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Testimony on Proposed Charter Amendment to Abolish the School Reform Commission

Testimony on Proposed Charter Amendment to Abolish the School Reform Commission

Philadelphia City Council
Committee on Law and Government
Bill No. 140514; Resolution No. 140527

June 18, 2014 

I am Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, Vice President and Policy Director of the Committee of Seventy.

It is increasingly apparent that Philadelphians want the city’s public schools to return to local control. The ballot question you propose is virtually certain to pass.

But passage would be purely symbolic. Philadelphia voters calling on the governor and General Assembly to abolish the SRC would have no impact on whether the SRC stays or goes. The SRC can disappear only after a declaration by the state Secretary of Education upon the recommendation of a majority of the five SRC members.

A more effective way to advance the return to local control would be for the mayor and City Council to convene a Task Force to explore potential governance models and recommend what would work best for Philadelphia. But if current hostilities between the two branches prevent joint action, a Task Force should be convened by an independent third party, such as a foundation or a consortium of local universities or a non-profit without an already-expressed bias on governance.  

Other cities have done this. For instance, in 2010, a Task Force was formed to recommend a governance model for the New Orleans public schools that, like Philadelphia, has a mix of charter and traditional, district-run schools. At that post-Hurricane-Katrina time, a local School Board and a state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education were responsible for the New Orleans public schools.

Task Force members included parents, union members, community leaders, principals of charter and traditional schools, as well as representatives from local businesses, universities and foundations. State and local government officials also participated.

The final report explicitly stated that participation on the Task Force did not imply that any member, or his or her organization, endorsed the outcome – which recommended restoring local control to an elected Governing Board. This stipulation enabled a widely diverse membership to hear different viewpoints without fear that their engagement would be interpreted as a commitment. 

Philadelphia should follow New Orleans’ example. As in that city, no one governance model stands above the rest. Even local control has numerous possibilities: Should Philadelphia return to a mayoral-appointed School Board? Should City Council confirmation of School Board members be required? Should the School Board be elected rather than appointed? And, if so, should the School Board have taxing authority, as do all other School Boards in Pennsylvania? Should there be designated seats for parents or guardians or for professional educators? Should the School District by broken up into smaller governance units, as some have suggested? Or does the current centralized operating structure continue to make sense? Do the schools even need a governing board?

These are complex questions that shouldn’t be answered hastily because of frustration with state government or with the SRC.  We urge the mayor and City Council to strongly consider creating, and funding, a Task Force and setting a short time frame to complete its work.

In the meantime, Philadelphians should not be deluded into believing that the ballot question has significance other than sending a message to Harrisburg – a message that has already been heard loud and clear. Each of the candidates in the Democratic primary for governor, including the eventual primary winner Tom Wolf, stated at an Education Forum that Seventy co-sponsored in April that they supported local control.

And Council should not put forward meaningless Charter amendments as a way to express public opinion and curry favor with constituents. Of all people, Council members should be vigilant about amending the Charter to include provisions that are both critical to city governance and can be implemented if passed.

Today’s proposed ballot question does not fit these criteria.

Finally, it is distressing to sit here today discussing this ballot question when the public schools’ funding crisis is still unresolved. This is what City Council should be focusing on. We urge you to stay in session – or to hold a summer session as soon as possible – until the $96 million funding gap is fully satisfied and schools can open in September, albeit at a level that should satisfy no one in this city.

If Philadelphians want control of the public schools, City Council members – and also the mayor, who oddly seems to be missing in action – must prove they are responsible owners. And that if and when the public schools return to local control, Philadelphians know exactly which governance model makes the most sense for the city and its public school children.  

Thank you.