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Study looks at question of local governance for Philly schools

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

Is it time to abolish the School Reform Commission?

Lately, the topic has made its way from the parlor chatter of policy wonks to the eyes and ears of an education-minded public.

And state and city officials, too, have taken recent actions toward stripping control from the appointed five-member board that has presided over the School District of Philadelphia since the state took over more than a decade ago.

Gov.-elect Tom Wolf said he supported abolishing the SRC in favor of an elected school board.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes introduced legislation (later voted down) that would allow the governor, acting through his education secretary, to remove the SRC.

City Council has already shown that it wants voters to weigh in on the question.

And City Councilman David Oh introduced a bill that would lay the groundwork for a local school board.

These and other actions were noted by Research for Action in a policy brief released last month that was meant to inform the growing debate about Philadelphia school governance.

The study recounts the history of school governance in Philadelphia and briefly addresses whether the SRC has met its expectations — mainly financial solvency, leadership stability, and improving student outcomes.

"After over a decade of SRC oversight, many of the problems that prompted [the school takeover law] still plague the district," the report said.

The report also compared the governing bodies of 10 large urban school districts, both appointed and elected, to see whether one works better than the other. The study found that there are tradeoffs with either type of school board.

"Elected school boards give the public a voice in local education and can help facilitate community buy-in to the decisions made regarding local schools," it states. The downside, the report finds, is that few candidates run and voter turnout in off-year elections is low in most urban districts with elected school boards.

With appointed boards, government officials tend to be more closely aligned with school board members than to the general public, according to the report. But, on the plus side, the report found, "this alignment may facilitate the development of common reform strategies between the governing board and school district officials and the allocation of district resources."

Research for Action also looked at the roles and responsibilities of city school boards. They found that research on effective school boards has identified common traits. According to the brief, good school boards make student achievement a priority, pay keen attention to policy without getting too involved in day-to-day operations, and make sure resources align with district goals. Another characteristic of effective school boards is that members have "strong relationships" with district leaders and the community.

The report also notes that building-level governance is something to consider. It cited the role that School Advisory Councils play in the Renaissance Schools initiative, adding that "such councils need not be restricted to a subset of district schools." The report highlighted Chicago, where all public schools have elected councils that approve school budgets, select principals, and monitor school improvement plans.

With school governance reform on the minds of Philadelphians, the research brief suggests that as the debate continues, people think beyond "state versus local," or "appointed versus elected."

"Regardless of the level of governance or the selection process," the report concludes, "members of any leadership body will need to address the ongoing financial and academic issues that have plagued the district for years with the authority granted them."

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