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Are we still a District in distress?

By Len Rieser on Mar 31, 2009 08:59 PM
Photo: ADL999, from Flickr Creative Commons.

A rescue.  Is that still us at the end of the rope?

The three people whose appointments to the SRC were unveiled last week are, by all accounts, excellent choices. But why was there absolutely zero public input into the selection process?

The answer is simple. In 2001, then-Secretary of Education Charles Zogby declared Philadelphia to be a District in Distress – sort of like the damsel-in-distress of medieval tales, or the lady tied to the railroad tracks in old westerns. Under Act 88 of 2001, this declaration turned us into the object of a rescue operation, to be carried out by a commission (the SRC) appointed by the state and city. Since rescuers seldom consult with the victim about exactly how s/he would like to be saved, it’s not surprising that Act 88 allowed (and continues to allow) for peremptory, closed-door decision-making along the lines of what we saw last week.

But it’s 7 ½ years later, and time to ask whether rescue mode still makes sense.

State law allowed Secretary Zogby to designate a district as distressed if it was defaulting on its finances, failing to operate for the full school year, out of compliance with state laws, or in some other way doing seriously bad things. While Philly may have met some of these criteria in 2001, it's unclear that any apply now (although, like a number of other districts in this state, we certainly still have big problems).

But, some say, things are improving under the SRC’s watch. Why question a setup that has resulted in some success?

In part, the answer depends on the value one places on democracy. So long as we’re a DD (district in distress), the city and state will continue to have the right, under Act 88, to appoint our leaders without public involvement. And while it may be mainly good-government types who worry about this sort of thing when good choices are made, you can be sure that a lot more people will be upset if, in the future, bad selections are announced. (Some would argue that some bad choices have already occurred.)

But that’s not all. This damsel-in-distress thing is getting old. With Lori Shorr, Arlene Ackerman, Michael Masch, Maria Pitre, Tomas Hanna, and many other illustrious and capable folks at the helm, are we really in the position of the lady tied to the railroad tracks, helplessly awaiting her rescuers? And if we’re not, why would we want to be seen that way?

Finally, while we’ve made progress, it’s not clear that that was because our community lost the chance to have a voice in the selection of our leadership. It’s even less clear that we will continue to make progress without such a voice. In fact, it’s possible that we'll make more progress if we can begin to have some involvement in decisions about who will run our schools.

Contrast the present arrangement with that proposed by then-Councilman Michael Nutter shortly before the 2001 takeover – and now included in the Home Rule Charter. Under that system, which will go into effect if we ever stop being distressed, the mayor appoints members of the school board – from names submitted by a 13-member “Education Nominating Panel” that would represent a wide variety of interests and perspectives. It’s not exactly democracy – other school districts in Pennsylvania choose their school boards by popular vote – but it’s a big step in that direction.

Charles Zogby has long since moved on. Perhaps his Declaration of Distress, and our status as hapless rescue-ee, have had their day as well.

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Comments (4)

Submitted by Paul Socolar on March 31, 2009 9:00 pm

There may or may not be the will to change the political status quo of SRC governance.

But correct me if I'm missing something, Len: There was (and is) nothing keeping Mayor Nutter from creating an "Education Nominating Panel" to vet his nominations for the SRC. Same goes for Governor Rendell. These two leaders, who often speak about transparency, in this case each opted for selection processes that were totally obscure to the public. They also sought no public input on whether or not the existing commissioners, Dungee Glenn and Bednarek, should be reappointed.

This is not some obscure commission. It is a body charged with reforming our schools, and we know from all kinds of experience and research that public engagement is critical to achieving school reform. So why was the public left out here?

I'd venture to say this was upsetting not just to good government types, and was upsetting regardless of the caliber of the new appointees and however quietly the exiting commissioners left.

I'd love to hear from readers on this.

Submitted by Len Rieser on April 1, 2009 10:00 am

Absolutely true -- the Mayor and Governor could, if they chose, invite public input concerning SRC nominations. Nothing in the "takeover" law prevents that. My point was merely that, so long as we continue to be labeled a "distressed" district, our officials are also free to decline to take that approach. Which is unfortunate, though not surprising; in my experience, whatever they may say about "transparency," officials rarely actually engage in it until they're legally compelled to do so.

And yes, I'm hoping that not just "good government types," but regular citizens, will be concerned enough about this to urge that it be handled differently next time.

Submitted by Michael Churchill (not verified) on April 6, 2009 3:22 pm

While I welcome you taking on the lack of transparency and democracy in the present nomination system, I am reluctant to accept your premise that the Philadelphia School District is not a district in distress. A dropout rate around 50 percent, and about a third of the students scoring below basic on state tests are the signs of acute distress to me. While the financial crisis has indeed passed, in part because of the state's willingness to increase funding to an entity which it controls and now because of the stimulus funding, the failure to provide a reasonable education at all schools is as acute as ever.
I think what we are seeing is the belief by two elected officials that they are the democratically elected and accountable officials, and that their desire for results are enough to ensure accountability by their appointees on the SRC. Interestingly, the state takeover law gave them very little ability to remove those appointees. Of course they can influence them by threatening to withhold dollars or other kinds of cooperation. I for one am willing to hold Rendell and Nutter accountable for the quality of their appointments without a lot of concern about who they spoke to before making those appointments.

Submitted by f (not verified) on April 7, 2009 11:18 pm

I can accept the premise that there are two democratically elected public officials (Rendell and Nutter) who are willing to be accountable for the well being of our public schools in Philadelphia. I have confidence that their desire for results will ensure that their appointees to the SRC will act in the best interest of the public.
My personal confidence in these two elected public officials isn’t however an acceptable criteria for determining how to deal democratically with important public policy issues. Keep in mind that everyone including our elected leaders has a personal agenda that guides his or her actions. When a person who is in power has an agenda that you can embrace all is well and good. But how well off are we when our elected leaders agendas don’t jive with our sense of democracy?

Ed Rendell has been following a policy course on education issues that benefit the Philadelphia School District. His work on increasing the basic state funding formula has been a big step forward in making right the funding inequities that have plagued our district for too long. Additional funding for early childhood education, computer technology, and increased charter school reimbursements to the district are other areas where he has helped.

Mayor Nutter has demonstrated a strong interest in addressing the issues of the district. This is good that the mayor is expressing strong support for our cities schools. That he is working in partnership with the governor is a positive and it provides us with a stronger local voice. His ability however to assist with the economic issues of the district is limited at this point in face of the downturn in the cities own financial health.

Governor Rendell is rapidly approaching the end of his tenure as Governor. Who will replace him and what agenda will his replacement set? How will a new governor work with Mayor Nutter?

When Philadelphia was declared a district in distress and then eventually placed under state management, Tom Ridge was our governor. These drastic actions denied the citizens of Philadelphia control over their own school district. They were excuses that enabled the Ridge administration an opportunity to pursue a host of experiments based on corporate business models.

High on Governor Ridge’s agenda was a desire to pass legislation that would provide vouchers to be used at private schools. Twice he failed to get legislation passed that would authorize the use of public tax dollars to pay for vouchers in Pennsylvania. During this same time David Hornbeck was pushing hard in Harrisburg for additional school funding aid. His efforts though honest were too blunt for too many of our state legislators. When he became a part of a lawsuit to force equable funding for poor districts in Pennsylvania a firestorm of legislation followed. Act 88 became the bell that tolled for David Hornbeck. It laid the groundwork for a state take over the district.

Governor Ridge having failed to secure voucher legislation turned his attention to for profit school management organizations as the next best solution for reforming Public education. With the able help of John Perzel, Governor Ridge was able to gain control of the school District of Philadelphia.

There were two main premises for utilizing Act 88 to take control of Philadelphia. Both of these reasons were suspect in 2001 and remain so to this day. The Ridge administration determined that alleged financial mismanagement on the part of the district’s leadership had created an unacceptable structural budget deficit. This same structural budget deficit still existed when Paul Vallas exited the school district and we were additionally burdened by the debt interest on the hundred’s of millions of dollars that were borrowed under the authority of the new SRC.

The state takeover didn’t solve the district’s financial problems after five years of management. Only the additional funding added to the basic formula in the last two years has seem to fill our proverbial gapping budget hole. In retrospect I wonder was the chronic financial malnourishment of the Philadelphia School District a problem the state takeover was intended to address or was the takeover an excuse to further the agenda of cooperate management of public dollars.

The second premise for the state takeover was the unacceptably high dropout rate of Philadelphia High School students. These dropout rates of 50% or better are the dropout rates of almost every American city. Twelve percent of the high schools in our nation produce over fifty percent of the dropouts from our schools. These schools are described as "drop-out factories" in the work of Johns Hopkins' Bob Balfanz . These schools are located in our cities and poor southern states.

Such high concentrations of dropouts within communities that are typically high poverty and low resourced suggest that our national dropout problem isn’t caused by so called broken school districts. There is a bigger problem impacting the future of children in these communities. This is our societies failure to not only be accountable for providing to all children equal and adequate educational opportunities but also failing to provide equal and adequate opportunities to their parents for employment, medical care, and descent housing opportunities.

Who knows what premises a new governor will utilize to pursue his or her education agenda. Our next governor’s educational agenda may be one we can embrace or it may be another attempt to undermine that, which is in our best local interest.

Now is the time with a governor in office who is sympathetic to the needs of our school district to pursue a return to local control. The idea stated in Len Rieser’s post, which follows, at least ensures a chance that no one person’s agenda dominates the public good.

“Contrast the present arrangement with that proposed by then-Councilman Michael Nutter shortly before the 2001 takeover – and now included in the Home Rule Charter. Under that system, which will go into effect if we ever stop being distressed, the mayor appoints members of the school board – from names submitted by a 13-member “Education Nominating Panel” that would represent a wide variety of interests and perspectives. It’s not exactly democracy – other school districts in Pennsylvania choose their school boards by popular vote – but it’s a big step in that direction.”

With a local board in place the citizens of our city can count on at least the semblance of a democratic process to protect our interest. Depending on the luck of the draw as to who is the next governor is not acceptable.

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