Commissioner Bill Green Statement on Vote to Dissolve the School Reform Commission
“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” John F. Kennedy
“Local control” is one of those concepts it’s hard to argue against. After all, it sounds like participatory democracy, and decision-making by and close to those most impacted. So, why do we have a School Reform Commission at all?
When it comes to the imminent return of the School District of Philadelphia to local control, lessons from the 16-year history of the School Reform Commission (SRC) illuminate both what we ought to be concerned by and advocate for in the transition. Political deals ushered in, and are ushering out, the SRC.
The SRC has created the possibility of today’s discussion of a new governance structure through its sound management of the District. In fact, that was its whole purpose. The SRC should be proud of the fact that it has created the fiscal and academic stability to make the City want the District back under its control. In fact, many more quality schools and school choices exist today for families than when the SRC was created. However, it matters not what the governance structure, it matters who governs.
Respectfully, no other SRC member or elected official has resigned a paying job (on City Council) and gave up a pension in order to serve on the SRC. Many changes suggested by my 2010 City Council policy paper, “Investing in Philadelphia’s Future: The Case for Comprehensive Education Reform”, have been made but more work is required. I hope I am considered an informed and conflict free source for information about our best path forward.
Lesson 1: Beware Magical Fiscal Thinking
The SRC was activated in 2001 because the then Superintendent and School Board purposefully spent, or permitted to be spent, more than appropriated and created an illegal deficit and multi-year funding problem. A political deal made it possible for Harrisburg politicians to increase funding for Philadelphia’s public schools. Thereafter, Governor Ed Rendell successfully fought to increase education spending across Pennsylvania by $900 million. In this era of abundance, the SRC was spared difficult fiscal decisions and, without that constraint, other drivers took precedence. For example, politically connected figures were authorized to open charter schools, which were granted without clear standards or accountability. The SRC entered into generous and expensive contracts with its labor unions. Spending on School District administration increased by over 45%.
Not dissimilar from the housing bubble, the sentiment seems to have been that revenues would be ever-increasing. This magical thinking was fully in effect when then-Superintendent, Dr. Arlene Ackerman, appeared before City Council in 2011. In response to questions about fiscal stability and planning, Dr. Ackerman acknowledged that the District was spending $287 million more in one-time federal stimulus funding on ongoing operations (i.e., recurring costs). When asked about whether operating costs would need to be cut when the one-time funds ran out, she responded that magically no such cuts would be needed because the District would win a federal Race to the Top grant from the Department of Education. The District did not win the grant. While the magical thinking proved just that – a fiction – the resultant spending cuts were all too real, and created scars from which schools and students are still recovering.
The result was, at the height of the recession, the District had a $1 billion plus dollar short fall to make up over a few short years due to Commonwealth cutting $865 million in funding in 2011.
Today’s magical thinking, a lottery like bonanza of revenue, involves a lawsuit from other school districts in Pennsylvania that I worked on when in City Council that has many believing the courts will ultimately rule the General Assembly will be required to fund Pennsylvania’s school districts at a much higher level. City leaders and the new Board must act as if this bonanza will not appear. The courts have ruled that the state must pay for Pennsylvania’s court system and the General Assembly has ignored this ruling. If the General Assembly does not ignore a ruling in favor of the District, what they give with one hand they can take away with the other by reducing funding elsewhere requiring local governments to increase taxes to pay for the difference in order to maintain critical city services. Hard choices and resolve will be required of a new Board and the City when the state no longer has appointment authority creating at least some accountability at the state level. When you tell the state to get lost, they just might.
Lesson 2: Credibility and Independence Matter
The most important recent achievements of the SRC were recruiting Dr. William R. Hite; establishing credibility (telling it like it is, even when deeply unpopular); and preserving resources to enable sustained investment over a period of years.
Due in large part to the personal credibility of Joe Dworetzky, Feather Houston, Wendell Pritchett, Pedro Ramos, and Sylvia Simms, the SRC convinced the person who was then – and is now – the nation’s most capable superintendent candidate, Bill Hite, to come to an insolvent school district and put himself through years of inadequate funding and impossible choices. The most important function of a governing board is to choose the leadership.
In the face of an existential fiscal crisis, the SRC did not sit on the sidelines. SRC members were proactive, often aggressive, lobbyists cajoling and shaming local and state legislators into replacing funding lost from 2011 through 2015, including Farah Jiminez who joined in 2014. Even as City taxpayers stepped up, following action by City Council, a significant share of the local funding depended upon approval in Harrisburg that was not assured.
The credibility of Dr. Hite and the SRC made the difference. There is tremendous respect for the leadership of the District in Harrisburg on both sides of the aisle, perhaps one of few areas of bipartisan agreement in the Capitol. This respect is based, in significant measure, on the willingness of Dr. Hite and the SRC to make extraordinarily difficult decisions, while also generating faith that additional resources would be well and smartly spent on children and families rather than administration, white-collar patronage and rewarding unions for support in campaigns.
While making painful cuts in 2013 and 2014, Dr. Hite and the SRC were conducting extensive planning for sustained investments in students and schools to be made once sufficient resources were available. In the meantime, Dr. Hite’s team was laying the foundation for long-term improvement, including through focusing on early literacy and school climate. This focus, and the more recent investments that started in Fiscal Year 2015-2016, are starting to pay off. Academic results are improving, graduation rates are up, charter authorizing is now standards-based and more rigorous beginning with the detailed Authorizing Quality Initiative proposed by Dr. Hite and his team and passed by the SRC, and there is a reality of positive momentum.
Additionally, and importantly, clear standards have been created that create transparency for families about which schools, District and Charter, are succeeding for families or failing them resulting in informed family choice.
Although the final details of the new Board are still under discussion, the most likely path seems to be a Mayoral-appointed Board, with City Council confirmation powers. The Mayor and Council are both seeking the ability to confirm (i.e., have veto power with respect to) the Superintendent.
To reiterate, the School District’s recent progress followed not from making easy, crowd-pleasing decisions, but from staring into the abyss and not flinching. The SRC closed 32 schools, laid off 5,000 employees, negotiated hundreds of millions in concessions from the District’s unions, and raised and provided funding for the progress made over the last few years. The ability of the SRC to do so turned in large part on the recent members being resolute and independent. I am skeptical that new Board members will be to respond to the inevitable difficult decisions ahead without putting political considerations first and foremost. In other words, be able to say no to adult interests in favor of children.
Lesson 3: Leverage the Opportunity in Transition
The to-be-determined members of the new Board of Education have the advantage of forewarning about the challenges ahead. A $700 million, five-year deficit, an ever more vitriolic debate between charter school and district school advocates, and the loss of the key supports tied to the SRC (e.g., the “maintenance of effort requirement” obligating the City to maintain its funding level and the prohibition on teachers striking). A potential leadership transition – Dr. Hite having already served significantly longer than the average large city superintendent – with the second and fourth floors of City Hall vying for decision rights on his successor (who will sign up for that?). The most important achievement of a school board is recruiting and retaining quality leadership. In 2015, the SRC extended Dr. Hite’s contract through 2022.
My advice to prospective Board members is to insist, prior to taking their seats, that the City implement three years of funding stability. Incoming Board members will never have greater leverage to set the fiscal course District than prior to agreeing to serve, especially if they work together. Funding stability is accomplished with an increase in funding of $150 million (equivalent to an [11%] annual real estate tax increase effective) with the 2018-19 Fiscal Year budget. This increase would yield the $450 million needed for the School District to avoid a deficit through Fiscal Year 2020-21. Waiting until after election year to raise these funds, as will be the instinct, will lead to the need to raise $218 million in the 2019-2020 fiscal year and deeper cuts if not raised. I’m sure the new Board does not want to start by reducing personnel and services in its second full year of operating.
To be clear, stability is not the same as additional investment. The additional $150 million per year is needed to pay for rising fixed costs and the recent contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers which the Mayor promised to pay for when he intervened in negotiations to the benefit of the PFT. It would not cover the additional investments – such as the elimination of levelling, libraries and librarians in all schools, etc. – parents, advocates, District leadership, and the SRC would like to add, to say nothing of new priorities from the new Board.
In the interest of a thoughtful transition, and locking in hard fought stability and recent gains, I would have preferred a full year of the SRC working alongside the new local Board, rather than this rushed process.
When finally needed in 2011, the SRC did what it was created to do to it did much more successfully than is generally understood. The response is, despite evidence to the contrary, that a City controlled Board will do better. It is impossible to say a list of people not yet made public, many of whom will be honorable, will do worse. I believe that is the case however. A large number of interests will be lined up to divide the new spoils available to insiders. As previously stated, who governs matters, the SRC since 2011 has proven responsible and unwavering in its mission to families. I hope the new Board will meet this standard.
While I predict the honeymoon between advocates (long-accustomed to blaming and berating the SRC), and the Mayor and City Council will end with demands that can’t be met and result in renewed dissatisfaction, I don’t have the ability to see the future and will pray for the best.
I left City Council to serve as Chair of the School Reform Commission with a clear purpose in mind – supporting Dr. Hite in the work of rebuilding our public schools. I am proud of what we have accomplished, collectively, and recognize how much more work there is to do for all of Philadelphia’s children to have access to the quality public education that is their civil right.
To the incoming Board members, I say: be mindful of history, maximize this opportunity, and best wishes.