This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School Reform Commission was established in 2001 to govern the Philadelphia School District during a period of especially bitter political acrimony between the state and city over education policy.
The superintendent through most of the 1990s, David Hornbeck, repeatedly declared that the state’s system for allocating education resources was racially discriminatory. Hornbeck vowed to spend what he felt was needed to give children a quality education and then close the schools when the money ran out. And he pressed his argument with a federal discrimination lawsuit.
This outraged then-Gov. Tom Ridge and fueled the prevailing view among Harrisburg legislators that the Philadelphia School District was not the victim of underfunding, but rather, it was a “wasteful money pit.”
Debra Kahn, who was Mayor John Street’s chief education officer during this period, said, “It was a very, very charged environment.”
At the same time, Ridge and state Secretary of Education Charles Zogby were eager to embark on an experiment to bring “sound business practices” to Philadelphia by turning over many of the poorly achieving schools – and, it soon became clear, management of the District itself – to private firms. These two Republicans found as allies several local Black Democratic lawmakers, most prominently State Rep. Dwight Evans.
Evans, then the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, was frustrated with continual low achievement in neighborhood schools and felt that his constituents were trapped in those schools. The charter school law, enacted in 1997, allowed for independent groups to form their own schools, bypassing the teachers’ union and bureaucratic logjams that many blamed for schools’ low achievement.
Evans, who now is a member of the U.S. House, was eager to set up charters over which he had more control.
Both factions wanted an upheaval in how the District conducted its business.
The result was a 1998 law, Act 46, that paved the way for a takeover of the District’s schools. The law originally called for a five-member board with four of the members appointed by the governor, replacing the Board of Education, whose nine members were all appointed by the mayor. The law also stripped from the teachers’ union the right to strike and limited the parameters of collective bargaining.
Subsequent to the law’s passage, the atmosphere remained tense as the District continued to cope with a mismatch between what it needed to do and the money it had to do it. In 2000, Hornbeck resigned and the state began moving toward implementing Act 46. The result was a temporary state financial bailout in 2000.
In summer 2001, with the District’s projected shortfall growing, another three-month deal was made so that schools could open on time. Street decided to negotiate with Gov. Ridge in what he hoped would be more of a partnership than a state takeover.
Ridge hired Edison Schools Inc., which was then the country’s largest for-profit operator of schools, to conduct a $2.7 million study of the District’s management. When Ridge was called to head the federal Department of Homeland Security after Sept. 11, 2001, the city cut a deal with his successor, Mark Schweiker, to give the mayor two of the five School Reform Commission appointees.
“The SRC was created out of political and financial necessity and opportunity,” Kahn said. “We never for a second lost sight of the need for more resources, [but] we had to be open-minded about what we would be doing with them. We couldn’t say everything we were doing was working fine.”
Edison recommended that it take over 60 schools and that a private manager – Edison itself – be hired to run the entire District. Although Street was open to change, this was something he could not accept.
“We drew the line at the full takeover of the system by a private company,” Kahn said. “Mayor Street and his team fought back, but it was always a balancing act. We were always keeping in mind that the prize was getting the funding we needed.”
Wilkerson’s new role
Joyce Wilkerson was Street’s chief of staff at the time. Now she is the new chair of the SRC.
“Part of the thought was if [the state] had skin in the game, they may be more inclined to fund the District appropriately,” Wilkerson said. “That hasn’t happened. For the first couple of years we got extra funding, but [long-term, stable revenue] hasn’t materialized.”
Kahn said that city leaders made a strong effort to convince legislators in Harrisburg that the District actually needed more funds to fulfill its mission. They opened their books to audits. They brought rural legislators to tour schools so they could “understand the effort that was being put in, the challenge of educating a city population that was as diverse, multicultural, and poor as it is. Did they have their eyes opened? They did. Did it have the effect we wanted? Not always.”
Benefits of having SRC
But the SRC governance structure did have some positive effect, according to several people who were around at the time. Talk of waste, fraud, and corruption died down. The conversation changed to “structural deficit,” a shift that one person described as “a huge win I don’t think would have been achieved under a local control board.”
State officials, who were now more involved in the nitty-gritty of District operations, also discovered that the privatization so ardently pushed by Ridge, Schweiker, and Zogby was no silver bullet. Edison and other private providers, who ultimately took over 45 schools, struggled.
But people who are advocating for a return to local control of the District should also be wary about believing that one solution can solve all the District’s ills.
Ideas for change
Even so, several people interviewed, including former SRC members, endorsed some governance changes. Most frequently mentioned were expanding the body’s size and making the length of commissioners’ terms match those of the elected official who appoints them.
Under the current system, SRC members’ terms are staggered, so the mayor and governor who appointed members are often out of office while the current officeholders have no representation. This helps fuel the perception that the SRC is not accountable.
“You usually do staggered terms for some continuity,” Kahn said. But instead, “people expect the [current] mayor and governor to be accountable, but they do not have the kind of control that I think they need.”
Act 46, as a law, was also inherently flawed in other ways. It gave the SRC “special powers” to deal with financial distress. It limited what the SRC was required to negotiate with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and allowed it to impose contract terms.
But in 2014, when the SRC sought to impose contract terms on the PFT, the courts ruled that it had missed its chance once it agreed to negotiate a contract in the standard way early in its existence. The law also prohibited the union from striking, which has probably contributed to the unprecedented four-year contract impasse with the PFT.
And when the SRC sought to use its special powers to limit costly charter growth, the courts ruled against it there as well.
As a result, those special powers served only to build resentment against the body.
Wilkerson, appointed to the SRC by Mayor Kenney and named as chair by Gov. Wolf, thinks the District should be returned to local control. But she has no set timetable or specific plan for what this would look like.
She is in favor of expanding the body’s size. And in an interview, she suggested that the state may retain some power in any new configuration.
Local control “doesn’t necessarily mean only local appointees,” she said. “And I think the SRC may be too small to have the kind of diversity of voices it needs to have.” For instance, she suggested it needed the input of educators, financial experts, and parents.
The major policy change ushered in by the SRC was not charter expansion, although that occurred. It was a “diverse provider” model that involved turning over 45 schools to private firms working under a “thin management” system with unionized teachers. Studies found that experiment to have been largely ineffective.
“The state launched into different forms of school management that was supposed to improve educational outcomes, and while we see some examples [of improvement], that hasn’t meant a turnaround for the District,” Wilkerson said. She hopes to refocus the body on supporting strategies that will improve student achievement.
Wilkerson knows her job is cut out for her and said she took the volunteer position because she believes the city cannot thrive without a good educational system.
“Nobody said it’s going to be easy,” she said. “But I think we have a real opportunity moving forward to try to get everyone on the same page.”