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With Bill Green preparing to take the helm, it's time to dissolve the SRC

By Ron Whitehorne on Jan 22, 2014 12:29 PM

With the nomination of Bill Green to head up the School Reform Commission, it’s time to get serious about getting rid of this dysfunctional form of governance and returning our schools to local control.

For the last two years, the SRC has pursued a policy of “rightsizing” the District, which has called for closing schools, reducing staff, and cutting instructional programs. The SRC has also championed turning over schools with chronically low test scores to charters and, with some caveats, has favored the expansion of the charter school sector, despite the fact that these actions have only worsened the District’s fiscal problems.    

The selection of Bill Green to chair the commission signals a continuation of this direction. Indeed, Green, based on his past statements and record in City Council, may prove to be a more aggressive advocate of these policies than his predecessor, leading even SRC supporter Mayor Nutter to express reservations about his appointment. 

Do we want input or power?

The SRC’s policies have provoked broad and sustained opposition over the last two years. Hundreds -- and on occasion, thousands -- of parents, students, and educators have taken to the streets and to City Council and SRC meetings to register their dissent. These actions, notably around school closings, have influenced the SRC to modify and adjust its direction, but not to fundamentally change it.    

Why should we expect otherwise? The constitutional function of the SRC, in the form of colonial governance created by Act 46, the infamous school takeover act, concentrates power with the governor, and with the mayor as a junior partner. Parents and citizens may have “input” at meetings and periodic forums, which the SRC is then free to ignore. The message is clear: The Philadelphia citizenry is not to be trusted to govern its schools. 

Bill Green is a poster child for the undemocratic character of the SRC. From a politically powerful family and educated at Penn Charter, a private school where his children also went, he has been employed as a Wall Street trader and a corporate lawyer. On City Council, he has ably represented business interests. It is hard to imagine someone with greater distance from the concerns of the communities that depend on public schools.   

With the SRC’s legitimacy at a 10-year low, there is a growing call for abolishing it and returning schools to local control. At a gubernatorial candidates' forum in November, hosted by the Working Families Party, the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), and a number of unions and community organizations, the candidates were asked whether they would support returning Philadelphia schools to local control. John Hanger and Allyson Schwartz both explicitly called for the repeal of Act 46, while the other Democratic candidates expressed general support for this demand.

What form should local control take?

The education advocacy community is not of one mind, however, on the question of what should take the SRC's place. Some favor returning to the pre-state-takeover form of governance, a board appointed by the mayor. Still others prefer the SRC to the uncharted waters that an elected board would create. 

Last August, State Rep. Mark Cohen, from Northeast Philadelphia, proposed to his colleagues a bill that would create an elected school board with full taxing power -- essentially what all other school districts in the state, including Pittsburgh, have. Cohen’s proposal would also restore the protections to union contracts that were negated by Act 46. He has agreed to hold hearings on this proposal in March.

These hearings could be an opportunity to publicly debate the future of school governance in our city, help forge a consensus that could lead to legislative action in Harrisburg, and make this issue part of 2015’s mayoral race as well.   

The recent decision by the Pittsburgh school board to cancel a school closing and the contract with Teach for America, which produced much hand-wringing by business elites, is an example of how an elected board can serve progressive ends. A well-organized coalition used the elections to shift the balance of power on the board in favor of investing in public education. 

What an elected board could mean

The SRC’s performance in the face of a now two-year-old budget crisis strengthens the case for the commission's abolition. The main causes of the current budget crisis are twofold: the draconian cuts initiated by Corbett in his first year and the structural problems caused by unchecked charter school expansion.

A democratically elected school board could have waged a fight to increase state and local funding and to institute greater accountability for charters. And a board with the authority to tax could have independently passed measures, like last year’s Use and Occupancy tax reform bill or Wilson Goode Jr.’s proposal to eliminate tax abatements on school property taxes. A panel appointed by the governor and mayor will necessarily support their agenda. 

Some cite the dangers of patronage and corruption with an elected board. Others point to cases where corporate money has been used to buy seats on elected school boards. An elected board is not a panacea, and these outcomes are possible, but hardly inevitable. Independently of what form school governance takes, the decisive element will always be the extent to which there is a broad, organized, and vocal movement of those who support investing in public education. All things being equal, we are better off with more democracy, not less.

Ron Whitehorne is a retired teacher and is on the steering committee of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (32)

Submitted by gayle Robinson (not verified) on January 22, 2014 12:09 pm
It must be dismantle now. It has been a complete failure.
Submitted by Andrew Saltz (not verified) on January 22, 2014 12:38 pm
All of the Democratic candidates for Governor have stated they would support abolishing the SRC. How hard they would work and how they would replace it remains to be seen. You can read more:
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on January 22, 2014 1:00 pm
Thank you Ron. There does need to be a much needed "collegial discussion" of the issues of how Philadelphia's school board should be "elected or appointed." I spent 6 years of my life researching and writing a book on the law and the issues of school governance and concluded that there is a "democratic imperative" for the governance of our public schools. Democracy is the only way to ensure that our schools are governed and led for "the best interests of the students, their families, and our community." The essential question of school governance is and always will be "Whose School Is It?" That can be extended to -- Whose School District Is It? Democracy is the "sine qua non" for Greatness in our public schools.
Submitted by Taxpayer (not verified) on January 22, 2014 1:33 pm
Agreed. Once the system is completely charterised, there will be no need for a SRC. The free market will work things out.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 22, 2014 1:57 pm
lol What a fantasy! The "free market" is a myth for the rich to steal from the poor. There has never been a "free market" in history and there never will be. All these financial leaders who talk about the "free market" had to be bailed out with taxpayer money by G. W. Bush in 2008 to the tune of $700 billion because they were trashing the economy with their hedge fund gambling.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on January 22, 2014 4:21 pm
Yes, it's a free market from the rich perspective but a dictatorship from all other people. In any case, Billy Green means us and our kids no good and I agree, Jordan will have the backing of the PFT Membership especially since Billy is SO egotistical, swarmy and dismissive. Right now, he and Nutter are in a pillow fight with Nutter throwing a hissy fit that Billy is sticking his hand into the cookie jar too. A POX on both their houses.
Submitted by Taxpayer (not verified) on January 22, 2014 5:34 pm
Actually, it was the Democrats who bailed them out. The Republicans in the House voted against TARP the first time. The reason the banks failed was because of Democratic pressure to lend money to people to buy houses who couldn't afford them. And actually, 97% of the money has been repaid.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 22, 2014 5:48 pm
People like you depend on people not having long term memory. You just make things up to fit your ideology if the history doesn't fit.
Submitted by Christa (not verified) on January 23, 2014 9:02 am
Taxpayer... you need to do your research..New Orleans is the model that everyone is working towards and it has failed miserably...the vouchers are about to be fought in court because of separation of church and they don't work...New Orleans has been completely "charterized" and there are numerous articles coming out now against the whole thing and how horribly wrong it has gone.
Submitted by Philip Marlowe (not verified) on January 22, 2014 4:06 pm
Ignore Taxpayer or whatever it's calling itself today. It changes its name often but it's the same, old troll.
Submitted by anon (not verified) on January 22, 2014 2:42 pm
what are we waiting for jerry? do you really think you can reason with bill green? shut it down now. you'll never mobilize your union to turn out in force until you take a stand.
Submitted by Gloria Endres (not verified) on January 22, 2014 3:26 pm
Of course Act 46 must be repealed and governance returned to local control. Even Green has said he would support a return of a local school board "appointed" by the mayor. I vote for an elected school board directly responsible to the people of Philadelphia. Ron is right. The SRC has no interest in caring what the people have to say. They let the speakers rant and rave and then do whatever they already decided to do before the faux "public" meeting started. We have to remember that the only reason for this state takeover in the first place was because the school district was already underfunded and the law was written with a trigger that Hornbeck pulled when he said he would close the schools early if he did not get that extra funding. It was a perfect set-up.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 22, 2014 4:58 pm
Yes, the School District certainly did thrive under the School Board control. Think of the fiscal responsibility. How many good schools became great schools? Maybe what is needed is a School Reform Commission that would actually go after true reform.
Submitted by Gloria Endres (not verified) on January 22, 2014 6:33 pm
The old school board were political appointees just like the SRC. It was and still is an unpaid job. We need an elected non-partisan board accountable directly to the people. There must be a dedicated auditor to keep an eye on the funds. Above all we need a needs based education funding formula which we have not had. The balkanization of our schools is certainly not working.
Submitted by Samuel Reed III on January 22, 2014 4:43 pm

Thank you for your contribution. When I first read the title," With Bill Green preparing to take the helm, it's time to dissolve the SRC" I thought the article would focus more why Bill Green would not be best person to chair the SRC. But after reading your argument, I found it to be more about why it is important to have a representative governing body guiding our school district. 

As you point out "An elected board is not a panacea, ... All things being equal, we are better off with more democracy, not less". 

Ron, Thanks for all the advocacy for fair funding and equitable educational opportunities for our students.

Submitted by Diane Payne (not verified) on January 22, 2014 8:18 pm
Thanks Ron for a good article. It is time for the failed SRC to hit the road. I also agree that more democracy is always better than less. We have had less democracy for over a decade with their stewardship. The mess that they have created will leave us picking up the pieces for years to come. Another piece to the problem is that at the time of the takeover the reasons for the takeover were dishonest then and they continue to be dishonest today. It isn't schools, teachers, and children that are failing. It is public policy and political will to address poverty, joblessness, hunger, health care, blight and so much more. That is the real problem.
Submitted by Veteran of the WPHS "Renaissance" (not verified) on January 22, 2014 10:19 pm
Another example of the power of an elected school board is what happened in Bridgeport, CN -- putting the nail in Vallas' coffin up there.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 23, 2014 10:33 am
An elected school board would be about as effective and professional as Philadelphia traffic court, the Sheriff's office and other minor elected positions. Maybe no one remembers the status quo back when the district was the machine's dumping ground with some 1000 unnecessary central office employees and the IBEW billing millions @ some $75/ hour for moving computers between classrooms. Ah yes, the good old days. Back when the city could drive hundreds of thousands of taxpayers away and then give big raises to all its workers each year with that whadduyagonnadoaboutit attitude.
Submitted by Anonymous PA taxpayer (not verified) on January 23, 2014 12:58 pm
The Philly SD is a disgraceful mess, and always has been - long, long before Corbett or any recent budget cuts. It is crystal clear that no amount of money, in an of itself, is going to ever fix that problem. The SRC is the only hope for the children in Philly (notice how Ron never mentioned those particular constituents). And no, Philly cannot be "trusted to govern its schools" - that has been proven beyond any doubt over many years. Hence the need for the SRC. Since PA state taxpayers are funding roughly half of the failing SDP operations, the PA government has the right (and more importantly the UNDENIABLE DUTY to the state taxpayers) to oversee Philly SD in a manner such as the SRC. Hey Ron - if you don't want the SRC, you need to say goodbye to the check that comes with it, until you can prove you can successfully educate the children (remember them?). I would no more hand over control of my family's finances to my 8-yr-old child than I would hand a check (drawn upon the state taxpayers) to Ron and his ilk. And charters must be working: Show me 100 parents "taking to the streets ... to register their dissent", and I'll show you 1000 in tears as their children are stuck on a waiting list to get into one of the many great charters. But of course those charters can't expand to accommodate the "citizenry" because the SRC is holding them back.
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on January 23, 2014 1:05 pm

"The SRC is the only hope for the children"    Wow.   Remarkable statement given that the SRC has slashed instruction and support services to unprecedented levels, cutting into the bone.   

Philadelphians, last time I looked, are Pennsylvania residents and citizens and, as such, are covered by the constitution that obligates the state to provide schooling to all.   Philadelphia is not a state charity, but a tax paying entity.   We have every right to expect an equitable share of state revenue and the same rights to self government as every other town and city in the Commonwealth.

As for charters, let's have a real vote, not a market decision that gets passed off as a political choice..   Let the voters decide what kind of schools they want.  But, of course, you are not willing to let them make those kinds of decisions.

Submitted by Anonymous PA taxpayer (not verified) on January 23, 2014 3:07 pm
The suggestion that "slashed" employee headcount and/or overall spending are measures of value added to Philly's children is ignorant at best and disingenuous at worst. Enlightened constituents are sick of equating *spending* with *results*. It is far more important to assess *how* the dollars are spent than *how many*. A key component of that assessment is the education of Philly's children; and in that regard we all know the sad truth. The charters (in nearly all cases) are getting better results on less per-student funding. It's high time to stop hiding failure behind cries of funding deficiencies. And the charters don't even have the advantage of economies of scale! It's certainly possible that Philly needs a larger budget than what it has this year (yes, maybe even including more money from the state) to effectively educate its children. However, putting that money in the wrong hands (again noting SDP's dismal record) is worse than doing nothing at all: noting a prior post referencing "1000 unnecessary central office employees" and the IBEW payments, those represent just the tip of the iceberg of rampant waste of funds. It is absolutely correct that Philadelphians have a right to a share of state education funds. But the right to "self government" with respect to those funds unquestionably ends at the proven inability to utilize them effectively. You can't have the money and waste it, too. And as I mentioned, I think it's pretty clear that the people *in the know* (Philly parents) have made their votes loud and clear. And while theirs are not the only votes that count, they should certainly inform policy especially with respect to the existence of the SRC and its objectives. Why oppose manifestly sensible objectives (promote innovation and success in education; give parents educational choices for their children; reduce waste of public funds; etc.) and espouse the ineffective SDP machine? After all, the children are the objective, not the machine. Right?
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on January 23, 2014 4:38 pm

Lots of unsupported assertions and rhetoric here.  I certainly don't support wasting money nor do I oppose innovation.   You simply equate the latter with charters and the former with District schools, which I do not.  

The District in the past has made some poor choices in how to spend the taxpayer's dollars.  Arlene Ackerman's reign, with the full support of the SRC, is probably the high point of wasteful spending, notably her huge investment in scripted, remdial curriculum designed to boost test scores.   An elected school board, hopefully with its share of whistle blowers and custodians of the public purse, would be a check on wasteful administrative practices.   Advocates like Helen Gym have been in the lead over the years in calling out lack of transparency and accountablility in the awarding of contracts.   The state appointed Commissioners, with a few exceptions, have turned a blind eye to this waste.  

To hold up charter schools as models of wise public investment, given the extensive evidence of corruption and malfeasance, won't do.   Aside from outright thievery, they tend to be heavy on administrators who earn much more than their public school counterparts.   Savings are realized by paying teachers less and, in the case of Renaissance Charters, sticking the District with the costs of the physical plant.   Some charters and well run and have developed good instructional programs, but, taking them as a whole, I don't see the innovation.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 23, 2014 5:59 pm
It's not the kids he's thinking about. It's his wallet. He doesn't want any competition.
Submitted by Christa (not verified) on January 24, 2014 11:10 am Please read the above articles and research...Charter school PSSA scores were inflated for many years and overall they do not do much better than traditional public schools.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 24, 2014 10:02 am
Actually the SRC has doubled per pupil funding since taking over. Meanwhile slashing the cost of the patronage bureaucracy Philly's machine used as a dumping ground for idiot relatives and hacks. Don't let that get in the way of your rhetoric though.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on January 23, 2014 2:01 pm
Sorry whoever you are. Ron Whitehorn is one of the most respected members of our community. I read everything he writes. I find everything he says to be well written, well reasoned, and supported with valid argument. The most sought after schools are the regular public schools which are magnet schools. The so called "waiting lists for charter schools" are for the most part fictional. Students, who can not get into their school of choice, apply to many charter schools in hopes of getting into one which is acceptable. They do not have waiting lists because those listed students have already chosen other schools ahead of those charter schools.
Submitted by Anonymous PA taxpayer (not verified) on January 23, 2014 6:11 pm
Your appreciation of Ron's writing duly noted, might it not be intellectually prudent to consider cogent dissenting viewpoints, of which there are many? With regards to your other assertions, they are typical of misguided and ill-informed opinions of charters vs. traditional publics. Those magnet schools (which number fewer than 10% of SDP's schools) educate only a small fraction (about 8%) of SDP's students. Of course one cannot reasonably claim SDP is a *complete* failure, and those magnet schools are a success - but they are just a drop in the bucket with regards to how many students are advantaged. Moreover, those schools have academic admissions requirements (except for the 4 which have middle schools); they are therefore NOT open to all children in Philly. (Is it not ironic that the vast majority of students educated by SDP wouldn't qualify academically to attend SDP's "showcase" schools?) Most charters tend to serve their local neighborhoods (and in fact the SRC has recently decreed that several of the charters are *required* to do so, in another of its efforts to improve education *throughout* the city) as do most SDP schools. However, there are also several "magnet" charter schools whose students are drawn from throughout the city. In contrast with the SDP magnet schools, the charters DO NOT have admissions requirements and students are drawn randomly. Just another example of charters providing better options for the children. And even though the SDP magnet schools get to "cherry-pick" their students and the charters don't, the educational outcomes are generally better in the charters (with the notable exceptions of SDP's Masterman, Carver and Central). With regards to waitlists, they are absolutely not "for the most part fictional". They are quite real; charter school waitlists can literally run into the 1000's. It is self-evident that there will be overlap among charter school waitlists. After all, parents are so desperate to get their kids out of the neighborhood SDP schools (and those parents constitute the vast majority of the waitlists) that they are willing to send their kids out of the neighborhood for school if it means getting a charter school education. Many neighborhood charters often fill all or nearly all of their inbound kindergarten class with siblings of existing students. They often admit only a handful of students from a list of several hundred. Harvard is less selective - imagine that!
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on January 23, 2014 6:55 pm
Yes, I absolutely do consider all dissenting viewpoints. Have you read my book on the law and best practices of school governance, "Whose School is It? the Democratic Imperative for Our Schools?" It was copyrighted in 2007. I fully discuss many types of school governance models and the issues. In law school we are trained to argue each side of every argument. I assure you I can well argue the opposite viewpoint than Ron's. But I would not be "being honest" in what I truly believe. I also fully support independent charter schools and believe they should be fully supported and that includes allowing them to grow if it meets the needs of their students. For instance, to grow from K-8 to K-12. The charter school concept was originally put forth to "add to public schools" and meet specific needs, not to displace them. I just believe all charter schools should not be allowed to operate as private businesses, and should be "actually operated" as public schools. They should have full transparency and the SRC should have full authority to regulate them as public schools. I am a full supporter of David Hardy and Boys Latin, and similar true charter schools. He, by his actions, has earned my respect and that of many other advocates. By his participation in public engagement sessions, and being a genuine innovator, he has earned the respect of many. I am always happy to have "collegial discussions" on all of the issues. But I have a strong belief that all schools which call themselves "public" have a legal and moral duty to operate in the best interest of its students, its parents, the community -- and the common good. As I said quite strongly at two SRC meetings this year -- there is no "I" in Team.
Submitted by Anonymous PA taxpayer (not verified) on January 24, 2014 1:31 pm
I strongly agree with these sentiments (exception noted below) but this all seems to run counter to Ron's themes of improving education. I certainly agree with your "strong belief" in the penultimate paragraph, but we probably diverge in assessing which entities generally fulfill that duty better: charters or the SDP (and its proponents). Exception: I do question the concept of the charter operation and SRC control. Why shouldn't charters operate as private businesses? That method can be a key component of the innovation/improvement process. Certainly they are publicly funded and with that should come close scrutiny and transparency. And what constitutes "full authority" of the SRC? Certainly revoking and granting charters, which is the most powerful tool. But if the charters are having success, and the educational outcomes are appropriate, why mess with a good thing? If "full authority" includes the ability to micromanage and otherwise constrict any *successful* operating methods, I strongly object. After all, that's a big part of the structural problems at SDP. Caveat to the above: I fully oppose any and all for-profit education providers (charter, higher ed, etc.) who receive any sort of direct or indirect public funding. And in this arena, any for-profit charter managers and their contracts deserve close scrutiny when those managers are responsible for all or most of the operating budget.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on January 24, 2014 2:05 pm
Thank you for your response. You ask so many good questions that it would take me about 20 pages to answer them all. I will answer at least most of them sincerely but I must do them in parts. Part (1) I refer you to the commentary written by Eileen DiFranco which was just posted. I especially point to her description of Upper Dublin High School, and her second to last paragraph. Upper Dublin is an example of the power and effectiveness of an elected school board which serves the community. It is a living example of the ideals of public education. All children in that district get to go to a state of the art school. It serves the common good, not the private profit interest. There is one purpose and one purpose only for a business -- profit. It serves the interests of those who run it and control it. Not the public interests. I
Submitted by Morrie Peters (not verified) on January 23, 2014 1:10 pm
Troll above is less than droll.
Submitted by Matt (not verified) on January 23, 2014 8:02 pm
Let's be honest, this is not about children. Notice how Corbett, Green, Hite, and others "can't afford to wait?" Not for our children. I give them credit for laying rhetorical claim to being the ones acting in the interest of children and families while painting those do it for a living as being self-serving. But forget all that. Let's focus on what I call in my next article Data-Driven Destruction. Decades of research show that the following work: Small class size safe environments rich and broad curricula an emphasis on children not on content school readiness including proper nutrition, dental, vision, health, and pre-school Decades of research also show that the following do not impact on outcomes: vouchers charters mass firings and reconstitutions school closures marketplace approaches Since we can all agree-ideologies aside-that Corbett, Green, and Hite are bright men, we can only reach one irresistible conclusion: improving education outcomes for ALL children is not a driving force. Were it, we would do what we know works. Just as they do in every other profession. And for conservatives tired of pumping taxpayer money in failing schools (and don't think for a second their isn't some racial bigotry there...), let's carry out your plan beyond your wildest dreams. Let's allocated ALL public education funds for charters and the like and set up a true marketplace environment. When Archdiocesan and Charter schools deny access to children who have behavior and learning issues, IEP's, or are second language learners--and when we truly have a society with the haves and the have-nots, who will pay for the lost souls? Forget about our moral obligation to care for all citizens in America. Who will make up for the lost wages for these lost children? Who will pay for the absence of their contributions to Social Security? Who will foot the bill for the criminal justice system and subsequent incarceration more highly associated with societies disconnected and desperate? I'll tell you what. It won't be Penn Charter.

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