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?

To be fair, Ackerman does count her bodyguard, Williams, and State Representative Dwight Evans and the Mayor among her supporters. But her political network may not range far beyond that, and in the aftermath, Williams told me he was “disappointed” in her performance. He thought Green had behaved poorly, but that by coming in with a 14-page statement and not truly engaging City Council, Ackerman had sent the wrong message. He had come to the hearing to offer his symbolic support, as a Democrat who got behind charters long before most liberals were open to them. “I have never sat beside another superintendent on the issue of charters,” says Williams. “But I sat beside Dr. Ackerman because I would never put my reputation on the line if I did not believe she would treat charter schools fairly. But I intend to work on her, and let her know the importance of working through the local politicians to get support.”

Ackerman — at Williams’s urging — scheduled lunch with Quiñones-Sanchez. And she also called everyone on Council. Everyone, that is, except Bill Green. “I wasn’t ready yet,” she said, by way of explanation. “And besides, I thought maybe he should call me.”

For such a smart, accomplished lady, Arlene Ackerman is simply too easily offended. The hearing was never about Bill Green, or Arlene Ackerman. The hearing was about charter schools, maybe the most important issue in education today. Some charter-school proponents, like Green and Councilwoman Quiñones-Sanchez, worry that Ackerman has been slow to embrace successful charters — and say she could have used this platform to make her case as a charter-school supporter. In this sense, the hearing was a missed opportunity. And in the ensuing weeks, Ackerman’s public image took a hit from which it might never recover.
The blow, predictably, was self–inflicted, and it came in early December, when Ackerman sat down for a public hearing in a room filled with Asian students and parents. Painstakingly, these families detailed 18 months of abuse. The students revealed bruises and black eyes inflicted upon them by African-American peers. The parents spoke of racial slurs uttered by school staff. One speaker asked for some kind of apology — seemingly, the least Ackerman could do — but she  responded only with a defensive silence. When she did speak, she compounded the problem — linking the violence to a pervasive racism that exists throughout society. It was a dismal performance, suggesting that Ackerman is less interested in protecting her students than herself.

She will likely have a hard time doing that, because she seems so ill-suited, by temperament, to the task, and because her sudden rivalry with Green may have created for her the kind of high-profile enemy she simply can’t afford.