This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
As Philadelphia transitions from governance by the state back to local control, it is useful to recall what precipitated the creation of the School Reform Commission in the first place.
Michael Masch is in a unique position to talk about this: He was a member of the old Board of Education, subsequently served on the SRC, and at different times, has served as the chief financial officer for the city, the state, and the School District.
“The origin of all this was an argument on behalf of [former Superintendent) David Hornbeck that the Philadelphia public schools did not have enough money to deliver an acceptable education to the students who were supposed to be served by the District,” Masch said.
To dramatize what he termed an injustice, Hornbeck threatened drastic action, namely, spending what he felt was necessary on enough teachers, counselors, and other resources until the District ran out of money.
Hornbeck’s approach, in Masch’s words, “was to spend the District into oblivion, create a crisis, and God knows what he thought was going to happen.” What did happen was that Republican Gov. Tom Ridge and the legislature created the SRC, a five-member body with a majority of gubernatorial appointees, to replace the nine-member Board of Education.
The SRC was designed to be temporary, in power only until the Philadelphia schools could get back on their financial feet. But it wasn’t until 17 years later that the body had achieved enough of a tenuous fiscal, educational, and political balance to vote itself out of existence, much to the joy of activists who were energized during this period to “take back our schools.”
But what will that mean?
“It’s not like the SRC was the problem and the new school board is the solution,” Masch cautioned. And, he said, in 2001: “It’s not like the old Board of Education was the problem and the SRC was the solution.”
A clash of political beliefs
The issues faced by the city’s schools – and urban education in general – go far deeper than governance. Philadelphia is still the poorest among the nation’s 10 biggest cities. The resources made available for public education aren’t sufficient to meet the need. The state legislature may have lost interest in directly controlling the schools of its largest city, but the underlying attitude in Harrisburg – that no amount of money will “fix” them – has not gone away.
For those on the left, the low performance of urban schools is all about money and poverty – not enough money and too much poverty. Those on the right believe urban schools don’t do well “because the people working in them have no idea what they’re doing, and that the solution is to change who is running the schools. Extreme conservatives believe these districts have plenty of money that is just not being spent wisely,” Masch said.
“You had then and still have today the clash about why urban education is so spectacularly unsuccessful.”
Little progress has been made in reconciling these viewpoints. One of the conditions imposed by the Ridge administration as part of the takeover was that Philadelphia drop a federal lawsuit that contended that the state’s system of funding public education was racially discriminatory. Today, a fair funding lawsuit before the state Supreme Court brought by six Pennsylvania school districts (not including Philadelphia) alleges that the state’s funding formula violates the state constitution and the equal protection rights of students.
The most recent filing in that case indicates that the gap between what Pennsylvania’s wealthiest districts spend and what the poorest spend has only grown, while districts are groaning under the weight of pension costs and actually have less money to spend in the classroom.
Although now the District is running small budgetary surpluses, its structural fiscal problem has not been solved. It was able to build up a small operating surplus over the last several years in part because a five-year stalemate with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers resulted in its members not getting raises for five years. On a year-to-year basis today, however, the District’s annual costs still outpace its stable, recurring revenues.
Its overall budget has gone up, to be sure, but, as the most recent lawsuit brings into full relief, much of the additional money is going into fixed costs like pensions, not into the classrooms.
The District’s budget fortunes during the SRC years fluctuated – spare during the administration of Republican governors and better during the term of Democrat Ed Rendell. Recognizing that correlation does not equal causation, a quick look at standardized test scores showed that some progress was made in a period roughly coinciding with the Rendell years, then a decline started.
Financially or academically, the District has still not recovered from devastating budget cuts under the administration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, starting in 2012, when schools were stripped of nurses, counselors, and other personnel just to make ends meet.
Despite the effort under Rendell to increase state aid to Philadelphia and other districts, the SRC era was marked mostly by the approach favored by the right: school turnarounds rather than an infusion of resources. Gov. Ridge originally wanted Edison Schools to run the entire district; instead, at the outset, management of 45 schools was outsourced to outside managers, an experiment later shown to have no discernible results in terms of student achievement.
SRC oversees charter expansion
Although charter schools were created under the old Board of Education after the passage of the state charter law in 1997, they became a permanent part of the landscape under the SRC.
For sure, said Christopher McGinley, who served on the SRC from January 2017 until earlier this year and is a member of the new Board of Education, “privatization was the charge given” to the new SRC. Before 2001, “You were dealing with single school operators and the District hadn’t embraced charter schools as seeing them as part of the solution,” he said. “That all came under the SRC.”
The SRC era coincided with the enactment of No Child Left Behind, the federal law that mostly followed the second playbook. By tracking test scores and breaking them down by race and ethnicity, NCLB exposed wide achievement gaps based on race, ethnicity, and poverty. It required states to identify the “failing” schools and put them into “turnaround,” which often included the ouster of principals and teachers deemed to be the cause of the low achievement.
Under the late former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, Philadelphia dove in with both feet through the Renaissance initiative. Today, more than 20 District schools have been converted to charters under the Renaissance program. This, in turn, led to the growth of charter management organizations, such as Mastery, which fueled their expansion by taking over low-performing District schools.
Masch said that he thought the “deal” that brought the SRC into existence was more money for more accountability and that the deal was broken by Corbett when he slashed funds.
But Feather Houstoun, who served on the SRC between 2011 and 2016, disagreed with that interpretation of what the SRC was meant to do.
“If anyone went into the SRC law thinking it was a permanent guarantee that the political winds and decision-making would not change over that period of time, that was never in the cards,” said Houstoun. “If anyone had asked me the question, does this mean the state will never let the District get into [financial] trouble again, I would say ‘no.’”
Houstoun said she “regretted” the Corbett budgets and recognized how difficult it was for the District. “But I don’t think he was breaching a guarantee the legislature gave by putting the SRC together.” The SRC mostly facilitated a big bond issue and deficit financing that “bought some time” for a district in fiscal and political turmoil, she said.
She said the hardest thing for her to deal with on the SRC, besides the persistent fiscal questions, was that the state charter law – and its defenders – “really did not appreciate the impact of charter school expansion, its financial and demographic impact,” as some charters “were recruiting in a way that made comparisons with District schools not fair either.” Charter expansion also led, in part, to the “painful” vote to close 22 District schools in 2013, she said.
“The charter sector and the District sector didn’t engage for a long period of time, and that weakened the District in a lot of ways that wouldn’t have happened if the District could have thought about that constructively a lot sooner,” Houstoun said.
She said the charter office was not beefed up until the last few years. And rather than constructive dialogue over why so many parents were choosing charters – often for climate and safety reasons rather than academics – the District and charter sectors continue to be at odds.
“There could have been habits and better rules of engagement built up that could have made the District-charter relationship more predictable and useful to both sides,” she said.
By the end of the SRC’s term, she said, “we are now spending our bandwidth on improving schools, not worrying about fiscal stress. And for an urban school district, that’s progress. To have a period of relative stability in leadership and finances is really a big deal for urban school districts.”
Houstoun spent her career in state governments and foundation administration.
McGinley, a former Philadelphia teacher and principal who went on to lead two suburban school districts as superintendent, largely agrees with Houstoun regarding charters.
“Unless there is movement in [revising] the state charter law, there will be additional charters in the future of the District no matter who is in charge,” McGinley said.
During the board members’ listening sessions this spring, “we heard both the fear of expansion and charter parents’ fear of viable options going away. I don’t think the current dialogue between the District and charter schools is productive, and I hope there’s a change in that, even in the absence of revising the state law.”
He thinks that the new board “has the capacity to change some of the animus in that divide. We’re all dealing with inadequate resources. We don’t stand together as one city because we’re so divided between public and public charter. We have the obligation to work through that so we can be more effective in telling people what works in Philadelphia.”
McGinley said that on the fiscal side, the SRC bears some responsibility for the fiscal crisis because of how it allowed Ackerman to spend federal stimulus dollars that came in the wake of the 2008 recession. The state used those dollars to replace some state aid – and then Corbett didn’t replace the funds when the stimulus funds dried up.
“The challenge was to figure out, in the midst of this economic crisis, how can we use this money” on non-recurring expenditures such as buying a new curriculum set, said McGinley, who was superintendent in Lower Merion when this happened.
Instead, Philadelphia used much of it to create jobs and positions – parent liaisons, for instance – that were not well-defined and then went away. “Every superintendent I knew at the time was shocked at what Philadelphia did with their money,” he said.
Marjorie Neff, who was SRC chair for most of 2015-16, was principal of Masterman during the fiscal crisis and remembers the consequences.
“The year before I left was the year the District was in such dire straits that we cut back staff in every school. I started the school year with the principal, a secretary, and teachers, and that was it,” she said. “And we had fewer teachers than in the past. That was the worst. I’ve been in the District almost my entire career, and I can’t remember another time that was that difficult or painful. All discretionary money was gone.”
As for the state, she certainly saw no evidence that legislators felt a special responsibility to Philadelphia because the state was in control of the District.
“In Harrisburg, getting a meeting with anyone not in [Philadelphia’s] delegation was always challenging,” Neff said. It was a shock to her that explaining how teachers and students were being deprived had little or no impact. “I figured if you told the truth, it would make a difference. I figured if you were honest about it, somebody would listen.” Not so.
The legacy of the SRC, she said, “is one of unrealized promise.”
A moment of opportunity
Pedro Ramos was the president of the old school board when it disbanded and then was chair of the SRC in 2011-13. The city today is very different from the one that saw the beginning of the SRC.
“I think the great moment and opportunity for the restored school board is to provide for the needs of current parents, prospective parents and taxpayers who have greater expectations and need for the schools now more than ever with the city’s transformation to a younger, growing city,” he said.
The city is more stable than it has been during much of the recent past, and Ramos sees “some political will” to make local schools a priority in terms of local spending priorities. It’s very different from the world that existed when the SRC was created, he said, when most young parents with any means figured they would need a “workaround” for education. Now, there is more interest in staying and using the local schools.
“I agree with the mayor that the future of the city depends on assuring that local schools succeed,” he said.
He also agrees with Estelle Richman, the SRC’s final chair in its lame-duck days, that the city must better integrate its services with the schools and, from a political perspective, stop treating the schools as having less of a claim on local tax dollars than the city itself does. The District’s governing bodies – the previous school board, the SRC, and the new board alike – do not have any power to raise taxes.
Richman, who served in both the city and state public welfare and human services departments, wants more services in schools and greater recognition that issues regarding food, housing, and health all affect children’s ability to succeed educationally. She and Ramos would like to see more holistic thinking about providing all those services, and some recognition that just because it is a separate tax stream, it is not less important than city-provided services.
Many children in the poorest neighborhoods suffer from asthma, diabetes, and other ailments. “If we had a clinic within a school where a parent could be confident the child was getting appropriate care, the parent doesn’t have to take the day off to take her to the doctor.”
Sandra Dungee-Glenn served on the SRC between 2002 and 2009 and led the commission for much of that time. The main benefit of the SRC’s stretch of governance, she believes, is that people in Philadelphia woke up to the issues that the schools were facing.
“I think through the SRC, the issues of public education moved front and center in Philadelphia,” she said. “It did a lot to elevate local interest and attention, much of that through people’s opposition to the SRC, but it created a greater sense of ownership for Philadelphia residents, both elected officials and community people.”
Dungee-Glenn was behind the District’s move to make African American history a required course, the first big city to do so. She considers that accomplishment “as a byproduct of stronger community connection to the school system. The SRC galvanized the community.”
All the former SRC members interviewed returned to the funding issue as being paramount.
“The fundamental thing that did not get fixed is the funding for the School District,” said Dungee-Glenn. “It is still not in place. The time had come for local control; the SRC wasn’t really bringing increased state investment and support. It wasn’t really fulfilling its intended purposes.” Local control is welcome, “but you still need to have that state investment.”
Masch reiterated that although he believes money makes a huge difference, “I also completely accept the premise that money alone is not enough. The way urban school districts are run is enormously chaotic. Effective principals and teachers, whether through seniority or other means of turnover, move a lot. Success is fleeting, and people with a notion of how to make things better don’t stay anywhere long enough to make a sustained difference.”
Although Masch said he admires Mayor Kenney for recognizing that the state did not plan to step up its obligation and reasserting the city’s financial commitment, he fears that Harrisburg will think this lets them off the hook.
“There is no short-term prospect of significant additional funding from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the poorest schools in Pennsylvania,” he said. “The mayor’s position is making it easy for people in Harrisburg to justify their inaction in suggesting the city can do it by itself. I don’t think that’s financially possible.”
If the need is to change everything – funding levels and the way schools operate – if those were “the founding impulses that led Gov. Ridge to make the demands he made, then I have to say, looking at the whole [SRC] experiment … it was a failure,” said Masch. The regular practices of the District were disrupted but not fundamentally altered by the turnaround and charter movements. The city’s poverty levels and child poverty levels did not improve.
And the basic political divisions remain.
“People are tired of arguing about standardized tests, teachers’ unions, charter schools, but in that exhaustion, we have taken our eye off the most important thing, which is achievement levels have not gone up that much,” said Masch.
“The best thing the new school board can do is focus relentlessly on student achievement levels and engage everybody in active discussion about how achievement can be increased. We are condemning generation after generation of staying in poverty until these results change. We should wake up every day with our hair on fire and shouldn’t relent until we get there.”