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Click here to review the agenda for this evening’s School Reform Commission (SRC) public meeting.

Your City Defined: School Reform Commission

Though “reform” is a relative term

Though “reform” is a relative term

Tackling the School Reform Commission seemed like a reasonable thing to do for this installment. I taught in a number of public schools after college (though not in this country) so maybe, went my thinking, I could offer a little insight into that most vital of public services: teaching children. After all, the words on their own seem fine enough:

“School” – great.
“Reform” – if there’s a problem, let’s go ahead and fix it.
“Commission” – boring, but not inherently offensive.

Then I combined those words along with “Philadelphia” and things went so off the rails. So completely off the rails. Let’s start by fleeing from the School Reform Commission for the moment in order to visit our past: the very beginning of Philly’s public schools.

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Welcome to 1802. You’ve arrived right in the midst of a rising crisis. Families with free time and disposable income in 1802 are able to educate their offspring through a combination of private tutoring, home-schooling, and Sunday school. Poor kids on the other hand fall more into the educational category of Oliver Twist. “I’m off to the anthracite mines, children. Professor Fagin here will be overseeing your studies for the day. I hear pickpocketing fops is lesson number one. Have fun!”

The Quakers in particular took issue with poor kids running around the streets of Philly undereducated and criminally bored. The First School District of Pennsylvania was organized in 1818 “solely for the instruction of children of the indigent.” That’s an important historical note to keep in mind–for the instruction of the indigent.

By 1837 Philadelphians had decided that tuition-free education should be extended to all children. Under this new model, public education was an endeavor in which we were all engaged. We paid for it. We elevated it. We controlled it. The Philadelphia Board of Controllers proudly proclaimed, “The stigma of poverty, once the only title of admission to our public schools has…been erased from our statute book, and the schools of this city and county are now open to every child.” The stigma of poverty has been erased.

Oh, the naïveté of our city’s forefathers. How did you miss important future events like the Civil War, segregation, suburbs, nonsensical tax policies, imbalanced distribution of public funds, and a conservative state government that lords over Philadelphia like King George III?

Philly’s SRC woes kicked off in 1997 after dismal levels of state funding and financial mismanagement had created a perfect storm of shamefully low test scores, high drop-out rates, and failing schools. The School District of Philadelphia filed a lawsuit against the state claiming financial negligence.

Republican-controlled Harrisburg dismissed the suit outright. So the next year the district came back with a civil rights lawsuit claiming that by insufficiently funding Philly schools, the state was discriminating against poorer, non-white students. That year superintendent David Hornbeck even threatened to allow the district to collapse in on itself when state funding inevitably ran out.

Even if it were a good idea, dismantling the SRC would be no easy feat. The members would essentially have to vote themselves out of existence. And let’s not  forget that the reason we ended up with an SRC in the first place was the failure of the system that came before.

You see what happened there? The city of Philadelphia was alleging that its public schools had slipped back into the 1820s—that because of racial discrimination and uneven funding, the whole system had once again become “instruction of the indigent.” That “stigma of poverty” supposedly erased in the 19th century, had been penciled right back in by the 1990s. And that’s not just my conclusion. Here’s an encyclopedia entry for the School District of Philadelphia: “By the beginning of the 21st Century…the School District of Philadelphia had become in many ways what it had originally been—a system for poor and disadvantaged children.”

Frustrated by shrinking funds, district officials were willing to play chicken with the Pennsylvania General Assembly. So on April 21, 1998 the state legislature passed ACT 46. This Act created the School Reform Commission and established a path to “hostilely takeover” Philadelphia’s school district.

In 2001 Mayor John Street renegotiated, downgrading it to a “friendly takeover.” Friendly takeover is not a real combination of words, but among other things, the city agreed to drop its civil rights lawsuit, and Harrisburg allowed Philadelphia to have two seats on its new School Reform Commission.

The SRC was a way for the state to exert control and streamline reforms aimed at our poorly-funded, poorly-managed, and poorly-performing public schools. The School Reform Commission has made some tone-deaf missteps during its sixteen-year existence, but there have also been benefits to having a small board of reformers manning the helm.

According to a study by Research For Action (RFA) it has been easier to get legislation through a five-member committee as opposed to a wieldy “fractious body” of School Board members. The efficiency with which the Supreme Court gets its business done in comparison to, say, Congress might be a superficially suitable comparison. (Fun fact: The U.S. Congress has a 20% approval rating. Philadelphia’s SRC has an 11% approval rating. So maybe not a suitable comparison, after all.)

The 2005 RAF study also suggests that under the SRC some test scores in some areas have improved, the budget is more balanced, Philly’s schools are no longer such a “political football,” and there have been “positive strides” when it comes to recruiting and retaining teachers. That same study also concludes that there have been real “challenges”, too, including administrative confusion, a lack of public accountability, and extra costs associated with charter schools.

Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission is certainly a divisive issue. On the one hand, Philly schools need reform (and a whole lot more funding). The SRC, made up of unpaid volunteers with the unenviable position of being human levees against a torrent of student, parent, and community rage, is supposed to be helping our city do that.

On the other hand, the way they’ve conducted themselves has made that torrent worse. From secret meetings to cancel teacher contracts, to charges of favoritism and corruption, to management of divisive for-profit charter schools (“We find no evidence of differential academic benefits that would support the additional expenditures on private managers,” concludes another study), the SRC has in many ways cast itself as the villain in one of our city’s great operatic struggles.

From secret meetings to cancel teacher contracts, to charges of favoritism and corruption, to management of divisive for-profit charter schools, the SRC has in many ways cast itself as the villain in one of our city’s great operatic struggles.

Is that fair? Probably not. But the embodiment of the resistance the SRC is best summed up by a sign held high at a recent meeting: “OUR Family. OUR School. OUR Building.”

Or this linguistic tilt from a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed (emphasis added):

“Look no further than the School Reform Commission, the unelected body that allocates billions…”

“Sylvia Simms, an unelected, unpaid and unaccountable member of the SRC…”

A recent Pew Charitable Trusts report that looked at 16 urban districts including Philadelphia found that there is no consensus among researchers about what form of governance is best for a school district. But even if it were a good idea, dismantling the SRC would be no easy feat. The members would essentially have to vote themselves out of existence—something advocates are urging them to do by year’s end. And let’s not forget that the reason we ended up with an SRC in the first place was the failure of the system that came before. Adopting an elected school board won’t magically fix a history of mismanagement, racial divisions and imbalanced, withering funds.

By the end of the 20th century, Philadelphia’s public schools were slipping towards early 19th century standards of “indigent,” disadvantaged, poorly-divided student bodies. We appealed to our state government. They ignored us. We threatened. They created the SRC. The unpaid members of the School Reform Commission probably don’t deserve the level of ire aimed at them, but with a history of insult being added to injury, it’s no wonder that feelings among students, parents, and educators in Philadelphia can be a bit raw.

For some ideas on of how the SRC could be improved to better serve our community, click here.

Header Photo: Emma Lee

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