This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera has officially approved the demise of the School Reform Commission and the return of the School District of Philadelphia to local control, formally ending 16 turbulent years of state governance.
Gov. Wolf made the announcement after Rivera sent a letter to the SRC approving its recommendation for self-destruction and rescinding the District’s designation as "distressed." Rivera had until Dec. 31 to act on the SRC’s move; the dissolution will take effect on June 30, 2018.
A nine-member Board of Education appointed by Mayor Kenney and vetted by City Council will take control of the District on July 1.
“Quality public schools are essential for our economy and our future, and the improvements made by the district in recent years have been significant,” said Wolf in a statement. “My administration has made public education a top priority and local control with strong state support will make the district stronger."
Wolf, who is running for re-election this year, said that local control will "allow those improvements to continue, and will better serve the needs of the district’s students and schools."
Rivera, a former Philadelphia teacher and principal, said in his letter to the SRC that he had conducted a "comprehensive review" and concluded that return to local control was merited, even though the District is facing huge deficits in the future. He said he was influenced by Kenney’s vow that the city would become more involved in the District and his "public commitment to fulfilling the District’s financial needs."
In a statement, Rivera said: “Over the past sixteen years, the District has overcome many challenges, despite the many difficulties facing public school districts all over the country and the limitations imposed on the powers of the SRC. … The district no longer exhibits the factors that caused it to be placed in distress."
The state took over the District because of its fiscal problems, but, after the first few years, it did not give Philadelphia any special consideration when distributing state education dollars. In fact, about $1 billion in cuts made by Gov. Tom Corbett after he took office in 2011 affected most districts, but they were especially harsh on Philadelphia, which absorbed about a quarter of the reductions. That triggered massive layoffs of teachers, nurses, and counselors, from which the District is only now recovering.
For the last few years, Superintendent William Hite has been restoring nurses, counselors, and art and music teachers, in addition to making other investments. This year, the District’s academics, as measured by state test scores, have shown a small uptick. The strongest gains have been in the lower grades, reflecting an emphasis on early literacy.
Rivera praised the District’s "work to improve [its] academic and fiscal condition," but also stated in his letter: "I am also aware that the mayorally-appointed Board of Education will continue to face many challenges … including addressing the District’s projected deficit." Although it has run small surpluses for the last few years –providing the window of stability needed to trigger the change in governance – the latest estimates put it $700 million in the hole by fiscal 2022.
Rivera also noted that much of the District’s budget depends on state actions – or the lack of same.
"I must also be sensitive to the fact that a significant portion of the expenditures that could impact upon the District’s financial health – including pensions, health benefits and charter school tuition costs – are outside of the District’s immediate control and are the same challenges faced by districts across Pennsylvania. Moreover, I have no evidence upon which I could conclude that continuing the SRC’s control of the District will improve its ability to address these challenges."
The move was praised by public school advocates and teachers’ union representatives, but SRC member Bill Green said he believes Rivera’s certification was rushed by the governor out of political expediency.
“The process got rushed at the last minute to be done by Dec. 31, so he can campaign this year saying the SRC was eliminated, which was one of his campaign promises,” said Green. “Which is unfortunate – to bring politics into what would’ve been a smooth and responsible transition.”
Activists had pushed for the end of SRC control before the upcoming election, both as a matter of principle and as a hedge against a scenario where a Republican hostile to the District’s needs unseated Wolf.
“Now is the right time for local control. It’s time for the SRC to dissolve,” said Jim Engler, the top official for policy and legislation in the Mayor’s Office. “We can return to a locally controlled school board that we think is going to be more responsive to local needs.”
Kenney moved from philosophical support for local control during his campaign to concerns, as mayor, whether a governance change would actually improve the education of children in the city. He ultimately concluded that the city needed to take control of its education system for the sake of its future.
While initially fearing political repercussions, he realized that the major advocates for the takeover in Harrisburg had moved on and current leaders in Harrisburg were neither invested nor particularly interested in having power over the system. The District was declared distressed in December 2001 by then-Secretary of Education Charles Zogby, who was appointed by Gov. Tom Ridge. (At the time of the declaration, Ridge had moved to Washington to become the first secretary of homeland security and Mark Schweiker was governor.)
Rivera said that the District and the city had developed an appropriate transition plan. Kenney expects to name members of a nominating committee in January for school board candidates. By February, the committee will give him 27 names – three for each of the nine openings. Once named, members will receive training, attend SRC action meetings, and form committees.
Rivera and Wolf thanked those who had served on the SRC over its 16-year existence. Current chair Joyce Wilkerson, who was an aide to Mayor John Street when the state takeover occurred, issued a statement:
“This is an important next step to return our schools to local control. We thank PDE for their diligence and for their decision to move the process forward.”
Read Rivera’s declaration on PDE’s website.
Bobby Allyn of WHYY contributed reporting.