What happens now with local control of schools?

Nov. 16 was a historic date for the City of Philadelphia. The School Reform Commission, the state agency in control of our school system for the last 16 years, voted to disband itself and restore the district to local control. According to Act 46, which enabled the takeover in December 2001, five commissioners were unilaterally chosen by the governor and mayor and could not be dismissed until their terms were over. Nor could the SRC itself be dissolved except by a majority vote by its own members. Furthermore, the law authorized wholesale privatization of the system. Community outcry caused that part of the law to be scaled back.

Thus began one form of privatized management experiment after another. Edison Schools, Inc. was one of the first corporations to benefit. Universal Companies, run by Kenny Gamble, was another of those original education management organizations.

Thanks to the authoritarian power granted to the SRC, school district employees’ contracts were drastically curtailed and the right to strike was removed. CEOs: Paul Vallas, the late Arlene Ackerman, and now William Hite were hired to oversee the changes. Only the courts could reverse any of this, and they seldom did.

As time passed, education management organizations came and went. Some schools were turned into “Renaissance” or “Turnaround” schools. Charter schools meanwhile were created by a law that failed to give districts the power to ensure that only high-performing charters that serve equitable populations of children be allowed to open. The SRC struggled to close underperforming charters as well as deal with outright fraud. All this trial and error took a toll on the right of Philadelphia’s school children to a “thorough and efficient” education as mandated by the state constitution — with no end in sight.

The city has until June to replace the SRC with a local school board. Under our present city charter, the mayor alone has the authority to name nine people to the school board from a group of nominees.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Vincent Hughes, who represents portions of Philadelphia and Montgomery County, and is the Democratic chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has expressed concern over state funding. He argues that taking back our schools does not mean the state is relieved of its responsibility to adequately fund the school system. Over the years, the system has been so neglected that now they need about $5 billion just to fix decrepit buildings. As the senator says: “… the U.S. Department of Education reported that Pennsylvania’s school funding system is the most unequal system of all 50 states.”

How ironic! The state, through the SRC, took over the School District of Philadelphia 16 years ago to establish fiscal order. Then they wasted billions dealing with private managers and establishing more than 80 charter schools with insufficient oversight or accountability. Now that the SRC has washed its hands of the problem, we are left with a cash-strapped school system and crumbling infrastructure. The ambitious privatization experiment has been a flop (except of course for the profiteers)!

Not everyone agrees that returning the district to a mayoral-appointed school board will solve things. Some, like lawyer and educator Richard Migliori, Esq., express doubt about this move. His argument is “…the most efficient form of public school governance is one in which the board is directly accountable to the public through school board elections.” Did I fail to mention that Philadelphia is the only school district out of 500 across the state that does not elect its own school board? Under the present city charter rules, what we have basically is a situation where children in the city do not have the same protections of a democratic system as students in all the other districts in the state. This violates the spirit if not the letter of our constitution’s Education Clause. Mr. Migliori sees this as the basis for litigation and a change to our city charter.

What bothers me most is that a whole generation of students has grown up under a mishmash of unfair state funding, wasteful privatization schemes, and now faces a return to a situation not much different from the one that started this ball rolling in the first place.

We can do better: local control with a democratically elected school board accountable to parents and taxpayers; fiscal oversight; proper funding by city and state; and revision or repeal of the Charter School Law.

For starters.

Gloria C. Endres
South Philadelphia