Legislator: Abolish the SRC

State Rep. Louise Williams Bishop (D, Phila.) has introduced legislation that would abolish the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, which was created by the state in 2001 as part of a takeover of the Philadelphia School District.  The SRC consists of five members, three appointed by the governor and two by the mayor, and has certain “extraordinary” powers, including the ability to impose terms on the district’s unions in order to speed reform.

Ten years in, Bishop says, it’s not working.  Things in the district, she says, are “worse now” than it was when the state stepped in to revamp things a decade ago - academically, violence-wise, and fiscally.  “Our children are suffering, no matter what they say,” Bishop said.  “They’re not where they should be.”  It's hard to dispute that there has been progress. The district has seen eight straight years of test score growth, and for the first time, more than 50 percent of students are meeting state goals in reading and math; officials have pointed to that as evidence that the takeover law, and the SRC, are working as they should be.

But this year’s funding crisis raised a serious question in Bishop’s mind.  The district must slash $629 million to balance the 2011-12 budget.  To do so, officials are proposing cutting full-day kindergarten, most transportation services and extended day programs altogether; chopping , school budgets considerably; and making cuts to special education, early childhood education, alternative education, athletics, and a host of other programs. For the first time in recent memory, the state is taking away funding from the district, not increasing it. “If you're not going to fund it, give it back to the city, and let the city do the best it can,” Bishop said.

She’s calling for an end to the state takeover and she's calling for an elected school board, something Philadelphia did not have before the state intervention.  (But she’d be willing to consider an appointed board, as long as it was a city-appointed board, she said.)  

But who’s to say the city could come up with more cash for the district?  “Whether the city can come up with the money or not remains to be seen,” Bishop said.  “But you ask yourself - which is worse, for state to own it and not fund it, or for the city to own it and not fund it?” (Just a note that this is the week that the district goes before City Council to present its grim budget picture.  Officials make their case on Tuesday morning, and public testimony happens on Wednesday.)

Others have complained that the SRC has evolved into a rubber-stamp panel for Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman and that a new body is needed to bring more oversight to the district; that’s not Bishop’s concern, she said.

The legislation has several co-sponsors, including Rep. James Roebuck (D., Phila.), chair of the House Education Committee, and Rep. Michael McGeehan (D., Phila.), who has called on Ackerman to be removed as superintendent.  Williams said she’s not sure where the legislation will go.  “We're taking a chance on it,” she said.  “We want to see what will happen. I hope that they will say, ‘You know, that's not a bad idea. Let's do better than we're doing.’”

The bill is currently being considered by the House education committee.

What do you think? Has the SRC outlived its usefulness? Would changing the governance structure make a difference?

Also, you should read this story by my colleague Kia Gregory on Penn Alexander, its enrollment cap, and the prospects of improving other West Philadelphia neighborhood schools.

(I'll be live chatting tomorrow at noon.  Bring your district-related questions!)