Is the desegregation case over, or has the hard part just begun?

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

After nearly 40 years, it is over.

Or not quite.

On Wednesday the School Reform Commission voted to accept a consent agreement that will end a unique desegregation case that had its beginnings in October, 1970. That was when the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission first filed its complaint that the Philadelphia School District was “unlawfully segregated by race.”

Nearly four decades later, the PHRC and a coalition of advocates that joined the case in the 1990’s acknowledged that children of color continue to lag behind in academic achievement, are largely confined to racially isolated, poor-performing schools, and are still victimized by an inequitable allocation of resources.

But they decided to put their faith in Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 five-year strategic plan to correct wrongs that had eluded District leaders before her, including some who were well-intentioned. Specifically, they hammered out an agreement that will require the District to take concrete, specific steps to stabilize and improve the quality of teaching in the District’s lowest-performing schools, and to change budgeting practices in a way that will direct more resources to schools with the neediest students.

While the court supervision will end, the District has agreed to close monitoring of its planning, implementation, and results. PHRC general counsel Michael Hardiman said that the PRHC will retain the ability to go back to court if the goals and objectives are not met.

On Monday, the parties will take the agreement to Judge Doris Smith-Ribner, who has presided over the case for the past 15 or so years. She is expected to ratify and approve it.

Advocates inside and outside this case have long complained that the School District has historically been unwilling to alter long-standing practices in teacher assignment and budgeting that have resulted in some schools being plagued by constant teacher turnover, the routine use of substitutes, and the toleration of vacancies and inadequate instruction.

Ackerman says that she is willing to change these conditions by fiat if necessary, although many of them, especially teacher assignment, have generally been a matter of negotiation between the District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. She has the power to impose some terms on the union under the law that engineered the state takeover of the District in 2001, and this agreement gives her more leverage to do that.

“This is a District full of tradition and things that are done because it is the culture to do it,” she said in an interview after the meeting. “We’re changing the culture here.”

The PFT has always jealously guarded teachers’ rights to choose their schools based on seniority and has only reluctantly agreed to the partial school-based teacher selection that exists now in the District.

Ackerman said while she will negotiate because “it is always better to get people to come together around any issue,” it’s more important to “get it done.” Asked whether she would rather negotiate than force terms on an unhappy union, she used a famous phrase from Malcolm X.

“I wanted to say ‘by any means necessary,’ but the leader in me says, ‘let’s try to work this out and appeal to the moral responsibility we have as educators.’”

Jerry Jordan, president of the PFT, said that he had no advance warning of the agreement. “I was surprised, because the Federation has been very supportive of the objectives of this case,” he said. “We are strong advocates of closing the achievement gap, that is at the top of our agenda.”

He said that “it’s important to note that this is a voluntary agreement entered into by the parties involved, and it doesn’t change the negotiating process. We are willing to sit and negotiate what the District is willing to raise.”

Ackerman, 62, who grew up in segregated St. Louis, said she had concluded that the resource inequities that built up in Philadelphia over the decades before and since the PHRC first filed its complaint were a combination of “benign neglect” and deliberate actions meant to stifle opportunities for mostly poor students of color.

“This agreement puts the onus on the SRC and the District to get the job done,” said Michael Churchill, attorney for the advocacy groups. “It will not be someone else’s fault if the racial achievement gaps existing today continue to persist in the city’s schools. We are here today because your predecessors did not get the job done, were not insistent enough that the tragedy of unequal opportunities in our neighborhood schools be ended.”

Hardiman said Ackerman was different from previous superintendents and CEOs because she was willing to “not only focus on resource allocations, but on achievement outcomes” and make a commitment to “eliminate racially identifiable achievement differentials.”

The agreement stipulates that certain things happen in schools designated as “racially isolated” and “low performing.” It will start in September with stepped-up teacher evaluation based on consistent standards and professional development tailored to teachers’ weaknesses.

Ackerman said that the schools to be monitored initially would include all schools identified now as “empowerment schools” because of poor performance and given extra resources. The agreement says that all but two of the 22 schools with the highest teacher turnover rates have student populations more than 90 percent African American and/or Latino, as do 22 of the 29 schools that have made the least progress in student achievement.

In 2010-11, all teachers in the designated schools will be chosen by site selection – meaning by a leadership team at the school rather than assigned according to seniority. These teachers will have common planning time and some form of “strategic compensation” – which could mean bonuses, incentives, or a form of performance pay that would reward improved student achievement. Radically altering compensation, especially in ways that tie it to student performance, has generally been opposed by the teachers’ union.

Ackerman called the present method for paying teachers, based on longevity and education level, as left over from the 19th century. She said it should be upended to reward people who specialize in particular age groups, types of students, and subject matter.

She compared teachers who successfully specialize in low-achieving urban students to heart surgeons, compared to general practitioners, who should be compensated accordingly.

In addition, under the agreement in 2010-11 the District will begin phasing in “weighted student funding,” which allots money to schools by taking into account the characteristics of the students who attend. This system assigns “weights” to attributes that can include poverty, English language proficiency, special education status, and students’ academic profiles.

Plus, it will be required to calculate school budgets using actual teacher salaries rather than average salaries. This is a breakthrough regarding equity because the use of average salaries masks when a school relies on substitutes or has a mostly inexperienced staff. Schools with low actual teacher costs will get more resources to make up for it.

Under the agreement, the District will also be required to report not just school-by-school test score data disaggregated by race, as now mandated by federal law, but detail the “resource gaps” between the designated racially isolated and low-performing schools and others, including such factors as teacher vacancies and experience levels.

The agreement also makes reference to “teacher effectiveness levels, if appropriate and available,” in making its reports on equitable teacher distribution. Ackerman said that the District has done a study comparing fourth grade teachers and found 40 that consistently improved student achievement by two years over one year of instruction regardless of where they taught. It is planning more such statistical analyses, she said.

Under the agreement, monitoring by the PHRC and advocacy groups will be extensive. The District will make public its implementation plan for Imagine 2014 and compliance with the order on Dec. 15 and produce annual updates every Oct. 15. Besides the implementation reports, the District will produce detailed progress reports twice a year beginning next March on whether it is reducing the achievement gap.

The original goal of the PHRC in the litigation was to force the District to desegregate its schools. That goal was largely abandoned as the case evolved into one that focused on how the District was meeting the academic needs of students of color and whether it continued to practice discrimination in allocating resources to schools.

Over time, the demographics of the district has changed markedly; today, only 13 percent of the District’s students are White. African Americans are at 61 percent, Latinos at 18 percent, and Asians at 6 percent.

“Our objective is the same today as it was 39 years ago, which was to insure equal educational opportunity to all students regardless of race,” said the PHRC’s Hardiman. “Physical desegregation has always been a tool and remains a tool. But it was never an end.”

While an integrated environment for students can be beneficial, he said, “that alone doesn’t satisfy the statutory mandate.”