Leadership Agenda: Pedro A. Ramos says local leaders are living in the past

Pedro A. Ramos, Chairman, School Reform Commission speaks during a news conference at Andrew Jackson Elementary School, Thursday, May 9, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Lawyer Pedro A. Ramos, chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, wishes he could get beyond the crisis headlines that dog his daily work life.

"Most people," he said, during my Leadership Agenda interview, "ignore the many good things that students and teachers in the school district do. If you just take the good in the terms of its absolute volume -- whether it’s at the Science Leadership Academy, or Central, or Masterman, or Saul Biddle, the number one agricultural school in the state, some of the work that has gone on in the turnaround schools -- there are some things that have worked well.  There are a lot of neighborhood schools where parents have become very involved and engaged. [These are] strengths and they are often overlooked."

He'd also like leaders to understand that Philadelphia's situation isn't what it was when they were in school, or even when they were raising their own children in the city.

"Locally, the government and civic and other leadership have been slow to realize that Philadelphia's future is more dependent on its public schools than ever," Ramos said, sitting in his office at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis in Center City Philadelphia.

"The reason I say it is, two decades ago, you moved into Philadelphia – you had choices as a parent. You either did or didn’t have a strong neighborhood school. You had a network of magnet schools. You had affordable parochial Catholic schools. You had affordable neighborhood  Friends schools and affordable private schools, and then, you had the very expensive private schools,"  he said.

"If you came to Philadelphia and you wanted to stay here and raise a family, there were a lot of of options and your real estate taxes were really low," he said.

"Today, the real estate taxes are lower for some and higher for others, and for many they are higher," he said. "You know, the parochial system is now very small. The independent affordable private schools are almost non-existent. So even if you want to stay in the city, there aren’t that many options.

"There are the school district-run schools and the charters in the public school sector and the really expensive private schools. There isn’t much in the middle," he said. "I don’t think many that have been around for a long time in positions of leadership and influence in the political and civic space really appreciate that the shift has happened."

What's next? Philadelphia has to decide if it really wants decent public education and it has to rely on itself to make that happen, Ramos said.

"Philadelphia has very little influence in the Commonwealth these days," he said. "Politically and even within the caucuses, the power has shifted west [toward Pittsburgh]."

Ramos served as the City of Philadelphia's managing director from 2004 to 2007, which gives him a certain perspective:

"You have a city that’s still built out for 2.5 million people with 1.5 million people in it," Ramos said. "Neither the state nor the city has gone through the scale of right-sizing that the school district has to go through in the last few years alone," closing under-utilized schools, for example.

"You have an infrastructure that’s built out for a lot more people. The choice to change that, or not change that, is also a choice to not redirect those resources to the increasing need of schools," he said. "People have to start having real adult conversations within our community about what choices we want to make."

Tomorrow: More on Pedro Ramos