Special interests rule city schools

State Rep. Dwight Evans

Former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has provided the best evidence yet that her departure from the Philadelphia School District was probably for the best.

The circumstances certainly could have been better; Ackerman was essentially forced to resign. But by her own assessment in a guest column Monday in The Inquirer, she no longer believed she could make the changes needed for the city’s schools to excel.

“Recently, I’ve come to a sad realization,” she said. “Real reform will never come from within the system because too many powers that be (the teachers’ union, politicians, consultants, vendors, etc.) have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo that is failing our children.”

Sadder than Ackerman’s analysis is its accuracy. The district’s annual billion-dollar budget is the big apple that entices numerous special interests that want to get a slice or keep the one they have. The fight over a charter contract that got Ackerman canned is a good example of that.

An investigation by the city’s Office of Integrity concluded that State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) and former School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. conspired to have the contract to operate a charter at Martin Luther King High School awarded to a Moorestown firm.

The jockeying over the contract completely ignored that parents and other members of the public had been asked to review the charter applicants and make a recommendation to the SRC. After trying to abide by the panel’s wishes, Ackerman found herself on the way out the door.

That doesn’t mean Ackerman was a paragon of virtue. She had other faults that suggested she wasn’t the right fit as Philadelphia’s superintendent, including her inability to work with the news media to expose some of the corrupting forces she now says have doomed Philadelphia schools to mediocrity.

If Ackerman’s assessment is correct, however, one has to wonder how there can be any hope of improvement without completely blowing up the current educational bureaucracy and starting from scratch with a new agency that is more directly responsible to the public for its decisions.

But Gov. Corbett won’t dismantle the SRC unless urged to do so by Mayor Nutter. And Nutter believes all the SRC needs is the right members. He’s made two appointments to fill vacancies on the five-member panel, and Corbett’s nomination for the third is pending in the state Senate.

So, it will be up to the SRC to address the special interests Ackerman named. Those interests may genuinely want better schools, but they think the money spigots must flow in their direction for that to happen. Until the SRC or the mayor decides otherwise, the status quo will continue to rule the schools.