Helen Gym and Bill Green Try to Find Common Ground (or Not) on Education in Philadelphia

In an extended version of their talk from our Conversation Issue, the indefatigable activist and the School Reform Commission chair (politely) square off.


He’s chairman of the School Reform Commission. She’s co-founder of Parents United for Public Education. They have very different ideas about how to run the district. In mid-September — a month before the SRC voided the district’s contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers — Bill and Helen sat down for a lengthy chat. Here, their (abridged) conversation about trying to see eye to eye.

PHILLY MAG: Helen, what do you think the advocate’s role is when dealing with the SRC? Is it to convince them? Is it to pressure them? How do you attempt to influence the SRC’s decisions?

BILL: Sometimes she calls me and yells at me, and sometimes we …

HELEN: He loves it.

BILL: … have a very cordial conversation.

HELEN: I’m his voice of whatever. I think about a lot about this question of who really has power. When we’re looking at large, complicated systems … it makes me think a lot about how we listen to one another, and how we define power and decision-making and authority, and in some cases I think that we haven’t always had governing authorities that are really aware of, responsive to or reflective of the things that parents and community members care very deeply about. I think we should agree that we’re in an extremely undemocratic governance structure. The School Reform Commission is a state takeover body, it’s an unelected body, and — this isn’t, you know, personal or anything like that.

BILL: I don’t take it that way.

HELEN: Good, because I definitely don’t mean it to be. But as an entity, [the SRC] is an undemocratic body. The opportunities for public engagement with the school district and the SRC in particular are effectively three minutes at the microphone once a month, with preregistration.

BILL: Or you can call my cell —

HELEN: And I do appreciate the private talks, but they’re not in lieu of a public conversation and democratic processes. It’s not really what does Helen say to Bill, but it’s really about what are we trying to break open? What are we trying to understand? And what I’ve always appreciated about you was that I think you more than any other SRC chair have been extremely vocal about the level of inequity. The thing I think we’re struggling with is trying to capture different spaces and be in different spaces where we can hear one another and learn and listen.

BILL: I didn’t take what you said about the SRC as an offense, but what you said is factually inaccurate. Of course we’re democratic. Everything we do is done in public; every vote we take is made in public; people have an opportunity to come and speak to us. How is that any different from your ability to go to your congressperson and talk to them, or your ability to go to City Council and talk to them?

HELEN: So you’re saying this is how government works?

BILL: This is the democratic process. And if you want an elected school board, I think it’s far worse. Because you’re not going to actually do the hard things that are going to allow you to balance a budget, because you’re going to be pandering to get elected. I think an elected school board in Philadelphia would be a disaster and the end of the Philadelphia school system.

HELEN: I disagree. How about how we all listen to one another? I’m trying to get at a little bit less about whether we have an elected school board and more about these questions of whether we negotiate, how we listen to one another, how we hear each other.

BILL: From the SRC’s perspective, we have all these advocates coming in, and what are they asking for? They’re asking for actual things that we would want in all schools. More librarians, more counselors, more nurses, etc. But if we take actions to actually free up resources to make it possible to provide them, they will be opposed. And so they’re asking for these things, which no one in their right mind would disagree with, failing to recognize that the money has to come from somewhere. The district proposed to outsource its cleaning services two years ago; all of the advocates and elected officials were opposed. The schools would be clean; it would cost maybe three-quarters, two-thirds of the price. When the district does try to do things like that, none of the advocates support it.

PHILLY MAG: When you hear this, Helen, are you convinced? Are you swayed? How much do either of you, when talking to advocates or to folks in the district, actually rethink your position?

HELEN: I frequently have extremely positive interaction with district personnel. I learn a lot from a lot of them. I’m curious, though, because there’s this idea of power [with the SRC], and needing certainty, and “We know what works, we will put it in. You don’t know — we know.” I feel like there needs to be a lot more humility about this role.

PHILLY MAG: Which role, the SRC role?

HELEN: Well, especially the SRC, because most people on the SRC don’t have a teaching and learning background. They aren’t regularly in school and don’t have a wide breadth of contacts to be able to kind of balance out what they’re hearing and reading vs. what’s actually unfolding. It was interesting; on WHYY in June, you were given the question, “What kind of leverage does the SRC have?” You were like, “We have none,” which I don’t totally agree with because I don’t think you take a position with zero leverage. But I understand what you are getting at. Really, what it made me think about was how much more you need people to be on your side.

BILL: I agree with you completely. Here is the fundamental problem the district faces. The things we’re going to have to do in the future to eliminate our structural deficit are hard. They will cause most of the loud voices and advocates to not be on our side. Most advocates will say, “I’m not getting involved in that; we are not going to support you.” But they are still going to come before the SRC and ask for additional nurses and counselors and things that our structural deficit and our constant scrambling for money don’t permit. So I don’t know how to bridge that.

PHILLY MAG: Let me sharpen that question. There does seem to be among advocates an unrealistic appreciation of the financial reality sometimes. Could you grapple with that a little bit?

HELEN: Yeah, I understand. I think what we need to think about here is that the role of the SRC in particular is troublesome. I think there’s a level of distrust going on … and I would put out there, we are not having a public debate. You may say this is a democratic structure, you get three minutes at the mic, or you can go into the streets if you don’t like what you see. But you know that will lock you into a certain kind of dynamic that is leading to thousands of people signing petitions to get rid of the SRC. I guess what I kind of come up against is that when you meet people who have an enormous amount of power and are so certain and unbending and unwilling to create different spaces in which to hear a large number of voices, we come into a very bad situation.

PHILLY MAG: Is there actually an absence of public dialogue?

BILL: I don’t think there’s an absence of public dialogue. Everybody has an opinion on schools, and everybody is expressing them. It’s part of the governor’s race today, and it’ll be apart of the mayor’s race in 2015.

HELEN: But that’s not really public dialogue. It’s not about what the people have the right to do. It’s what the district has a responsibility to understand. I don’t think a large swath of the public fundamentally believes that the SRC is capable of or even has a grasp of what this quality school vision looks like. You even said at the SRC last week that your responsibility was to manage the existing resources that you had.

BILL: Well, that’s not what I said. What I said was, once we get the resources we get, we then have a duty to spend only those resources, and we must make tough choices. Budgeting is choosing between competing ideas for good with limited resources. The concept of what the advocates were asking for, which is that we just spend all the money as if we can run the schools the way Dr. Hite would like to run them, is entirely irresponsible and violates our oath of office.

HELEN: And I guess the challenge is that managing the resources you have is one of your jobs, but it’s not the only job. I mean, you’re supposed to have a broader vision.

BILL: Which I’ve described sitting here at this table. Everything that we know works is part of the action plan, based on data and evidence.

PHILLY MAG: I think it’s fair to say that there’s some significant alienation among parents in the city about the school district. Is part of that alienation attributable to this sense that the SRC is remote, that it is removed, that it is aloof from the ground-level concerns of parents?

BILL: I would say most parents and most people in Philadelphia probably don’t know the governing structure of the school district. Just like they don’t know who their district councilperson is, just like they don’t know who their congressman or senators are. I would say that’s probably the case.

HELEN: You think that’s the number one issue?

BILL: No. I was just saying, I don’t think they’re alienated towards the SRC. I think they’re not alienated enough about what’s happening to their child. There should be outrage in the City of Philadelphia with respect to what’s happening and the inequality that exists within our school system.

HELEN: I mean, you don’t see the outrage?

BILL: Let’s just take the example of Steel and Marín, okay? [In April, parents at Steel and Muñoz-Marín elementary schools voted down a plan to put the schools under the control of Mastery and ASPIRA, two of the city’s most accomplished charter operators.] What the PFT did was campaign in those neighborhoods, knock on doors, as did the charter operators. They really did an extraordinary disservice to students in those schools, because … after the vote that was taken, both providers were rejected. People came into the SRC and testified and said, “When are we going to get the additional resources? Like, how come you haven’t given our school more money?” The message they were told is that you will get additional resources in this existing public school if you resist the charter operators.

HELEN: That’s honestly your interpretation of what happened? Because I do think this is, like, touching on the negativity of the SRC’s approach towards communities. It’s a little bit negative about how you see us, and also about our effort and why we do this work. Like, why do I spend all this time caring so deeply about schools? In part, it’s because I’ve been part of these extremely transformative experiences. It’s because I’ve been part of places like South Philadelphia High School; I’ve been part of a space like Steel where the parents weren’t bamboozled and didn’t have the wool pulled over their eyes. They talked in those meetings about things like school stability, leadership. They talked about teachers who had been at the school for decades. They talked about a sense of community and a need for that community to be heard and respected, and a feeling, whether fair or not, that they were being targeted for elimination, homogenized, and reabsorbed into some broader charter structure.

The stuff that moves me, and I think the stuff that moves a lot of parents, is the fact that we’ve been part of really vibrant, meaningful, transformative experiences in our schools, and they have deep, resonant meaning, because they impact our children and our families. What happens in a classroom ends up on our dining room table that night, and the SRC should be able to figure out a way to tap into that positive energy. And instead it feels like you come in and want to be the big bad boss, you want to be the decider, you want to be certain about your rules, you want to take your votes, and this is how you see it, and that is —

BILL: I don’t know how to make governance work in any way other than how it works. Our meetings are already four to six hours long, generally speaking. We ask the public about things that we’re considering, and we get their feedback. We’ve done that with most of the major policy changes. The school redesign initiative went through that process. The vote on the decision to go with a universal common application was delayed because of feedback in one of these policy meetings. They’re real meetings. With respect to Steel and Muñoz-Marín, Dr. Hite recommended to the SRC that the children in those schools would be better off under Mastery and under Aspira than under their existing teachers and principals, and those students are not in that better situation. Both those operators have shown tremendous success. Those students are not getting the better education they could be getting this year because people decided to fight against something that was best in the judgment of Dr. Hite.

HELEN: Because they believed in public education. Because they believed there was a bigger promise than saying, “We’re giving up on you, so go to a charter school.” Did you not hear that in the discussion?

BILL: I didn’t hear parents saying that. I hear you saying that. I hear other advocates saying that. We abdicated a role in the sense that Dr. Hite and his team recommended to us what would be best for the kids in that building; we didn’t decide it ourselves. That was our role. It became a campaign between the PFT and Mastery, so in that sense, we disserved those children.

HELEN: And if it had been in your hands, you would have just voted to turn it over —

BILL: And they’re in a worse place this year because of it.

HELEN: I feel like this conversation is so fascinating. Both of us agree that Steel and Marín deserve a better school than they currently have.

BILL: But the problem is, every school is deserving.

HELEN: Well, you picked two, you targeted two, and I was there, and [deputy superintendent] Paul Kihn was very clear. He said, “We’re done with them, we’re not going to have any more public discussion, people don’t like them, we’re not going to talk about it anymore so we’re just going to take them out.” Paul Kihn was completely crystal clear: “Your schools stink. In fact, they stink so badly, they rise to the top. Your test scores are miserable, and your teachers should be ashamed, your principal should be ashamed.” That’s the message he came in with. And that’s something I wanted to share with you, because I think you need to hear it. People reacted very strongly to this idea of how stupid and foolish they are for sending their children to a failing school, to a school where they should feel shame and embarrassment, where their teachers disserve them every day, where their principal doesn’t do her job. She’s been there for nine years, by the way. And from what I can tell, I have walked into plenty of schools, and honestly, if I had walked into Steel and felt like — you know, you can read it. I was at South Philly High; you can read it. I did not get that feeling from Steel. As soon as I walked into that school, I felt like there was something going on that was worth me spending time with the parents who had asked us to be there. And so you bring a message of shame and condemnation, and today you bring a message of judgment even after the vote, without having heard —

BILL: The fundamental issue is, if Paul Kihn said that, that really can be said in 118 schools.

HELEN: I mean, you’re saying that right now, basically.

BILL: So how in the world do we get parents to understand and accept that what their children are getting is substandard in a way that doesn’t upset them? It should upset them. It should upset them. Maybe there’s a better way to say it, and you could help me figure out what that is. But parents should be far more upset about the situation their children are in and the consequences of being in those 118 schools, because those are schools in the worst neighborhoods in our city, with the highest crime rates in this city, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because those schools haven’t worked for generations.

HELEN: So what is your point, though? What do you want? Because I feel like what you want is to label and then sort and —

BILL: Well, I don’t want to label and sort.

HELEN: What we want is to have a conversation about what we’re working toward —

BILL: Helen, can I answer? Thank you. We don’t want to label and sort. We want 100 percent good schools. That is the goal.

HELEN: But what do you define as quality? The parents at Steel have a definition of quality, but you can’t hear it.

BILL: Let me know when I can speak for, you know, more than 30 seconds. Here’s the fundamental problem. You seem to believe that the district has some agenda other than making every school as great as it can be by putting in great leaders, by applying evidence and data.

HELEN: And your measurement is, test it.

BILL: No. There’s going to be a principal evaluation next year, and we’re going to hold principals, teachers and students accountable. That means, as Dr. Hite often says, you can’t lower standards so people can get through, which is what happens in many schools today. We want to apply the same standards to everybody, whether they’re an English-as-a-second-language learner or they’re at Masterman. The number one complaint of the students who go to some of our lower-performing high schools is that it’s too easy, we’re not challenged. That is unfair to those students, and that needs to stop happening in every school. Not just students, but teachers and principals and the entire system needs to be held accountable, but not on a system-wide basis. Because you can’t transform a system; you can transform a school, one school after another school. Given the new leaders that Dr. Hite has put in as principals at a lot of schools, we can transform many schools at the same time.

HELEN: So, a couple of thoughts. If you’re talking to parents, nothing that you said would be remotely understandable, accessible, or even meaningful to them. It’s, “This is what we want, we want this, we want you to understand this, we need to do this, we want we want we want — ”

BILL: I didn’t say want once, I don’t think.

HELEN: If you talked about the things that parents want, they are things like “a rich learning and reading environment in class.” “We have an after-school program for you.” I think in part it’s employing language that is just so removed from what is actually deeply meaningful to parents. You have your School Progress Report, but parents have different measures of how we talk about schools.

PHILLY MAG: The obvious potential common ground between the two of you is the resource issue. I’m wondering if there’s a way to work together on that, if nothing else.

BILL: Here’s the fundamental problem the district has.

HELEN: My answer would’ve been yes.

BILL: To answer that specific question, as Helen said when she spoke to us during the budget debate in the spring, basically, you guys are doing all the wrong things. We are going to be with you to get the money, and then we are coming back after you. Yes, we work together. We both advocate for money in different places. We have different agendas outside of that, which is confusing for people outside Harrisburg and other places. I’m not sure how to coordinate that better. We do have a call with all the various organized advocacy groups, PCCY and other groups like that, to try to coordinate messaging and make sure we are on the same page with respect to advocacy. We work together with many groups involved in education on our messaging in Harrisburg, City Council, and coordinating campaigns last budget season. I’m still fascinated by the comment that maybe parents shouldn’t understand or that maybe parents don’t need to understand the situation their kids are in, and that’s offensive to them in some way.

HELEN: “Substandard” was the term that you used. That it was important for them to understand that their kids were getting a substandard education.

BILL: I think that’s a weak term compared to the education that their kids are getting. One could argue that they’re not getting much of an education at all.

HELEN: And you wouldn’t send your own children to those schools?

BILL: I would not, and you would not. We should be communicating that to parents. The fundamental problem with the district is that we can’t get anyone to invest in us, because we can’t get anyone to believe that if they give us the money, we will be successful. That seems to be the number one impediment to resources. So when I hear Helen critique the action plan [Hite’s plan to reform the district] and the implementation of it, it makes me very concerned that one of the leading school advocates is saying they don’t believe in the plan.

HELEN: I didn’t say that. I didn’t say I don’t believe in the plan.

BILL: So this is huge common ground. If you actually believe in the plan, that’s huge.

HELEN: I believe that every superintendent has put forward an action plan that has been aspirational, and why would you disagree that every eight-year-old should be at the reading level?

BILL: Do you believe it’s possible for the district to truly succeed?

HELEN: I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think that.

BILL: Okay. What’s the district not doing today — without discussing money, because we don’t have money — that we should be doing?

HELEN: I’ll go back to it. I don’t think we’re working off a common understanding of quality schools. I don’t think we see resources, managerial attention, movement and that kind of thing-

BILL: So it’s all involving money.

HELEN: Let me finish.

BILL: The question was, what are we not doing that we should do?

HELEN: I’m explaining. I’m saying that I don’t think we are communicating a clearly aligned model of what quality systems we’re trying to accomplish in the School District of Philadelphia.

BILL: What are we not doing with respect to schools that we need to do?

HELEN: I think we’re not communicating and investing and spending time articulating this idea of quality. Quality and what that’s actually going to mean.

BILL: Invest in what? Even when I say please leave out dollars, everything you’re discussing is related to the dollars that we’re getting.

PHILLY MAG: I think Bill raises an interesting point. I think his question is what should the district be doing.

HELEN: Yes. So we should be having an expansive conversation about quality schools, what do they look like, what kind of mission are we on together, how do we build that, what resources do we have right now.

BILL: You’re not answering the question.

HELEN: If you think work-rule changes are divorced from resources, let’s have a really deep public discussion about the breadth of work-rule changes that we’re looking at. Let’s look at data and evidence that shows what we’re trying to accomplish, and within this environment, how would that realistically unfold and be implemented in schools?

BILL: There’s been a huge public debate over that for the last two years.

HELEN: You’ve had a selective discussion, mostly a media kind of thing. I think there needs to be a reexamination of how the SRC structures its meeting. Three minutes at the mic?

BILL: Much of what we do can be improved —

HELEN: We can be proactive. We can think about different venues in which we can have public debates about major issues that aren’t completely controlled by and structured by the School District of Philadelphia.

BILL: So let’s look at what the SRC has done since I joined. We basically encourage people to email us. We tried to address the issues that we get. We have changed, I believe, our tone, and despite the complaints have responded far more frequently. Sometimes I wait until the end, depending on how vitriolic a person is. We tried to respond to the important issues raised in public testimony — that never used to happen. We’ve become much more open and responsive and tried to address things that are real or are misstatements of fact, and we can probably get even better at that. There’s a desire not to have 10-hour meetings, also. Sometimes when you respond, you get people yelling back at you. I don’t know how you have an unstructured dialogue.

If we asked the public and we brought busloads in from around the city, people are going to complain about the lack of counselors, the lack of nurses, that there’s not enough staff in schools and that we need principals to be education leaders and in classrooms instead of doing administrative tasks. It’s not like we don’t know what the issues are. It’s that we don’t have the money to resolve the issues. When you come down to it, when I ask what we can do that we’re not doing, the discussion centers around dialogue and inclusiveness and having a seat at the table. Okay, but most of that conversation centers around what we’re doing wrong. And of course we are doing things wrong; we can and should be criticized. But if you don’t have an alternative to present, then really, we have to proceed with what we’re doing and try to fix the things that we’re doing wrong.

(Even after they left our conference room, the heated conversation kept going — see Helen’s response to Bill’s October 12th Inquirer op-ed on the SRC’s contract decision.)

An abridged version of this conversation was originally published as “On Finding Common Ground (or Not)” in the November 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Read more from our Conversation Issue.