With the School Reform Commission and the Kenney administration about to disband the School Reform Commission for yet another school governance structure, I am mindful of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.
Since the School District was created, it’s had more governance structures than Zsa Zsa Gabor had husbands. Here is a quick recap:
Originally, each ward had its own elected school board; in time the elected boards became advisory and a 21-member Board of Education was selected by the Board of Judges. At one point the School District was a department of city government, but later it became an independent agency and the 21-member board was reduced to 15 members. In 1965, city voters reduced the number of members to nine, with members serving staggered six-year terms, and for the first time gave appointing power to the mayor. In 1999, the voters acted again, this time granting the incoming mayor the authority to select the nine-member board, whose terms would be concurrent with his.
Two years later, the Ridge-Schweiker administration in Harrisburg, dissatisfied with the fiscal and educational failures of the School District and enamored with privatization, flexed its muscle. The nine-member local school board was disbanded and replaced by the School Reform Commission, with three members appointed by the governor and two by the mayor.
This is consistent with my rule of thumb that organizations, when faced with tough, difficult, if not intractable, problems, ignore the real issues and do what’s easiest: they move boxes around on their organizational charts or, in the case of the School District, change the governance structure. Yet, as Einstein pointed out, the same problems remain.
These problems include severe poverty; underfunding, which in recent years has decimated nurses, counselors, music and art from our schools with barely a whimper from our body politic; racial inequity; and, sometimes, misspending, mismanagement, and misplaced priorities.
Regardless of governance structure, the most important thing is the dedication, good will and knowledge of the people appointed. That’s why the timing of this latest move is so troublesome. The current SRC has dedicated individuals with enormous knowledge and hands-on experience about education, the workings of state and local governments, and the welfare of children.
And they are to be replaced or supplemented by whom? We will have to wait to see, because the new wrinkle in the latest version of musical chairs gives City Council the authority to approve the mayor’s selections. Beware of what you ask for.
The rallying cry behind this latest rendition of who’s in charge is “local control.” It sounds nice, but it’s misleading at best. A good chunk of the district’s resources will continue to come from the state, and the laws governing what the School District can or cannot do will continue to be enacted by the General Assembly and administered and interpreted by the commonwealth’s Department of Education.
Behind the scenes there are two other reasons cited for disbanding the SRC now: First, it’s a way to derail the possibility of an elected school board. Philadelphia doesn’t have a great track record in its minor elections — see Traffic Court. Second, by giving the mayor the appointing power, it aligns responsibility and accountability with one individual rather than the two-hump structure we have today.
The hope is that with the mayor owning the problem, he will be able to free up more money for the schools. Mayor Kenney, to his credit, wants to own the problem, but we don’t know who will follow him. Besides, the city’s history demonstrates that most mayors run away from the district’s problems, finding it far easier to develop new buildings than develop young minds.
By disbanding the SRC and assuming “local control,” the city is giving the General Assembly, already ill-informed if not mean spirited when it comes to urban education, ample reason to further abandon our schoolchildren and, perhaps, strip the district of any control over charter schools except, of course, to foot the entire bill.
In short, there is far more risk than reward in this latest governance scheme. It might make adults feel like they are doing something, but it won’t do a damn thing for our schoolchildren.
Phil Goldsmith served as interim chief executive officer of the School District of Philadelphia, 2000 and 2001. firstname.lastname@example.org