This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
This spring, a series of posts by Ron Whitehorne on the Notebook blog explored the recent history of School District governance and the idea of bringing Philadelphia schools back under local control. This is a condensed version. For the full series, click here.
For almost 10 years, Philadelphia schools have been governed by a five-member School Reform Commission. The governor appoints three commissioners, and the mayor appoints two. The citizens of Philadelphia, uniquely in the commonwealth, have no say in the selection of this body and no effective way of removing its members.
After an initial wave of popular resistance to the state takeover, the public education stakeholders and the city’s citizenry largely acquiesced to the SRC. Education reformers shifted their sights. Governance was pretty much a settled question.
But this might be changing.
Now, with a huge budget deficit looming, we need school leadership that is accountable to Philadelphians and that can mobilize them to meet this crisis through a democratic, transparent process.
Ten years ago we had a school board appointed by the mayor and nominated by a panel of civic notables, who were selected by the mayor based on criteria enumerated in the city’s charter. While the school board had broad oversight for District policy and administration, it lacked the power to appropriate funds. Then, as now, Philadelphia City Council controlled the purse strings.
Over the years, the school board had its share of strong leaders and advocates, but membership was largely drawn from the city’s elites, and community-based activists were under-represented. While the board was grounded in local politics, the absence of elections limited accountability and meant that there was no broad forum for debating education issues.
Why an elected school board?
An elected school board is no panacea. Without a broad-based, well-informed movement for quality public education, it is unlikely that we will see positive change regardless of what form of governance we have.
The question is what system would provide the best context for building and sustaining such a movement? Instead of simply petitioning the SRC or school board to address our many issues, we could take our case directly to the voters, building support for positive reforms, educating the public, and, ultimately, electing supportive candidates.
If a movement for altering the way schools are governed is to gain traction, it has to be able to connect with longstanding grievances about our schools and link them with a reform program. Few will be drawn to an abstract debate about the virtues of an elected versus an appointed board or state versus local control.
What steps would it require?
First, we have to return the School District to local control.
There is no time limit on the state takeover. The state Secretary of Education can ask the School Reform Commission to dissolve itself, terminate the superintendent, and return authority to the board of education. This would require a majority vote by the SRC. The dissolution would be effective at the end of the school year.
The alternative is for the state legislature to amend or repeal Acts 46 and 83, a much heavier lift.
If the SRC is dissolved, authority would be returned to the board of education.
Step two is to make the appointed board an elected board. This would require a charter change amendment. This can occur in two ways. City Council, by a two-thirds vote, can put the question on the ballot or, failing that, a petition signed by 20,000 registered voters can have the same result.
Obviously a campaign with these twin aims would require a major effort by education and civic activists who are already stretched thin.
There is little point in changing the charter unless the state commits to returning the schools to local control. So that campaign would be job one, and it clearly would not be easy. And some might argue that given all the other challenges we face, why should we tilt at this windmill?
My response is that education activists could make an elected school board part of a broad school reform platform. It’s a logical extension of the call for giving the community a stronger voice.
The responses to this series, as well as sentiments expressed at some public meetings, indicate there is growing interest in this issue. Hopefully these shoots of interest will mature into something more powerful.