I find education politics endlessly fascinating. Nonetheless, School Reform Commission meetings long ago became a painful spectacle. And I witnessed nearly every one, because of my job, from 2001 to 2016. The experience has given me a clear perspective about what must be different about Philadelphia’s new school board if “local control” is to live up to its promise.
It’s tempting to believe that a locally controlled school board will bring on a new day in city schools. But that is by no means guaranteed.
The promise – and challenge – of local control
The advantages of going local seem to be a no-brainer. The new board will have nine members who are fellow residents of the city. Appointed by the mayor, they will likely identify more closely with the progressive politics of the city — valuing diversity and equity, pro-immigrant, friendly to LGBTQ people, concerned about poverty — than did some past SRC appointees. All that could make it feel less like a hostile takeover by outsiders, which was a feeling among locals from the SRC’s earliest days.
But with local control, many expect that the new board will function in a democratic, responsive, and accountable manner, even though it will be appointed rather than elected. Fulfilling that expectation will be challenging. The SRC has had many commissioners from Philadelphia who were committed public servants — the current commissioners live in the city — and yet that body never acted as if it saw itself as accountable to the people of Philadelphia.
The new board should not mimic SRC processes, which have been opaque from Day One. We rarely get to see how the sausage is made. The public receives only short summaries of resolutions, without details or rationale. The commission, encouraged by its attorneys, makes liberal use of executive sessions to meet in private. In public meetings, it has not been the norm for SRC members to explain their votes, let alone hash out their differences openly.