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Houstoun seeks ‘on the ground’ perspectives

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When Feather Houstoun headed Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare, she traversed the state with a co-worker and slept in every one of the state mental hospitals, “all three shifts.”

Houstoun, the newest member of the School Reform Commission, has a long history of working for and leading government agencies. She was also New Jersey’s state treasurer, the executive director of that state’s Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, and chief financial officer of SEPTA.

Most recently she headed the William Penn Foundation.

Public education is new territory for her. She said in an interview last week that she is trying to learn as much as she can.

“I’m still catching up,” she said.

But one thing she does know: Budgets must be managed well. And based on her prior government experience, she said it is important for policy-makers to get an on-the-ground perspective.

In her public positions, “what I have tended to do is spend enough time in the field to feel I have a clear-eyed view of the dynamics of the organization,” she said. For the Philadelphia schools, that means observing “the experiences of the teacher on the front lines, so I can understand the implications of what people propose.”

Houstoun, a Republican, worked for two well-known GOP governors, Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania and Tom Kean in New Jersey. She was nominated to the SRC by yet another Tom, Gov. Tom Corbett.

After years of funding increases under Gov. Rendell, Corbett slashed education spending by nearly $1 billion statewide, with about a quarter of that amount falling on Philadelphia. Houstoun said that the cuts should have come as no surprise, given Corbett’s campaign positions. Cost pressures are a reality, she said: “The public attitude towards resources is very different than it was three or four years ago.”

And while she thinks money matters and is concerned about inequity, more funding doesn’t always translate into higher achievement, she noted. She cited the example of Camden, an impoverished but high-spending district – due to a court order ordering the state to send it and other poor districts more aid. Its schools are still deeply troubled.

Some organizations “waste opportunities with new money, while there are others where leaders take great advantage,” Houstoun said.

Houstoun spoke carefully when asked whether she agrees with Corbett’s favored education agenda of expanding charter schools and providing vouchers for students to attend private schools. She emphasized the city’s Great Schools Compact that proposes to eliminate 50,000 low-performing seats in traditional public and charter schools and replace them with high-performing seats.

“To me, the notion that we are aiming at closing, substituting, transforming low-quality experiences to high-quality experiences is certainly the way to go,” she said. That includes, she pointed out, replicating the best traditional public schools and closing poor performing charters.

As for vouchers that students could take to private and parochial schools: “Talking about vouchers in isolation is not useful,” she said. But every child in a low performing school, she said, “should be offered an alternative, the opportunity to go somewhere else.”

Weighing in on other District issues, Houstoun said that she favors restorative justice approaches to school discipline and used variations of it in state hospitals when at the Department of Public Welfare. She said she would “have to be persuaded” that arming school police would lead to safer schools, but thinks that they must be better trained.

Houstoun is coming onto a body that is making a strong push for transparency in its deliberations and she is in favor of that. But she notes that the members might actually change their minds during the course of discussions and should not be penalized for that by the press and public.

Mostly, Houstoun is excited that the five members on the reconstituted body comprise an “extraordinary” group. Ramos is an attorney and former school board president; Wendell Pritchett a college chancellor; Lorene Cary a writer and college professor; Joseph Dworetzky an attorney and former city solititor.

“We all understand the importance of the [budget] issue, but we’re all coming at it from a different place,” she said. “I have an immense respect for what the others are bringing to it.”