This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Twenty years ago, Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner’s landmark decision in a long-running desegregation case offered a glimmer of hope that a longstanding inequity could be corrected: The Philadelphia School District, she ruled, must spend more and do more to close the “achievement gap” between Black or Hispanic students and Whites.
But if her decision was hailed as a legal breakthrough, the years since have provided a harsh lesson in political realities: Judges can rule, and educators can plan, but it’s elected officials who set budgets and drive policy.
“The day the judge’s order came down – that set the foundation for change,” said Michael Churchill, an attorney involved the case. “And then we began to learn how hard change was to do.”
For the past two decades, legal advocates and school officials have tried to make good on Smith-Ribner’s ruling.
They’ve investigated problems, defined solutions, and added up the dollars needed to implement them through the traditional, union-staffed system.
But for many of those years, officials and legislators in Harrisburg have resisted demands for increased funding, while pushing the remedies of private contractors and charter schools.
“I didn’t get a sense of a theory of education reform, other than that you needed to get rid of this big bureaucracy, and the private sector can do it better,” said Sandra Dungee Glenn, who was on the city’s Board of Education when the state took over the District in 2001. “That was their theory: ‘[The District] can’t fix itself.’”
During those years, Philadelphia has seen some real, if limited, victories for equity. Smith-Ribner’s ruling launched a string of programs and policies that improved conditions for some. The state’s preferred solution, charter expansion, has provided new opportunities for others. Much more is now known about students’ needs and more effective ways to provide for them.
But for all the changes, tens of thousands of Black and Hispanic students are still isolated in subpar schools. Charter expansion has badly undermined the District’s finances.
And the plan that Smith-Ribner approved as the solution to generations of racial inequity has been effectively rendered moot by budget cuts.
Few would vote to turn back the clock to 1994, a time when many neighborhood schools were offering what Churchill calls a “facade” of education. But, he added, “in many ways, the District is in worse shape now than it was in ’94 … the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Moving students, moving money
Pennsylvania’s desegregation case was born in 1967, when the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission demanded improvements in 38 highly segregated school districts. “Mandatory reassignment” – busing White students to predominantly Black schools, or vice versa – was the main remedy.
It was a deeply unpopular solution. In 1973, the commission ordered Philadelphia to start busing; officials refused. Twenty years later, a “settlement team” again proposed reassigning some 14,000 students; again, the District refused.
It was Smith-Ribner, assigned the case in 1991, who finally took busing off the table for good. Advocates argued that moving a few thousand students wouldn’t help the 150,000 who remained in “racially isolated” schools, and the court agreed.
But the Human Relations Commission had quietly been exploring another approach: “educational remedies.” If Black and Hispanic students got the resources needed to achieve the same academic results as Whites, would that undo the negative impact of segregation?
In 1994, Smith-Ribner, then known as Doris Smith, ruled that it would.
Minorities, she said, weren’t getting their fair share of resources: teachers, facilities, school funding. She ordered the District to correct the imbalance, so that Black and Hispanic students could close the “achievement gap” separating them from White students.
It was a groundbreaking ruling. “The thrust of it was, ‘We’ll know it’s fixed when we see the achievement gap close,’” said Michael Hardiman, an attorney with the commission who spent decades on the case.
For Churchill and Hardiman, Smith-Ribner’s ruling was a high point in a long fight. The judge soon issued a long list of specific instructions, with a price tag in the hundreds of millions.
But then the case went to the state Supreme Court, where it sat for three years.
“Some of us slowly got the lesson that maybe they were not really interested in affirming her,” Churchill said.
And while then-superintendent David Hornbeck launched his own fight for more funding, the state had its own ideas.
“The state set up a deal: We’ll give you some money, you give us control,” said Dungee Glenn. “Back and forth, back and forth, until they pretty much set the [school] board aside, and they were just going to do their takeover.”
The state took control of the District in 2001, and quickly introduced the first of a steady stream of reform plans: subcontracting large numbers of schools to a private company, Edison Schools.
At the same time, driven in part by frustration with the District’s persistent inequity, the city’s charter movement was taking off. “The intent was to show we can educate these children in a much better, nurturing environment,” said Dungee Glenn.
None of this stopped the parties in the desegregation case from trying to figure out how to implement Smith-Ribner’s ruling. Dungee Glenn was involved as a School Reform Commission member and then as its chair.
After years of negotiations, in 2009, the judge approved a solution: Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s “Imagine 2014” plan. Backed by a funding commitment from Gov. Ed Rendell, the plan proposed major investments in underperforming, under-resourced schools citywide.
After 42 years, the case was finally closed. It was another moment of hope – but another letdown soon followed.
Elected in 2010, Gov. Tom Corbett effectively cut hundreds of millions from the District’s budget, sending it into a financial tailspin. Ackerman’s administration collapsed, as did the SRC that oversaw her, undone by deficits and ethical scandals.
With the ink barely dry on the page, Smith-Ribner’s ruling, unfunded and orphaned, was effectively dead.
Limits of litigation
Today, to those who spent years with the case, the path to equity looks less clear than ever.
“I don’t think we thought [the case] would solve all of the problems,” Churchill said. “But we were genuinely hopeful. … There’s no sense that anything is moving in the right direction now: loss of resources, and no signs of a solution.”
Dungee Glenn now runs one of the city’s oldest charter schools, West Philadelphia’s Harambee Institute, and has been a Mastery Charter board member. She believes that charters have provided some real improvements for thousands of students.
“I would never argue with anybody about going back to the old way,” she said.
But fixing individual schools, or even clusters of schools, is not the same as fixing a district, she said.
“There’s still this system that, come hell or high water, when a child comes stumbling out at age 5, has to pick them up and educate them. Period,” she said. “In the last three years, things have been set back by 10 years.”
Churchill agrees: “School choice,” while helping some, is not a solution for all. “It is as much a mirage as busing,” he said.
He still sees many benefits from the litigation. The process pulled back the curtain on countless unfair District practices, forcing improvements and exposing “the inequalities that are being imposed on the system,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hardiman, no longer with the commission, has come to believe that schools won’t be able to truly address inequity as long as funding is tied to local wealth – in which “those with more get more.”
Smith-Ribner’s ruling remains a landmark, he said, one that indelibly established the notion that equity is achieved only when the “achievement gap” is closed.
But, he said, in the highly political and personally complex arena of public education, litigation can only do so much.
“I am hopeful that change will occur at some time,” Hardiman said. “I’m not naïve enough to think that it will happen soon.”