Darrell Clarke Thinks Philly Schools Need the Firm Hand of City Council

The council president has a laundry list of problems with how Bill Hite is running the school district.

Left, Darrell Clarke. Right, Bill Hite. | Photos by Philadelphia City Council and Associated Press.

Left, Darrell Clarke. Right, Bill Hite. | Photos by Philadelphia City Council and Associated Press.

Early this month, we told you about City Council President Darrell Clarke’s clear-cut power play to get Council more leverage over the School District of Philadelphia.

Now it’s looking like we underestimated his ambitions.

Clarke — who yesterday welcomed Council back from its long summer recess — wrote what amounts to a sweeping critique of the School District of Philadelphia and Superintendent Bill Hite in an op-ed published in Thursday’s Daily News.

He was responding to a tough recent editorial from the DN, which took Clarke to task for hounding Hite about problems — financial problems school district governance — that the Superintendent simply lacks the power to fix. Said the DN: “The superintendent is laboring under the illusion that the facts matter. They do not. The source of Clarke’s anger isn’t really over any particulars of district spending, it is over the fact that Council lacks control over how the money is spent.” Which, by the by, is exactly what Citified was telling you three days before the editorial ran.

In any event, Clarke was not cowed. His latest statement on the schools goes well beyond his past remarks, which had focused on the district’s financial management. Writes Clarke:

While the district no longer has a “smothering bureaucracy,” it does have a bureaucracy that is too often at odds with the “boots on the ground” – teachers, nurses, principals, other school aides and parents.


During hearings on the current fiscal year budget, Council was united in conveying constituents’ wish that additional resources be put back into classrooms to support the education of our children. Instead, the district hired new administrators — some of whom with backgrounds that have raised questions among the public and in this very paper.


There is still time to negotiate an equitable contract in which all give some, but teachers do not give all.

and, most critically…

The most dramatic examples of public school turnaround in this country were the result of bottom-up, community-supported efforts – not ideological top-down dictates.

Why is this so important?

Two reasons. First, it makes it crystal clear that Clarke no longer feels he must restrict his oversight of the District — oversight which, let’s remember, isn’t rooted in any formal power — to strictly financial issues. He’s focused on the labor strife, which isn’t all that surprising. But he’s also taking on the broader issue of Hite’s leadership, which is pretty surprising indeed (though, in that way of public political communication, Clarke doesn’t even explicitly name Hite — only anonymous “district administrators”).

Second, I think this letter aligns Clarke pretty clearly with ed reform skeptics who are suspicious not just of Hite and his senior team, but also the experimental/entrepreneurial/charter-friendly approach to education that was politically ascendant in this city just a few short years ago.

This line right here: “The most dramatic examples of public school turnaround in this country were the result of bottom-up, community-supported efforts – not ideological top-down dictates” — that’s something you’d expect to hear from education activist Helen Gym, not Darrell Clarke.

And, let’s remember, Gym is a shoe-in to win an at-large Council seat in November’s election. In other words, Gym, the district’s fiercest and most effective critic, is joining City Council just as Clarke has concluded that pretty much everything the district does is very much Council’s business. I wondered what Gym thought of the op-ed. She loved it. “I’m incredibly encouraged by the Council President’s leadership on issues that are critically important to parents and educators,” Gym emailed. “To me, this is a hopeful sign of Council’s renewed engagement and support for educational priorities that truly matter to communities.”

There are plenty of people who will conclude that Council — what with its bizarre cursive fixation and all — is the last entity the city should want riding herd on the School District. I get that. But Gym is going to enhance Council’s schools IQ in a big way, and Clarke is showing that his interest in (and his knowledge about) the district is deeper and broader than many probably soon.

Is Clarke some kind of schools expert? Emphatically not; and he’s never held himself out as one. But that’s not going to prevent him from focusing on schools — not while the city is investing so much fresh money in the district every year; and not while Clarke and other Council members are hearing the laments of teachers and parents (aka, constituents) about the schools all the time.

Clarke seems to think that Council chambers is just the place where these complaints and differences should be aired and worked out.

Best case scenario? Gym and Clarke improve City Council’s laughably weak schools game. The district gets asked better questions, at more substantive hearings, that actually focus on stuff like education and community connection and school quality, instead of just money.

Worst case? The scrutiny intensifies, but remains unfocused and unhelpful, and serves only to show Harrisburg that not even Philadelphia’s City Council considers the School District worthy of investment.

That’s something Council — and, specifically, Clarke — has done way, way too often.

When he’s limited himself to financial critiques, Clarke has said some things that send all the wrong signals about the district’s fiscal management. In June, for instance, he dismissed the District’s funding request as “Hite’s Cadillac version of what he’d like to see moving forward.” Right. City schools are basically Cadillacs.

More generally, Council’s endless griping about the District’s annual requests for more money — which are entirely the product of a structural deficit created by state disinvestment, charter expansion and fixed costs like pensions and debt payment, not current mismanagement — sends Harrisburg the awful and just factually wrong message that the District could somehow get by with less.

Council’s real beef is that it keeps investing in city schools without seeing any encouraging return on that investment. So? Focus on quality. Zero in on what’s actually happening in the schools, good or bad. Hite has been saying for a while now that he’s anxious to talk about education, not just dollars.

Clarke’s op-ed, I think, signals that he’s prepared to do exactly that.