that black and brown parents don’t care about education and their children don’t want to learn.
The creation of the SRC drew on another stereotype, namely that black and brown communities cannot govern themselves and need the paternal guidance of the great white fathers in Harrisburg. Philadelphia and other poor, predominantly black and brown cities have been denied adequate resources and then subjected to state control to keep the natives in their place. Elected school boards either don’t exist (Philadelphia) or are pushed aside by state-imposed officials (Chester).
The other driving force that led to the creation of the SRC was the desire to get rid of public education and replace it with a privatized system based on the marketplace. When the Republicans and some Democrats failed to enact vouchers, they fell back to promoting charters and selling off schools to for-profit educational management organizations. The original plan for Philadelphia was to turn over the School District to Edison, a pioneer company in the for-profit education world. Over its 15-year existence, the SRC has presided over an expansion of both stand-alone charters and charter takeovers of existing schools, leading to the decline of neighborhood public schools, all without democratic process and the consent of school communities.
The churn created by charter expansion and the closure of neighborhood schools has not led to improved education outcomes when we look at data for the whole system. Instead, we see increased competition for seats in a few magnet schools and relatively high-performing charters. Most students remain in schools, be they traditional public schools or charters, that are plagued by a lack of resources in the face of challenges produced by high rates of poverty. Most of these schools struggle to meet minimal standards, and some are overwhelmed. The advocates of expanding high-quality seats while shutting down low performers neatly sidestep the systemic problem of a school system based on racial and class privilege. To expect that Philadelphia schools can provide educational equity without a dramatic change in the distribution of resources is dangerous utopianism. But this is exactly the kind of thinking that the SRC and the administrations of Paul Vallas, the late Arlene Ackerman, and now William Hite have promoted.
From the beginning, state control and the policies that came with it have spawned popular resistance. Thousands took to the street to stop the Edison takeover and forced a scaling back of that plan. The budget cuts and school closings during the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett led to a massive protest by parents, students, teachers and affected neighborhoods. Forty thousand people signed petitions to place a non-binding referendum on abolishing the SRC on the ballot, and 75 percent of the electorate voted yes. This same movement helped elect an education governor and mayor and put activist Helen Gym in City Council.
The new appointees to the SRC, given these developments, have a responsibility to address the issue of local control. We are calling for them to vote to dissolve the SRC before we face the risk that a change in the governor’s mansion from a Democrat to a Republican could not only perpetuate state control, but lead to policies that will further erode public education in our city.
Ron Whitehorne is a retired Philadelphia teacher and a steering committee member of 215 Peoples Alliance and the Our City, Our Schools Coalition. This commentary is adapted from his testimony before the SRC at its June 15 meeting.