The five-member School Reform Commission is due for a makeover come January, and the potential changes have far-reaching consequences for the Philadelphia School District.
The terms of three of the five members will expire then – Feather Houstoun, Chair Marjorie Neff, and Sylvia Simms. Houstoun was named by former Gov. Tom Corbett. Simms and Neff were appointed by former Mayor Michael Nutter. None of them have the expectation to be reappointed.
The other members, Bill Green and Farah Jimenez, were named by Corbett.
In the next few months, Gov. Wolf and Mayor Kenney must find three people with credibility and the willingness to serve – one of whom can withstand a confirmation process in the state Senate.
But it will be hard to convince one person to take the position, much less three. The job is unpaid and requires at least 30 hours of work in a slow month. It also demands decisions about a crucially important $3 billion government enterprise without having any control over how much money it has to spend and only limited control over how to spend it.
That’s before considering the impact of facing down an angry, boisterous, often disrespectful public at just about every meeting.
A big risk
Serving on the SRC is a big risk, especially for anyone with political ambitions, said Lori Shorr, who tried to recruit people for the commission as Nutter’s chief education officer.
“There are few ways to be a great SRC member where people appreciate your work, and 99 million ways for people to perceive you as a bad SRC member,” Shorr said.
The Renaissance initiative, in which low-performing District schools are converted to charters, is fraying. The newly energized charter office, which reports directly to the SRC, has recommended non-renewal for Olney and Audenried High Schools, and Stetson and Vare Middle Schools. The four once-flagship District schools are now operated by two prominent local community development organizations that have had mixed success as charter operators: Universal Companies operates Audenried and Vare, and ASPIRA runs Olney and Stetson.
Other issues confronting the SRC include the fact that there has been no contract for nearly four years with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. And the District, while running a small fund balance this year and next, is staring down a huge structural deficit that will take hold within the next few years. The District cannot raise its own revenue.
No wonder “it is very difficult to get highly qualified people to agree to serve on the SRC,” Shorr said.
The SRC is a creature of the state, formed in 2001 when Harrisburg took over the Philadelphia district. But the state has tied its hands in many ways. While charging the SRC with righting the District’s financial and academic ship, it walloped Philadelphia with funding cuts during the Corbett administration. Harrisburg Republicans have kept pressure on to expand charter schools in the city, while not revising the charter law for 20 years.
The takeover legislation gave the SRC special powers to suspend the school code – which it has done by trying to limit charter growth and imposing terms on the teachers’ union. But the law establishing the SRC was so broadly written that these powers were not spelled out sufficiently and have been nullified by the courts, while making enemies of the SRC on both sides of the contentious District vs. charter debate.
The District’s major problems, Shorr said, “have to be solved at the state level, but the state isn’t doing it. The SRC has become the whipping boy for everybody.”
There have been increasing calls for the District to be returned to local control – a change that cannot happen unless the SRC votes to disband itself. Both Kenney and Wolf have gone on record as saying they would favor a local school board.
Corbett, a Republican, and Nutter, a Democrat, were both friendlier to the District’s main reform strategy of "school turnaround" and creating a "portfolio of schools" than are their successors, Wolf and Kenney. Corbett was a big fan of privatizing low-achieving schools, while Nutter wanted more in-District turnaround than it ever was able to achieve.
Since the administration of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, most turnarounds have taken the form of converting low-performing schools to charters under the Renaissance schools initiative. This strategy has polarized the city, causing ugly scenes at SRC meetings when charter proponents and opponents, often including neighbors and parents with children in the same school, face off against each other.
Potential new era
Wolf and Kenney are cooler to this theory of change, and their appointees could usher in a new era. Both were backed in their campaigns by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which vociferously opposes any privatization.
Shortly after taking office, Wolf demoted Green from the SRC chairmanship and installed Neff in his place. She has since consistently voted against any charter expansion, while Green has been a steady advocate for choice and charters.
He is suing to regain the chairmanship, not just because of the philosophical difference, he says, but because he knows Neff does not want to be re-appointed. “Continuity” is important, he said.
“If you think of the forces you have to stand up to, whether city officials, labor unions, everybody else you have to say ‘no’ to, to do this properly you have to be willing to say ‘no’ often and loudly and articulate your reasons,” said Green. “A lot of people don’t want an unpaid position that requires you to say no to all of your friends all the time.”
He said that if Wolf “appoints somebody who entirely shares his views [on charters], that person will sit around nine months without getting approved” by a GOP legislature. “I would imagine the governor would have trouble confirming anybody that doesn’t hold the views of the Senate majority with respect to charters and other issues like that,” Green said.
Although the three commissioners’ terms expire in January, SRC members can stay until a replacement is found. It is unknown whether any of them would be willing to do that.
Problems promoting agenda
Wolf, who campaigned on his belief in sending more state education money to districts, has nevertheless had no success in convincing the Republican-led General Assembly that it should raise any taxes at all to fund his agenda. It took about nine months just to get a budget passed due to differences over education funding. The differences have not gone away, but this year is an election year and some expect that the governor and legislature will reach agreement on a budget close to the July 1 deadline.
But charter expansion and how much state aid goes to Philadelphia as opposed to the rest of the state are huge issues in Harrisburg, so any SRC appointee is likely to get close scrutiny.
Shorr said that the charter-District polarization would make it hard to find three credible, qualified people who are not perceived to be in one camp or the other.
“There are many smart, committed people to public education,” she said. “Many of them have set up camp on either the pro-union, pro-District side or on the pro-charter side of things. It will be hard to find somebody who can help create a middle dialogue on this work.”
Plus, there is the balance issue. “You can’t have all educators, all lawyers, all Black, all White, all men, all women,” she said. “And you want somebody who lives in the city, either has kids too old for school or has kids in public school, and comes without baggage.”
Houstoun, a Corbett appointee, has tried to steer a middle course. She has no expectation of remaining on the SRC after her term expires. Asked whether it was a thankless job, she responded that in a long career in public service, “I have never been thanked so much for the work I’m doing than here.”