This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Marjorie Neff (center) at a District press conference in June, when Superintendent William Hite, with the support of many principals, called for more funding. Marjorie Neff was looking forward to retirement after nearly 40 years as an educator when Mayor Nutter surprised her by asking if she would serve on the School Reform Commission.
"I was intending to do advocacy work, and when the mayor asked me, I thought this might be one way to continue that from the inside rather than from the outside," said Neff, who just retired after eight years as principal of Masterman School.
Neff, speaking by telephone during a summer respite at the Shore, frankly acknowledged that she wasn’t quite sure what she was getting into. But when she thought about it, she said, declining the offer wasn’t an option at this watershed moment.
More than just in Philadelphia, she said, there is a "national trend" toward "an abandonment of public education."
It is a manifestation, Neff thinks, of a belief that "I’ve got mine, I’m not going to worry about anybody else’s. … Part of the problem here is that people in Harrisburg are talking about other people’s children, not their own children."
This lack of concern for the well-being of others "is no way to run a country, a city, or a state," she said.
She doesn’t know yet what she in particular can do in her new position to affect this. But Neff is an educator with front-line knowledge of what happens when schools don’t get what they need. In fact, she will be the first K-12 educator to join the SRC in its 12-year history.
Several retired teachers and principals served on the old Board of Education — one, Dorothy Rush, was a former mentor of Neff’s. During another tumultous time, the legendary Ruth Hayre went from being just the second African American secondary-level teacher ever in Philadelphia to its first Black high school principal to president of the Board of Education.
Although Neff expects to bring her knowledge and experience to SRC decisions, she doesn’t see herself as advising Superintendent William Hite on educational policies. She is familiar with his strategic vision, Action Plan 2.0, but she said that the constant scramble for adequate resources has limited Hite’s ability to clarify and implement his belief system.
"As a member of the SRC, it is not my job to tell Dr. Hite what the plan is, but to engage in a collaborative way in talking about what his vision is for implementation, what’s [behind] the choices he is making," she said. "I have felt that in the past year or two that it’s been about trying to make things work when you don’t have the money to do it, and that’s a hard thing to ask him to do."
As a result, she said, "What I really want to be able to do is continue to fight for the resources that we need in Philadelphia in order to educate children. I want to make sure there is congruence between What does it mean to transform schools? and How much is it going to cost?"
Neff, a native of Pittsburgh, spent 38 years in the Philadelphia school system and two working in a small town in Salem County, N.J. She started out teaching 7th-grade social studies in Ada Lewis Middle School in Mount Airy, where she worked with Rush. Subsequently she was certified in special education, worked as a resource room teacher, and then for several years served as an instructional support teacher under the federal Title I program.
She was appointed principal of Powel Elementary School in 1996 and 10 years later became principal of Masterman, the city’s premier special admission school.
As a young teacher, she walked the picket lines in several strikes, including the one that lasted 50 days in 1981. That strike was precipitated when the mayor at the time refused to give the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers a 10 percent raise that had been negotiated before he took office.
That mayor, by the way, was the father of current SRC chairman Bill Green.
Altered versions of the same basic battle are still going on, with the union, its members and its contract being cast as impediments to school improvement. Given her experience, this worries her.
"One of the things I’ve been deeply concerned about is demonizing the very people who have responsibility for making changes, the teachers," she said. "We have to be careful about that. You can always trot out the teacher here or there who isn’t doing his or her job, and as an administrator, I say get rid of them. But on the whole, I think we have to be careful about being on the attack as much as we are."
This attack makes it harder to keep and retain the best teachers, she said. "I watched two excellent teachers leave Masterman this year. One left the profession entirely. How are you going to keep and attract great teachers if all the narrative is that everything is their fault?"
The state and the SRC are asking teachers to take pay cuts, restructure their benefits and alter some work rules. And Gov. Corbett has tried to tie some state aid to teacher concessions.
Some change in the contract is necessary, she said.
"Do I think the PFT will have to make some sacrifices in this contract? Yes, I do. Do I understand what’s being asked of them is pretty substantial? Yes. But these people have families. Maybe I’m a bit of a Pollyanna, but I wish we could all find a way to sit down and work this out."
At the same time, she was appalled by some of her interactions with legislators in Harrisburg when she went with other principals to lobby for more funds. They were blunt in wanting to trade votes on other pet issues in return for fulfilling their obligation to provide Philadelphia schools with enough funds to operate.
Even then, she said, "I’m not sure Harrisburg would give Philadelphia the money even if all the concessions they want were in place."
Neff also said she wants to debunk "the myth" that selective schools like Masterman get more resources than those in poorer areas. It is not so, she said. Like other schools, Masterman lost teachers, counselors, support staff and money for supplies. And it had no money for gifted education, despite having 741 gifted students from all parts of the city, all ethnic backgrounds, and varied income levels. This just exacerbated inherent inequalities, she said.
"The more affluent families could make up for what was lost," she said. "But other kids were left behind, because the families can’t afford to fill in the gaps for them."
She said she was disturbed that during the administration of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, an "us against them" mentality developed over internal fund allocation. Ackerman was a believer in weighted student funding, a system in which students with more needs are allocated more funds, regardless of where they go to school.
"Instead of fighting over who gets the pennies, we should be fighting together for more dollars," Neff said.
As for the SRC meetings themselves, Neff said that she is sensitive to concerns that many advocates say that it is not responsive to them, often cutting them off and refusing to answer questions or engage in dialogue.
"I would be incredibly frustrated if I was [speaking] and there was no response," she said. "I would love to have a dialogue, but then how long would those meetings be? Maybe there are other ways as a District, as an SRC, to increase dialogue and build trust."
She is not sure how to do that, "but that’s what I would like to be involved in working on, being more responsive to the needs of the community in a way that’s not overwhelming" to the members.
Neff acknowledged that she is still "not sure I made the right decision" in accepting the position. "And If I don’t feel I can contribute, I’ll stop. But I feel it’s an opportunity to contribute, and I’m going to give it a try."
Neff is the mother of two sons who went through the Philadelphia public school system. One, activist Jacob Winterstein, "thinks I’ve gone over to the dark side," she laughed. The other, Micah, is studying to be a teacher. His reaction, "Oh, good, now all those people can yell at you."