Likely new SRC member: Parents deserve school choice

"We have to convince folks that an investment in education is always worth it," Estelle Richman said. "I think we can make a difference."

Estelle B. Richman believes teachers - especially those in struggling neighborhoods - need ample resources, and that parents ought to have choices about where their children attend school.

The public servant who was once a licensed school psychologist is well aware of the challenges the School Reform Commission faces.

And, she said, she's up for it.

"We have to convince folks that an investment in education is always worth it," Richman said. "I think we can make a difference."

Richman confirmed to The Inquirer that Gov. Wolf has asked her to fill an open seat on the SRC and that she has accepted. Wolf has not made a formal announcement, but one is expected soon.

The SRC is likely to be down one member until at least January, Richman said. She must be confirmed by the Pennsylvania Senate before joining the five-seat panel, and few legislative days remain before the end of the year.

Richman, 73, recently retired from a job in the Obama administration, working as a senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She also worked as head of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, as Philadelphia's managing director, and its commissioner of public health.

But, she said, "my interest in children and youth and education is not something new."

Richman is the daughter and granddaughter of teachers. She attended public schools in Lynchburg, Va. until the 10th grade, when her parents decided that Richman, who is African American, needed to leave that segregated system. She finished high school at a prep school in Massachusetts.

She earned a master's degree in community psychology with a certification in school psychology, and helped run a school for children with behavioral issues.

And her daughter is a veteran educator in the Cheltenham School District.

Senate Republicans have said that they will not support any nominee who is not receptive to charter schools.

Richman, a known quantity in Harrisburg, said she is.

"I believe in parent choice," she said. "I believe that parents need to have a say about the schools, the type of school, the format of that school."

But, Richman said, no child should be cheated out of a good education because their school is inadequately funded.

Charters remain a hot-button issue in Philadelphia. There are 86 in the city, and some - including outgoing SRC Chair Marjorie Neff - say that the district cannot afford charter expansion.

"If a charter is teaching and children are learning and clearly they are excelling at what they do - and some of the charters do - I would never propose to take it away," Richman said.

On the flip side, she would not want to invest in charter schools that are not performing well. And, she said, "we have an obligation for our non-charter schools that they have the resources, tools, teachers and environment so that they can make sure that children excel."

And yes, she said, she has learned much from her daughter, who taught special-education students for 12 years and now teaches in a regular-education classroom. She goes above and beyond for her students, Richman said, and stresses the importance of manageable class sizes, adequate supplies, and supportive administrators.

In Philadelphia, many children live in challenging circumstances, "but we must also understand the challenges that teachers have, and find ways of supporting them, too."

Richman said it would not be appropriate for her to comment on the talks with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which has not had a contract for three years.

In nearly every job she's held, Richman has had to focus on working with sizable budgets and being accountable to the public, and the school district's budget challenges are not unfamiliar to her.

"The SRC and [Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.] have done an incredible job of reaching a point where the schools are not at that brink of falling off the cliff in January," Richman said. "I do believe, however, that if we don't look at how effectively and well we can run the schools, we'll be back in that position in two years."

In a way, Richman finds herself in an odd position: She had hoped, in retirement, to lessen her workload, not increase it.

When Gov. Wolf's office reached out, "I think I thought, 'Are you crazy, or do you think I am?' I was both surprised and flattered at the same time."

But the public interest ultimately won out, she said. She did, however, tell the governor that she did not have time to be chair. Richman would replace Feather Houstoun, but Wolf must also name a new chair because Marjorie Neff has also resigned.

Neff's replacement will be named by Mayor Kenney and is expected to be in place by the November SRC meeting.

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