March 21 — 2:32 pm, 2011

Is it time for the SRC to go?

src march 9 11 Photo: Harvey Finkle

This is the first installment in a three-part series about governance of the Philadelphia schools.

For almost 10 years Philadelphia schools have been governed by a five-member commission selected by the governor, who appoints the majority, and the mayor, who gets two appointments. The citizens of Philadelphia, unique in the commonwealth, have no say in the selection of this body and no way, short of discharging the governor, of removing its members.

During this period, the political class in the city has accepted this arrangement. At first, there was the incentive of extra money and getting out from under a large deficit. Then, there were modest gains in student achievement in response to a range of reforms and the investment of more resources in the schools. Privatization, in the form of EMO contracts and charter school growth, augmented the power and filled campaign coffers of leading elected officials.

After the initial wave of popular resistance to the state takeover, the public education stakeholders and the city’s citizenry largely acquiesced as well. Education reformers shifted their sights on changing the state’s funding formula and getting support for particular reforms. Governance was pretty much a settled question.

But this might be changing.

The Ackerman administration, while retaining significant support, has also been the target of growing criticism and protests focused on the repression of dissent and its heavy handed, undemocratic, management of its school turnaround plan. These developments follow on the heels of the bungled handling of attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia high school and the controversy over minority contracts.   

The SRC, in the eyes of its critics, exercises no oversight or independence, but simply rubber-stamps the administration’s policies. Its whole mode of operation, with decisions made behind closed doors and meetings that are inaccessible to most people, sends the message that genuine public engagement is not welcome. 

In the most recent period, the SRC does not even raise a murmur when the administration changes course and departs from its own previous policy as in the shelving of its performance index for determining a school’s eligibility for Renaissancing or its arbitrary exclusion of the Audenried SAC from a voice in the decision to turn the school over to charter operator Universal. Nor did the fast-track disciplinary action against teacher Hope Moffett on the flimsiest of pretexts, the quiet renewal of Ackerman’s very generous contract, the lack of transparency about school closings, and the handling of the District’s looming budget crisis lead to any public debate within the  SRC.

This state of affairs is leading a growing number of people to question the legitimacy of the SRC and to calls for returning our schools to local control in the form of an elected school board. Is this feasible? How could it be done? And who will do it? These are the questions I want to explore and discuss.

First some history.

The SRC and the state takeover are rooted in the passage of Act 46, and its later companion, Act 83. Act 46 in one fell swoop provided the means to pull the teeth of the powerful Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, open the door to the privatization of the city’s schools, and punish Philadelphia Superintendent David Hornbeck who sharply challenged the underfunding of the city’s schools. The Republican administration of Governor Tom Ridge was an early champion of a market-based approach to school reform and had close ties to education entrepreneurs like Edison’s Chris Whittle.

But the Republicans couldn’t realize their agenda without Democratic help. Enter Dwight Evans, who proudly claims authorship of Act 46. The law was buried in an appropriations bill and passed without public hearings or debate. It enabled the secretary of education to declare a school district of the first class (Philadelphia is the only such district) “distressed,” remove its school board, and turn over power to an appointed School Reform Commission. It also restricted the scope of collective bargaining and prohibited strikes. Teachers would face the loss of certification if they struck. 

Citing low test scores and chronic fiscal problems, Governor Mark Schwieker, using his authority under Act 46, moved to take over city schools in 2001. Plans to turn over much of the system to Edison were thwarted by a broad-based movement of parents, students, teachers, and community organizations. Mayor John Street, having won an additional SRC appointment and a promise of more money from the state, agreed to support the plan. Privatization was scaled back to 45 schools and “thin” management that would limit the control of the EMOs and leave the union contract intact. 

The state takeover failed to address the chronic problems of the District. The unequal system of school funding that leaves the neediest districts with the fewest resources, was left untouched by the state takeover. Moreover Philadelphians, particularly historically disenfranchised communities of color, have never had the kind of control of schools that many suburban and rural residents take for granted. The state takeover exacerbated the lack of democratic control.

Much of the additional funding that flowed to the District as part of the takeover was squandered as payments to EMO schools that underperformed District-managed “restructured schools” that also received a much smaller per capita increase in their budgets. Privatization, the signature “reform” of the state takeover, was a dismal failure as it was in nearby Chester Upland where the state hired the for-profit Edison company to run the schools for four years. 

It is true that during the last decade Philadelphia schools have made some real gains, but these have little to do with the state takeover. The election of Governor Ed Rendell and the adoption of a more equitable and Philadelphia-friendly school funding formula has brought more resources into schools. This, along with the adoption of a standardized curriculum with intensive focus on reading and math, go a long way to explain the District’s gains in student achievement. All of these changes would have been compatible with local control of schools.

The SRC should certainly get some recognition for these gains, but with a few exceptions, it simply followed the lead of the administration. Some commissioners, it needs to be said, did take some important initiatives:

But the overall record is largely one of passivity.

Now, more than ever with a huge budget deficit looming, we need school leadership that is accountable to the citizens of this city and can mobilize them to meet this crisis through a democratic, transparent process.

Additional posts will look at the case for an elected school board and explore the practical obstacles that we face if we take up this challenge.

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