Was Arlene Ackerman Just a Victim?

Whatever the problems with the School Reform Commission, she still failed as superintendent

Have you heard? It turns out Arlene Ackerman was the victim all along, a gentle and well-intentioned educator who was crushed by Philly-style jackboot politics. That, apparently, is one of the takeaways from integrity officer Joan Markman’s outstanding report last week on the shady hard-knuckle tactics employed by Rep. Dwight Evans and former SRC Chairman Bob Archie.

Now the same local writers who piled on as she crumpled are issuing apologies, making me wonder if it’s my turn. Forgive me, Dr. Ackerman, but my “sorry” is stuck in my throat.

True, no superintendent should endure the ridiculous political pressure that Archie and Evans brought to bear, as ably reported this spring by the Public School Notebook. I don’t know that anything described in the report was criminal, but it was at minimum despicable, and it’d be nice if a grand jury was convened to find out for sure. And it reflects well on Ackerman that she resisted Evans as long as she did.

But let’s not let that blind us to the obvious: Ackerman’s political failings (the MLK High issue aside) were a big part of the reason she was a poor fit for Philadelphia. For a superintendent, there’s more to politics than the jujitsu of high-pressure, back-room negotiations. There’s public image. Relations with parents and teachers. Defusing tense, high-profile problems, like the racial violence at South Philly High. Ackerman flunked all these tests spectacularly. Not to mention the district’s handling, on her watch, of the budget crisis everybody-knew-was-coming-but-still-managed-to-be-a-surprise.

Still, the last few months have made it clear that Ackerman isn’t the only problem. The School Reform Commission didn’t do the job it was created for. Back in 2001, when the state created the SRC, Harrisburg was deeply interested in the state of the city’s schools. Lately, not so much. And that’s the problem with assigning ultimate authority over an eminently local issue like schools to the governor.

We expect Mayor Nutter to step in when things get out of hand in the school district and restore order. He’s finally done that (if a year later than he should have), but it was a messy process. Sure, Nutter could have better decisions that probably would have made for a tidier transition. But it can’t be easy for a mayor to dictate to a board that a) is theoretically independent and b) reports to the state, not the city.

Ultimately, though, Ackerman and Archie—in very different ways—forced Nutter’s hand. For that, I’m grateful. It is hard to imagine the damage that would have been wreaked by another year or two of the dysfunctional AA-team.