The School Reform Commission is astonishingly unpopular in Philadelphia: Only 11 percent of residents think it should exist. Donald Trump has more support than that here!
And it’s been like this since the beginning: When the SRC was created in 2001 as a compromise between Mayor John Street and Republican leaders in Harrisburg, education activists were furious. The deal gave the governor the ability to appoint three members to the SRC, while the mayor only got two — and it led to the turnover of several local schools to a for-profit company. “In the first few months, their meetings were incredibly raucous. People would yell at the chairman,” says Paul Socolar, who was editor of the Public School Notebook at the time. “There was a view that it was a takeover being engineered to put the GOP’s buddies in charge of the school district.”
But for the last 15 years, the legions of SRC critics had no real chance of abolishing it — until now.
A perfect storm, which consists of a new mayor, a (relatively) new governor, a teachers union with growing political clout, and three soon-to-be-open seats on the SRC, has suddenly made the dissolution of the SRC a possibility. “This is the best shot there’s been,” says Socolar, who now works part-time for the Notebook and part-time for Councilwoman Helen Gym, a proponent of replacing the SRC with a board appointed by the mayor.
There are only two ways that the SRC can face the Grim Reaper: The first is that the state’s General Assembly can pass a law to dissolve the SRC. But that won’t happen anytime soon. The second, which actually could, is that a majority of the SRC’s members may vote to axe the institution themselves; under that scenario, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education would have to approve of the suicide.
Two of the SRC’s five members announced earlier this month that they were resigning. A third will step down in January when her term expires. Mayor Jim Kenney will appoint two of the new commissioners. Gov. Tom Wolf will select the other one, who must be confirmed by the state Senate.
Wolf said repeatedly during his 2014 campaign that he wanted to end the SRC, and last week, gubernatorial spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said that his position hasn’t changed. That means there’s at least a decent chance that Wolf will nominate someone who shares his opinion that the SRC has outlived its usefulness. The fact that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers was one of Wolf’s biggest allies in the 2014 gubernatorial race makes this all the more likely: The union desperately wants the SRC to go. “I’m looking for appointments who would dissolve the SRC,” PFT president Jerry Jordan says outright. “The SRC model has really failed Philadelphia.”
Kenney’s position on the SRC hasn’t always been as clear. He has never come out strongly in favor of dissolving the SRC, and has, in fact, raised concerns about the idea: He’s argued in the past that state lawmakers might allocate less money to city schools if they no longer have a say over who sits on the school board. “If it goes away entirely, it gives Harrisburg just another excuse to wipe their hands clean of us and say we are on our own,” Kenney told the Philadelphia Tribune in 2015.
But here’s the thing: Kenney has a number of political incentives to appoint members who would abolish the SRC. As with Wolf, the PFT was a friend to Kenney during the 2015 mayoral race. Grassroots activists around Philadelphia are also calling for the end of the SRC. And perhaps most saliently, City Council President Darrell Clarke is in favor of dissolving it. Clarke, Gym and two other lawmakers wrote in an op-ed this month that the SRC is a “failed experiment” and should be replaced with a school board appointed by the mayor (subject to approval by Council, of course).
Kenney has worked hard this year to maintain a positive relationship with legislators, especially Clarke. Perhaps that’s why, when I asked him about it, Kenney he told me that he’d like to appoint SRC members who are “open-minded” about ending the institution. He also said “the SRC is probably ready to be gone.”
That doesn’t mean the proposal to end the SRC is a slam dunk politically — not by any means. (And whether it’s actually a good policy idea is a subject for another day.) For one thing, Wolf has already nominated someone to sit on the SRC — Estelle Richman, the state’s former Secretary of the Department of Public Welfare — but she hasn’t yet shown her cards. She says she is currently in the process of studying up on the potential abolishment of the SRC and other major issues, and expects to know where she stands soon. For another thing, Wolf’s appointment must get through the GOP-controlled state Senate, and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman doesn’t seem keen on the idea of disbanding the SRC. “The Senate looks at all aspects of a nominee’s approach to education moving forward in Pennsylvania. That would include their views on if the SRC should continue or not,” says Corman spokesman Jennifer Kocher. “The SRC continues to provide valuable oversight of the fiscal and academic issues with which the district continues to grapple.”
And if Wolf’s nominee gets past that gantlet — and wants to get rid of the SRC — Wolf’s spokesman says there is no “formal plan” to actually make it all happen. Kenney, likewise, says, “If it happens … this is not going to be an automatic thing. You have to figure out what you do, how the city government meshes with the school district.” In other words, city and state leaders would have to figure out when to end the SRC, and what happens next: Should Philly go back to a school board completely appointed by the mayor? Should the board’s members be elected instead? Or should it be a mix of both?
Reading the tea leaves, it’s time to start thinking seriously about the potential answers to those questions.
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