With Bill Green preparing to take the helm, it's time to dissolve the SRC
by Ron Whitehorne on Jan 22 2014 Posted in Commentary
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.