This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
City Councilman Bill Green has long taken a special interest in the School District of Philadelphia, and a few years ago he laid out a detailed education agenda that, in essence, favored the abolition of the School Reform Commission, expansion of charters, and more parental choice.
Sources confirm that the councilman now would like to head the SRC and has spoken to members of Gov. Corbett’s administration. One Harrisburg source said that Green is "definitely in the mix" as Corbett looks to fill the vacancy left by Pedro Ramos, who resigned for personal reasons. A second vacancy is expected when Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky’s term expires in January. Dworetzky is a holdover appointment of former Gov. Ed Rendell.
In an interview, Green would not comment on whether he is interested in the SRC post or had talked to Corbett’s team about it. However, he was willing to discuss education policy generally and clarify how his thinking has evolved since he released the policy papers on the School District in 2010 and 2011.
In essence, he said that he had been influenced by more recent data analyses and research on the school reform movement. He no longer thinks that simply creating more charters and shrinking the District, in and of itself will solve the city’s educational problems. He would not abolish the SRC. And he has much more faith in the leadership of Superintendent William Hite than he did in former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who led the District when he wrote the papers.
“The thrust of the papers is true, in terms of the intent of the policies behind them, but the means is not necessarily what was provided in those papers,” Green said. “The most important thing is that now we have more and more data. I would look at it today in terms of all the evidence and data that exist today and the leadership of the District today vs. the leadership of the District at the time I was writing those papers."
In the 2011 paper, Green advocated splitting the governance of Philadelphia schools between the city and the state by creating two separate entities, a state Recovery School District and a Philadelphia Board of Education.
The RSD members, appointed by the state secretary of education, would have been in charge of turning around all the low-performing schools in the state, not just those in Philadelphia.
A reconstituted Board of Education, with members appointed by the mayor, would have been in charge only of the city’s high-performing schools.
The plan was based on the Recovery School District in Louisiana, which was created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Ten years later, 80 percent of NOLA’s public school students are in charters.
Green said he would not advocate that governance structure today. And he said that he now is convinced that a school doesn’t have to be a charter in order to have the elements of a successful school.
"I have much less of a preference for where the good seats are," he said. "The general policy I hold is to create good seats and eliminate bad seats as quickly as possible, regardless of whether they are in existing public schools or charter schools, or any other method. We need good seats. … Some research would say that you have to take a hard look at charters and make sure you are shutting the [ineffective ones] down."
Green was influenced by M. Night Shyamalan’s book, “I Got Schooled.” The movie director looked at data and concluded that schools were successful not because they were charters, but because they shared certain characteristics. Shyamalan concluded that five things were key: having effective teachers (and the ability to remove ineffective ones), enough time (as in longer days and years), a principal able to concentrate on improving teaching methods and building a positive school culture, constant feedback for teachers and principals, and smaller size in terms of enrollment. Shyamalan says that schools must do all these things — they can’t try two or three and expect to do better.
But Green doesn’t know whether the District is "nimble" enough to make the necessary changes. “The fundamental question the District has yet to answer is, Can they bring best practices … into poorly performing neighborhood schools or not?” Green said.
In his 2011 paper, Green wrote: “The age of school districts having monopoly power over publicly supported education has passed. We must now move aggressively, purposefully, and quickly to put in place a system of great schools. … For meaningful school reform to occur on the massive scale Philadelphia desperately needs, reform initiatives cannot be shoe-horned into the existing District bureaucracy and made to compete with other priorities and mandated responsibilities for scarce resources.”
Green said, though, that leadership is important. And he said that he likes Hite, calling him "the right person" for the job now. But he declined to comment on any of Hite’s specific policies.
The councilman also declined to comment directly on whether he thinks the District needs more resources to do its job more effectively. Instead, he reiterated that Ackerman spent money on her reform plan, Imagine 2014, that has had no lasting effect. He said that she counted on competitive federal grants that never materialized to fund her programs.
“She wasted hundreds of millions a year on unsustainable programs," he said. "We [Council] pointed this out to them in advance. They ignored it." Ackerman’s main legacy, he said, is the Renaissance Schools initiative, in which low-performing schools are converted to charters.
Green did not speak about whether he thinks the teachers’ union is an impediment to reform, instead taking a page from Shyamalan’s book, which calls on policymakers to resist the urge to reduce the debate to a battle between good guys and bad guys. In his 2011 paper, he gave some space to the idea of “pilot” schools, which are prominent in Boston. These schools are operated by teams of teachers who are union members, but who don’t operate under the union contract. He called it a “faculty takeover.” There have been several attempts to do something like that in Philadelphia, but they have never really gotten off the ground. In Boston, these schools get help and support from a resource center.
He also declined to speak about adequacy or equity issues in relation to how schools are funded. In his 2010 paper, Green did speak positively of the costing-out study that said Philadelphia needed about $1 billion more a year to adequately educate its students. In his 2011 paper, however, Green had moved away from calling for more government investment. Instead, he said that effective reforms — primarily, charters — would draw more private dollars. He noted that charters “with proven models of instruction” have received huge sums of philanthropic dollars, while traditional public schools receive very little because “private donors have shown little willingness to contribute toward perpetuating the status quo.”
Said Green: “Data and evidence are going to influence decision making in terms of education policy for me."
According to media reports, several other candidates are in consideration for the open SRC spots. They include Farah Jimenez, head of the People’s Emergency Center; Al Mezzaroba, former president of the Pennsylvania Convention Center; and Dr. Keith Leaphart, president of Replica Global LLC, a design and printing firm.
Green would have to resign his Council post to take an SRC position.