This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In April, the mayor announced a new Board of Education for the School District. On July 1, the Board of Education will replace the School Reform Commission, whose members were appointed by the mayor (two members) and the governor (three members). The SRC voted to disband itself.
As students, we need to know about who is making the decisions for our schools! One reason we care is because of the funding for our schools. So it’s important that the mayor says we will find more money from the city now, with a school board.
We interviewed Ron Whitehorne to learn more about the SRC. He opposed the SRC for many years and even applied to be on the new school board to have more influence on education in
Philadelphia. He wasn’t named to the board, however.
Ron Whitehorne, a retired teacher, has been a political activist in Philadelphia for four and a half decades, with ties to the civil rights, labor, and anti- Vietnam War movements. He became a teacher in the 1980s and was a longtime Philadelphia Federation of Teachers building representative and co-chaired the teachers’ union community out-reach committee.
We asked him about himself.
I wasn’t born in Philly; I grew up in Vermont. I came here in the 1960s and got active in civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movement. I started working with students. We did “liberation schools” to reteach American history, which then left out people of color. I became a teacher at Julio DeBurgos Middle School for 20 years.
While teaching and after retiring, I was active in education organizing and advocacy, fighting for the rights of students, parents, and teachers for improved schools. Currently, I am a mem-
ber of 215 People’s Alliance, trying to build movement for economic and racial justice. I waged a fight against the SRC. I am currently focused on better funding for schools.
We wanted to know why he opposed the SRC.
It’s undemocratic for the state, overwhelmingly white, to decide about schools in a city that’s overwhelmingly people of color. Everyone else [in other districts] gets to decide how they run their own schools. It’s racist. The policies that were pursued under state control were bad, and they didn’t consult with voters, parents. They introduced privatization. There was a growth of charters, and they handed schools over to charters under their watch.
When [Tom] Corbett was governor, the budget was cut to the bone. When the SRC came in, the argument was that we’d get more funding. But we didn’t!
For clarity on his organization, we asked what steps he and the group took to get the SRC to end itself.
Our coalition, Our City Our Schools, was around for two years. A lot of work was going on before that, since the SRC came. In particular, there were student and parent groups who wanted to stop the state takeover. At first, they were going to turn over schools to a for-profit company, Edison. They paid them to study what was best, and Edison said Edison should take it over. But because of the pushback, they couldn’t do that. So there was a movement from the very beginning opposed to the SRC. There were protests all along.
A turning point was when Tom Corbett became governor. During that time, they came up with a plan and hired an outside group, Boston Consulting, to develop a plan. The hallmark was that we should get the schools “we can afford.” That meant get rid of libraries, nurses, give teachers a pay cut, put kids in front of computers. That pushed people to say that we really have to fight this.
This fight led to the Philadelphia Coalition [Advocating] for Public Schools in 2012. That was a bigger and stronger coalition that included student groups, unions, parent groups. I worked for that organization. That group did a lot to mobilize people. Some people went to jail for civil disobedience against the budget cuts and the plan they had.
We got 40,000 people to sign a petition to put the question about abolishing the SRC on the ballot. City Council didn’t want to do that, but it did. It was on the ballot in 2015, and over 90
percent wanted to get rid of it. It was a nonbinding referendum, so they didn’t have to do anything, but it showed that there wasn’t any support for the SRC.That laid the groundwork for the current coalition.
Some people thought we would have to live with the SRC, but the new coalition said we have to
get rid of it. We would be stuck with it if the current governor didn’t get re-elected and a Republican governor could add his own people. We saw this as a window of opportunity. We targeted the mayor. We needed a majority who would vote to dissolve themselves. We met with Mayor Kenney about it. One member of our group, a young woman with green hair, was very strident, and every time he would be somewhere, she and other people would ask him about it. We don’t know why he decided to do it, because he didn’t run on this as his platform. It took some pushing, but I think he got it that if he didn’t do it now, he might be stuck with a Republican SRC.
We met with all the new [SRC] commissioners who were open to this. We met with the secretary of education, Pedro Rivera, who worked in Philadelphia before. The governor agreed. We made a lot of noise at the SRC, and hundreds of people showed up. I sang to them one time.
We asked him about the differences and similarities between the SRC and a school board. We wondered if this new school board would be just like the the old one before the SRC.
There are some efforts to make the new school board different. The process this mayor went for was more inclusive than the old school board many years ago. The mayor still gets to appoint, but they asked people to apply. Five hundred people applied. There was a nominating committee.We wanted a student representative [a voting representative] and we wanted to get rid of the fact that they said you had to be a registered voter [so undocumented people could be on it]. Of the 27 [people] nominated, there weren’t enough parents of color from low-income communities and very few educators with lots of experience.
It will clearly be better than the SRC. The mayor will be more accountable to Philadelphia than the legislature and governor. The terms of the people who will be appointed will be the same as the mayor’s term.
We also wanted to know what he thought about the differences a school board will make for students and how these changes would benefit students.
The SRC didn’t care what anyone said, especially students, teachers, parents. They weren’t accountable to us. Rather, they were accountable mainly to the state. Hopefully, the new board will be more open to the input from students, parents, etc. There are no guarantees. We will still have to organize and push our agenda. We should ultimately have an elected school board. That’s what we need, because that’s real accountability and we could vote people out.
The fight about funding is important. It’s positive that the mayor wants to fund the schools, and he’s right that the state doesn’t want to. The city doesn’t have the resources. He’s letting, like, corporations and universities off the hook; they aren’t paying enough taxes, or any taxes in some cases. We’re calling for “mega nonprofits,” like big universities and insurance companies— they should agree to pay property taxes, though legally, they don’t have to. We want them to pay half of what they would pay if they were taxed.
For example, the University of Pennsylvania has an endowment that is as big as some countries. What they like to do is “charity,” like funding the Penn Alexander school in West Phila-
delphia. And mainly Penn employees can send their children there. They want to say that’s our contribution, but we are saying they should pay a dedicated amount that the city can control and give to many schools.
We wanted to know about his teaching experience and experience at the school and in that neighborhood.
DeBurgos was in Kensington/North Philadelphia. The school was predominately Puerto Rican, secondarily black, and with a handful of whites. The school was created to have a strong bi-lingual program.
It’s the poorest neighborhood, and there’s a heavy drug trade. The school was under-resourced. They had a program to teach Spanish, but they never had enough teachers to do it. There were a lot of problems at the school. The building was falling apart. Some classrooms would be below freezing, and other classrooms would be 100 degrees. We fought for a new building, and then we got one. When students go to school in a building like that, it sends them a message about how important they are.
One of the gargoyles fell and almost killed a student. I saw all the injustices and the racism concentrated there. We had some committed teachers and others who disrespected the students and didn’t care.