March 31 — 9:59 pm, 2009

Are we still a District in distress?

rescue Photo: ADL999, from Flickr Creative Commons.

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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