Interview: Can Bill Green Fix Philly’s Schools?

"What's changed now is my ability to influence the district in providing quality schools."

Councilman Bill Green has long been known for his heterodox ways: While other pols rely on glad-handing to make their way, Green spent his time writing white papers describing how he’d fix government in Philadelphia. Earlier this month, Gov. Tom Corbett appointed Green to chair Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission. (See Philly Mag’s new cover story on eight ways to fix Philadelphia schools.)

Thursday, Green talked to Philly Mag about Mayor Nutter’s reaction to that news, his views on charter schools, and whether he still has a shot at being mayor.

So it’s been a couple weeks now since Gov. Corbett announced your appointment to the SRC, what’s your take on the reaction you’ve received since then?

Well there’s been numerous and varied reactions, I think. [Laughs] Nobody is in the middle on my appointment.

Mayor Nutter’s was probably the most famous reaction. He said he found it “perplexing.” The school district has relied on City Hall quite a bit in recent years to provide supplemental funding. Have you considered how you’re going to navigate that relationship to the benefit of Philadelphia students?

The mayor and I are adults. I was disappointed by his comments. Especially after the decision was made, they were certainly unnecessary. But we are going to work together for something that we’re both passionate about, and that’s providing a free, quality public education to the children of Philadelphia.

One of the things that you two have differed on is your call previously to expand charters in the city. You said recently that you’ve “evolved” on the issue of charters.

I haven’t evolved on the issue of charters. I felt like the district was not moving. If you read my paper from 2010 and 2011, basically the district was not creating quality schools quickly enough. There’s still 83,000 Philadelphia children who are not in a quality school. That’s a problem. If the district isn’t going to provide quality schools and there’s an alternative out there that is, then I will always choose that alternative. So that perspective hasn’t changed, but what’s changed now is my ability to influence the district in providing quality schools. We should have a goal, and I know Dr. Hite does, of 100 percent good schools in the city. I think that’s achievable or I wouldn’t be taking this job.

There is a movement to open up your appointment hearing in Harrisburg to public comment. What are your thoughts about that?

I’m a city councilman in Philadelphia [laughs] and if people would like to come talk to me, I give everybody an appointment and I’d be happy to speak to people about anything they desire. And that will continue if I get confirmed by the Senate and become chair of the SRC. I look forward to having a strong working relationship; I don’t pretend to know everything, but the only thing that moves me is data and evidence. So people who want to change my views need to bring it.

You would also be taking office in the midst of what seems to be a rather widespread cheating scandal. How does that affect what you’re trying to do?

I think if you participated in cheating you shouldn’t be in the Philadelphia school district. … I don’t know how practical a statement that is. 

Finally, you have long been said to have mayoral ambitions. Shepherding Philly schools toward something that even looks like success seems like it offers plenty of room for failure and maybe a narrow path to success.

You know, it’s funny. My ambition, regardless of the position I hold, is for Philadelphia to grow and thrive: in terms of population, in terms of jobs we create, in terms of the number of good schools we have, et cetera. And that passion doesn’t change no matter the office I hold. I don’t have a desire for a particular office. I have a desire for a particular outcome, and I think my highest and best use at this moment is where the governor is sending me, and that’s to the SRC.

How will you be able to define success in that role?

I think success will be defined by whether or not we continue to lose population to suburban school districts or we keep people in the city of Philadelphia and our base of citizens and students grows, no matter what school they’re in.

So the proof’s going to be in how the customer decides to [vote] with their feet then, basically?

That’s generally how it works.

The question I was starting to get to just a little bit ago was: Is it possible to do this job, to be the chair of the SRC —  with all of the controversies and headaches and obstacles that it entails — and come out at the end of it still politically viable?

[Laughs] Probably not. I have no idea. But fortunately that’s not up to me.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.