What good is the SRC?
Talk about a tangled web built with deception. That's a pretty good description of the Philadelphia School District and its 13-year relationship with the city's School Reform Commission.
The deception is rooted in the SRC's being a state-empowered institution that tries to play the role of a locally controlled school board. To say that hasn't worked very well is an understatement. The tension between the SRC's dual personalities is on full display now as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considers its petition to invoke a provision of Act 46 allowing it to bypass parts of its collective bargaining agreement with the teachers' union. The SRC says inadequate funding by the state and other sources has made it necessary for it to take this extraordinary step. The teachers' union has responded that the SRC is a state creation and thus a party to decisions that created the fiscal crisis it cites as the reason to invoke Act 46.
If it's the blame game that people want to play, there are plenty of places to point fingers. In retrospect, what should have been a temporary take-over of city schools by the state should have never lasted this long. It did because city officials who had gotten tired of begging the state for additional funds year after year wrongly thought that keeping the SRC alive would provide a tie to the state that would perpetually assure adequate funding for city schools. That may have worked for a while, but then a postrecession Republican governor didn't see why having a state-created board run Philadelphia schools should mean they get treated any better than the rest of Pennsylvania's poorly funded public schools.
So what good is having the SRC?
That's a question Philadelphians need to ask themselves as the union and the hybrid school board battle it out in court. The SRC says budget cuts have made it necessary for it to obtain the flexibility to make work assignments that preclude the seniority rights granted to teachers in previous contracts. The union says teachers shouldn't have to give up rights they won to protect themselves from unfair employment decisions to help the SRC deal with staffing issues linked to budget cuts. Since neither side is yielding, the court will likely decide, and soon, because the SRC says it needs an answer to begin planning for the next school year. Whichever way the court rules, the district is likely to continue to lose students as more and more of them opt out to attend charters or other alternatives.
Typically, when a district's student population drops, the funds it receives based on enrollment recede. That reality has many observers, and not just conspiracy theorists, wondering if that is the ultimate goal of a nationwide school reform movement: to so starve traditional public schools of funds and students that they go out of business, leaving the education of America's children to publicly supported charters, for-profit companies, and private and parochial schools. If that happens in Philadelphia, people may one day look back at the inability of the SRC and teachers' union to come to terms as a watershed moment.
Harold Jackson is The Inquirer's editorial page editor. firstname.lastname@example.org 215-854-2555