Arlene Ackerman Profile: Queen Arlene

Philadelphia schools head Arlene Ackerman arrived a year and a half ago with a strong résumé on education but an unwillingness to play politics. So just how long do you think she’ll last in this town?

Ackerman said, during the planning session for this meeting, that she didn’t want to get beat up. But her behavior seems to guarantee abuse. As City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez puts it, “It should not have taken 14 months to arrange this hearing.” But it did. And now Ackerman appears to be ducking it even while she’s sitting in the room. The tension of the moment crystallizes when Councilman Bill Green gets his chance to ask questions.

Green starts by asking about a point of law. Williams, the legislator, begins to answer for Ackerman. “I’d like Dr. Ackerman to answer that,” Green interrupts.

A minute later, he gets more challenging: “You said, during your testimony, that there are hard feelings on both sides between the district and charter schools. Can you tell me what charter schools have done to cause this?”

“I didn’t say they caused it,” replies Ackerman. She hasn’t, and Green’s questioning quickly develops into a terse semantic debate, in which the Councilman continually interrupts the Queen. The subtext here is obvious. Ackerman knows that if she answers Green’s question directly, with some complaint about charter schools, she will be painted into a corner as an enemy of charters. She isn’t going to let that happen.

“I was only referring to what I’ve heard and — ”

“What did you hear?” Green interrupts.

“I don’t remember,” replies Ackerman.

“You don’t remember,” Green repeats sarcastically. “That’s credible.”   

And with that, the Queen clearly — well, she’s had enough. As Green continues, Ackerman does some interrupting of her own. “I would like to be talked to in a civil way,” she says, “because I’m trying to answer the question. I would like respect.”

“If I have offended you in any way — ”

“You have,” interrupts Ackerman.

“I apologize,” concludes Green.

The back-and-forth continues briefly, with Green never losing his hostile tone and Ackerman never backing down. Race seems absent from this — or at least it does to me. A few minutes after the dispute ends, however, a Green supporter slides over to me and whispers: “Well, she played the disrespected black woman card. … ”

The next day, another observer in the room tells me she thought Ackerman, by evoking the issue of respect, had in fact “played the race card.” And the NAACP’s Jerome Mondesire received phone calls about the incident. He was waiting to see the video, to decide if he needed to release a statement about Green’s questioning as an example of racism in action. Clearly, in an effort to avoid being “beat up,” Ackerman had retreated from any meaningful dialogue. The hearing had become a living example of how Ackerman’s public image has a way of getting away from her, how her desire to insulate herself from the political fray does her damage.