Can Mayor Nutter and Governor Corbett Team Up to Save Philly Schools?

Rebuilding the School Reform Commission, hiring a chief and deciding about vouchers

The only strange thing about Monday’s massacre of the School Reform Commission is that it took this long to happen. Any board that extends the contract of a schools chief a matter of months before reversing course and deciding that, actually, no, she’s a total disaster, is self-evidently incompetent. Mayor Nutter told the Daily News that he didn’t ask SRC Chair Robert Archie to resign. Presumably he’d say the same thing about Johnny Irizarry, who in an astounding coincidence quit hours after Archie. I sincerely hope the Mayor is just playing semantic games, and I expect that he is. Nutter needed to take Archie down, and I think it’s pretty clear that he did. Finally.

It’s a little odd that Nutter has tried—if only feebly—to distance himself from these moves. They are broadly popular, and what’s more, dead obvious. But what matters more is what Nutter does next, and how well he works with Governor Corbett. The good news is that the two have been talking about Philly’s schools for a while, and they appear to have a decent rapport, which was hardly a given.

I got the chance to ask Corbett a little while back about his priorities for Philadelphia.

“My concern certainly is the education system,” he replied. “We spend a lot of money in Philadelphia, a whole lot of money. We’re not getting our return on investment from what I see in the public school system.”

When I asked Corbett about the SRC (this was before Archie stepped down), he noted that he doesn’t have any appointees on the commission yet and then uttered a few platitudes about how the adults are failing the children. Then he stressed that he and Nutter had started to talk about the situation.

“He’s worried about education,” Corbett said. “Any mayor in his right mind would be, and I think he’s done a pretty good job with the cards he’s dealt.” Nutter is making nice with Corbett as well, calling him a “straight shooter” who has the best interests of Philadelphians in mind.

Still, the city’s star is pretty dim in Harrisburg these days, with Republicans running both the legislative and executive branches. Nutter has probably worked harder than any recent mayor to court state lawmakers, but in this environment it’s not realistic to think his glad-handing will yield a lot of tangible (i.e. cash) help for the schools. Still, it’s not unreasonable to hope that Nutter and Corbett can work together a bit to put together a more competent and engaged SRC.

One potential point of cooperation—or conflict—are school vouchers. Vouchers are one of Corbett’s top legislative priorities, and he’s particularly excited about their use in urban settings like Philadelphia. It will be interesting to see where Nutter comes down on vouchers. Last year he endorsed State Sen. Anthony Williams for governor, and Williams is a big voucher proponent. But Nutter’s chief education officer, Lori Shorr, offered some careful criticism of vouchers at a state education committee hearing this summer. Nutter said that he and Corbett had talked about vouchers only in passing.

Getting competent management and oversight for city schools is arguably Nutter’s biggest job over the next year. Corbett sounds willing to help, but he didn’t create the SRC and it would be surprising if he insisted on running things from Harrisburg. Nutter has often talked up just how independent the SRC is. The events of this week prove that’s not really the case. Which means, really, that this all on the Mayor, just as it always has been.

Follow Patrick Kerkstra on Twitter at @pkerkstra.