So the folks who want a public vote on dissolving the School Reform Commission are one step closer to their goal. (Though as the Inquirer pointed out Sunday, any vote is likely to take place in May, not November.)
One’s first instinct is to throw in with the anti-SRC activists: It’s hard to point to gains made under the state’s stewardship of Philly schools since the takeover.
Still, there’s never much point to re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. So here’s three questions for the anti-SRC activists:
• What’s your replacement? “No” is not a program, and while the referendum would be non-binding, it would be good for the public to have an idea of what might replace the SRC. Would a replacement board be appointed, like now? All by the mayor, or by a mix of mayor and council appointments? Or would Philadelphia actually elect a school board for the first time in memory?
• How are you going to pay for schools? While there’s plenty of discussion in recent years about how we parcel out the money we pay for education — to pensions, to charters, to tenured teachers and so forth — the bigger question has been how to get the money to pay for all of this. The SRC is the lone school board in the state without taxing authority, which is why City Hall has to get creative with its accounting, also why officials have to go hat-in-hand to the state asking for local authority to raise taxes.
Other school districts can levy property taxes, but that’s proven increasingly unpopular and untenable. One bill in Harrisburg now would end those property taxes and shift school support to income and sales taxes, while expanding the number of items to which the sales tax can be applied. That’s a regressive tax, sticking a higher bill on Philadelphia’s poor. Which approach is right?
How are you going to make it work? Lest we forget: The state didn’t take over Philadelphia schools because they were a screaming success. They were in financial straits and delivering a subpar education at the turn of this century, too.
It seems that any proposal, then, should be accompanied by a couple of features: A) a set of metrics to help us judge if a new board is improving on its predecessor in delivering education to children; B) an independent judge of those metrics, to help prevent the widespread cheating we’ve seen on standardized tests here; and C) perhaps a sunset clause so that voters in 10 years can decide if the new board is worthy of continued life.
Creating good schools is going to be harder in Philadelphia than in most places in Pennsylvania: The poverty of students makes that big a difference. It was a challenge to administrators in the 1980s and 1990s; it’s a challenge under a different system now; and it’ll be a challenge in the future. It’ll feel good to get rid of the SRC, yes, but whatever comes afterward will also owe accountability to the Philadelphia public. Might as well get started with it now.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.