A history lesson on historic day for School Reform Commission

Former Superintendent David Hornbeck says the SRC's birth was linked to the 1967 student walkout and racism.

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

Today, the School Reform Commission will vote to dissolve itself, reversing the 2001 state takeover of Philadelphia’s schools.

On Friday, the city will commemorate the 50th anniversary of a historic walkout on Nov. 17, 1967, when thousands of students marched to Philadelphia’s Board of Education building to demand greater recognition of African American history and culture in the District’s curriculum. The students were beaten by city police on the orders of then-Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo.

Former school Superintendent David Hornbeck was pivotal in both events, and he sees them as intimately related.

“The issue in 1967 was the central role that race plays in the treatment of Philadelphia and of black students,” said Hornbeck, who led the Philadelphia Tutorial Project at that time and witnessed the protest.

In 2000 and 2001, he believes, the issue was the same when the state declared the Philadelphia School District to be financially and academically distressed and seized control over it.

“I think the evidence is pretty strong that changing the District’s governance was simply Harrisburg’s attempt to put down Philadelphia, as I said then and as I say now, for not knowing its place.”

Philadelphia today educates 42 percent of Pennsylvania’s black students, according to Department of Education data. The number in 2001, though no longer available on the state’s website, was probably about the same or higher.

Hornbeck spoke in a phone interview as he was riding in a car from New York to Baltimore, where he lives, after undergoing a knee replacement. That is why he will not be attending Friday’s commemoration here of the 1967 walkout.

The state takeover and the establishment of the SRC happened at the end of Hornbeck’s tenure, a direct result of his provocative actions and his rhetoric as superintendent.

Hornbeck, an attorney who also attended Union Theological Seminary with thoughts of becoming a minister, was superintendent from 1994 until 2000. He constantly demanded more funds from Harrisburg to implement his agenda and talked about inadequate school funding as a moral issue, a stance that infuriated officials in Harrisburg, including then-Gov. Tom Ridge.

In 1998, when Hornbeck’s pleas for more funds from Harrisburg went unheard, he refused to slash personnel and programs that he felt were crucial to students. The Board of Education was poised to pass a budget for fiscal 1998-99 with an $85 million shortfall, which would likely have meant that the schools would close in March when the money ran out, dramatizing the issue but violating the school code’s requirement of a 180-day school year.

Harrisburg’s response was not more funds, but the passage of Act 46, which allowed for a state takeover of the Philadelphia schools. If invoked, the law would take power away from the local board and give it to a five-member panel appointed mostly by the governor.

Said an Inquirer story at the time:

“Indeed, one thing that helped sell the state-takeover scenario was a rising tide of anti-Hornbeck sentiment in Harrisburg — where many upstate legislators already view Philadelphia as a wasteful money pit. Ridge said he spoke to Mayor Rendell on Tuesday before the bill moved. ‘I told him I believe that Superintendent Hornbeck had left Harrisburg and this administration no choice,’ Ridge said. ‘I told him it was the last thing in the world that, as governor, I wanted to do, or the secretary of education wanted to do.’ Ridge called Hornbeck’s threat ‘very irresponsible.’”

The forces favoring a takeover were bipartisan and included white and black legislators. Most notable among the latter was Dwight Evans, now a congressman and then the powerful head of the House Appropriations Committee. Evans was frustrated with the conditions of schools in his Oak Lane neighborhood and had started supporting charter schools.

Political compromise averted the crisis for that year and the next. As the District continued to struggle financially, arguments flew in Harrisburg about the adequacy of the city’s contribution to its schools. Hornbeck continued to maintain that it is the state’s obligation to ensure a “thorough and efficient” education to all its students. He said that Philadelphia was being shortchanged by the state and that racism was the reason. He used the word “apartheid” to describe Pennsylvania’s education system.

He and the city backed up this thinking with a federal lawsuit alleging that Pennsylvania’s school funding system is racially discriminatory.

By 2000, the District’s teachers were preparing to strike and its budget was facing a $200 million shortfall, projected to balloon to $1.5 billion in five years. The state hired a search firm to find a new superintendent. Ridge and then-Mayor John Street started talking “friendly takeover.”

Hornbeck resigned in June.

Throughout this time, there was no serious effort by the state to adjust its school aid formula or invest more money in schools to address the District’s fiscal crisis. Budgets were balanced mostly with one-time fixes. The state education formula, which at one time had been based on actual enrollment and various indices of student need and a district’s capacity to pay, had long ago fallen by the wayside. State school funding allocation was virtually arbitrary.

In July 2001, Street and Ridge struck a deal — the District would drop the lawsuit, and the state would advance the city enough money to keep the schools open. It would also hire someone to examine the District’s books and fiscal practices.

The state favored school privatization and hired Edison Schools Inc. to study the District’s management and finances. Act 46 was invoked, the nine-member Board of Education was dissolved, and a new School Reform Commission – initially, just one person, James Nevels, a black Republican from Swarthmore – took over in December 2001.

But the takeover did not solve the District’s financial problems. Things eased a bit when Mayor Ed Rendell became governor in 2003 and there was an effort to determine each school district’s needs and ramp up state education aid to eventually meet them. But all that fell apart after Tom Corbett succeeded Rendell in 2011 and drastically reduced state aid and federal stimulus dollars flowing to school districts. The fact that the state was in control of the District did not mean it got special consideration; in fact, the opposite happened. Philadelphia, which educates about 12 percent of the state’s students, absorbed about a quarter of the $1 billion in reductions.

One notable thing that happened under SRC rule: In 2005, Philadelphia became the first big city to mandate African American history as a required course for graduation.

While gratifying, that hardly makes up for everything else.

“The issue in my mind is how has the state exercised its constitutional obligation for the past 50 years,” Hornbeck said. During the SRC’s tenure, he said, the District budget became “a shambles. We arrived at a point when high schools didn’t have counselors, no schools had nurses, all the turmoil. It’s all of a cloth. It’s the state failing to exercise its obligations.”

And he continues to maintain that the major reason for the refusal to seriously confront the city’s problems is that most of Philadelphia’s students are students of color, bringing us back to that day in 1967.

Hornbeck took over as Philadelphia superintendent nearly 27 years after he witnessed the student walkout.

He was 25 years old then and the head of the Philadelphia Tutorial Project, which worked with students and organizing groups, one from Germantown called the Young Afro Americans. It was led by David Richardson, who was a student at the time and later an influential state legislator.

“I knew all of this was happening. I went down that morning; my first memories of it was there was not a whole lot of kids there initially, maybe a few hundred,” Hornbeck said.

He recalls standing at the corner of 21st and Winter Streets, near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, “and looking north and west and east to see streams and streams of kids walking toward the school district” building at 21st Street and the Parkway. Ultimately, between 3,000 and 4,000 students participated.

They started marching around the building, chanting. A small delegation of student leaders was invited inside to meet with the District’s leadership, Board of Education president Richardson Dilworth, and superintendent Mark Shedd, who were sympathetic to their pleas.

Then the busloads of city police came — “not regular city police, but the guys who wore black boots and the hats where there was a band around the top of them. The kids were loud, but not unruly. They were marching and yelling and so on.”

He saw Rizzo “give a signal” and the police “just waded into the kids and started beating them with their batons.” Dozens of students were hurt and several were arrested.

Later, Hornbeck was called to testify in court about the incident and disputed Rizzo’s account that students had been violent or jumping on cars. “I was the rebuttal witness that said none of that was true,” he said.

That experience, he said, helped shape the rest of his life. For instance, one reason he got the job of superintendent was that David Richardson, by then a state assemblyman, supported him. (Richardson died in 1995.) So did the rector of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, Paul Washington, who had been the board chair of the Philadelphia Tutorial Project. Without their backing, he might have been rejected in favor of an African American candidate.

Hornbeck is glad that the SRC will be dissolved and local control restored. He admires Mayor Kenney’s determination to take ownership of the system and find the money to close an anticipated $1 billion annual shortfall that will accumulate by 2022.

But he doesn’t see the change in governance as a watershed. The state government is still constitutionally responsible for seeing that all Pennsylvania students get an adequate education, he said, and “I don’t see any change in the actual evidence of even the recognition of inequity coming out of Harrisburg.”

A state lawsuit over funding will soon be argued before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on its merits, the first such lawsuit in Pennsylvania that has gotten this far.

That lawsuit is backed up by data showing that, just as Hornbeck alleged in the 1990s, the state funding formula has a discriminatory impact based on race. An analysis by David Mosenkis of POWER, an interfaith social justice coalition, showed that even after controlling for poverty, predominantly white districts in Pennsylvania get more funding per student than those with more students of color. (The federal lawsuit that was dropped as part of the takeover deal included a similar analysis.)

As Hornbeck sees it, figuratively, the state of Pennsylvania has been beating up students of color for decades.

“For 50 years, repeatedly and consistently, they’ve been the objects of abuse related to education that comes out of the exercise of state policy.”