Nearly 40 years after the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission went to court seeking equal education for white and minority students in the city, the Philadelphia School District is poised to settle the landmark desegregation case by instituting reforms to benefit black and Hispanic children.
The settlement would have broad implications, not only for students but for teachers. Regardless of their union contract, many could see significant changes in where they work, how much they are paid, and how they are evaluated.
The School Reform Commission yesterday unanimously endorsed the agreement with the state commission, which filed the lawsuit against the district in Commonwealth Court in 1970.
Final approval of the deal is expected at a hearing Monday before Judge Doris Smith-Ribner, who has overseen the case for years.
Initially, the suit sought to force the district to bus students around the city to ensure racial balance in schools. At the time, 70 percent of the schools were considered racially isolated, meaning that at least 90 percent of students were of one race.
That situation has hardly improved. The district said it could not provide current data yesterday, but in 2004, an Inquirer analysis found that two-thirds of city schools were racially isolated.
Today, about 61 percent of the district's 167,000 students are African American; 18 percent are Latino; 13 percent white; and 6 percent Asian.
Over the years, the Human Relations Commission suit morphed into a quest for equity for low-performing, racially isolated schools.
The settlement hinges in part on "Imagine 2014," Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's five-year plan. Many of its reforms - including smaller class sizes - had been called for by Smith-Ribner.
Under the settlement, the district has agreed to seven initiatives aimed initially at the district's 85 so-called empowerment schools, the lowest-performing in the system. They include: paying more to teachers who work in those schools; largely eliminating teacher seniority there, and implementing weighted student funding districtwide, with more money for needier students.
The district would also begin new evaluations for teachers in the low-performing schools, and give them time to plan together. Extra resources would go to schools with a high number of inexperienced teachers.
The settlement gives Ackerman broad powers and a strong position going into talks for a new teacher contract this summer. She said yesterday she had not consulted with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers on the reforms but hoped to find some accord with the union.
If necessary, however, Ackerman said she would advise the School Reform Commission to use its authority to impose on the union the terms of the court order.
"The agreement gives me and the district leverage to get the work done," she said. "We don't have another 20 years to negotiate the right thing for children."
Jerry Jordan, PFT president, said issues related to his members' compensation must be addressed in collective bargaining.
Both sides agree that unequal conditions for white and minority children remain a reality in Philadelphia schools.
Sixty-three percent of white students can read at grade level; only 40 percent of black students and 38 percent of Latino students hit that mark. Sixty-eight percent of white students perform math at grade level; 43 percent of black students and 45 percent of Latino students do so.
The agreement, district and commission officials said, should go a long way toward achieving equal education for all students.
"The students whose needs are the greatest are the students whose resources will be the greatest," said Michael Hardiman, attorney for the commission.
For 25 years after the lawsuit was filed, a series of Philadelphia superintendents resisted the call to impose mandatory busing to achieve desegregation, and a series of judges declined to enforce such a policy.
When Constance Clayton became superintendent in 1982, she, too, rejected mandatory busing. Instead, she gave students the option of being bused. At the peak of the program, about 14,000 students took the offer. Most were African American students who attended predominantly white schools in the Northeast.
Voluntary desegregation busing continues, and the settlement should not affect it, officials said. During the last school year, 1,640 students participated.
In 1994, Smith-Ribner ruled that the district had failed to provide equal opportunities for poor black and Hispanic students. She rejected busing, but ordered other reforms. Smith-Ribner also ordered Harrisburg to help pay for the expensive improvements, but the state Supreme Court stripped her of much of her authority.
Since 2004, there has been little movement in the case, but that changed when Ackerman took the helm in Philadelphia in June 2008.
Ensuring equal resources for all students is one of her four main goals, she said.
Ackerman said she arrived in a district where inequalities stemmed both from benign neglect and intentional practices by previous administrations. She cited the case of William Penn High School - the North Philadelphia school slated for closure, then spared at the last moment when Ackerman intervened at the community's behest.
William Penn was built in the early 1970s as a desegregation model, a magnet school with a top-notch communications program and an Olympic-size swimming pool. But over the years, "there were decisions made to take programs from this school," Ackerman said. "There were decisions made not to maintain the facility."
She plans to resurrect William Penn as something other than a comprehensive high school.
Yesterday's settlement met with wide approval.
Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's secretary of education, praised the terms and said she hoped they would end a "dual system of good and failing schools.
"Philadelphia, like many other Northeastern cities, has been slow to address and remove the policy barriers that have served to keep poor and minority students in under-resourced schools," Shorr said.
Michael Churchill, attorney for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and ASPIRA Pennsylvania, a Latino advocacy group that joined the lawsuit in 1993, hailed Ackerman for her commitment to eradicating the "dark stain" of unequal opportunities. However, he acknowledged it was a gamble to lose court supervision over the district's actions.
He said he was "delighted that we are entering a new era where the district is willing to make the necessary commitments" but that "the challenge will be to carry them out."
Ackerman said the settlement meant a great deal to her because she had presided over the conclusion of another desegregation case as superintendent of San Francisco's public schools.
As a child in St. Louis in the 1950s and '60s, she attended schools that were only nominally integrated. She and other black students were bused to white schools with their teachers, given a separate place to play and eat lunch, and rarely interacted with white students.
"I'm emotional about this," she said. "I'm ready to march. I have no patience for excuses anymore."
The agreement between the Philadelphia School District and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, subject to approval on Monday in Commonwealth Court, is contingent on the district's implementing "Imagine 2014," its five-year plan. By the fall, the district must provide a timetable for the plan and then provide annual reports on its progress.
At the lowest-performing schools, the district must:
Begin teacher evaluations based on detailed standards and provide training based on those evaluations. That is to start this coming school year.
Provide cooperative planning time for teachers.
Attract experienced teachers to schools with high faculty turnover by paying them more, beginning in 2010-11.
Increase resources to schools with large percentages of inexperienced teachers, also to begin in 2010-11.
Implement full-site selection - a system of choosing teachers not by seniority but through interviews with principals, staff, and community members, also in 2010-11.
Institute a weighted student-funding formula, with more money for the neediest pupils, in a pilot area in 2010-11, and expand it districtwide within five years.