Nearly 40 years after the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission went to court to seek equal education for white and minority students in the city, the Philadelphia School District is poised to settle the landmark desegregation case and guarantee a number of reforms to benefit black and Hispanic children.
This morning, the School Reform Commission unanimously approved an agreement with the state commission, which filed suit against the district in 1970. All that remains is a hearing Monday in Commonwealth Court at which Judge Doris Smith-Ribner is expected to sign off on the deal.
The settlement hinged in part on the passage this past spring of "Imagine 2014," Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's five-year strategic plan. Many of its reforms - including smaller class sizes - had been long called for by Smith-Ribner.
Under the terms of the settlement, the district agreed to seven specific initiatives, including higher pay for teachers who work in low-performing, racially isolated schools; letting the principals and faculties in those schools fill teacher vacancies as they see fit, regardless of an applicant's seniority; and implementing weighted student funding district-wide, with more money for needier students.
The settlement gives Ackerman broad powers. She said she did not consult with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers on the reforms, and hopes to negotiate acceptable terms with the union this summer. But if necessary, she said, the School Reform Commission can impose terms on the union.
"The agreement gives me and the district leverage to get the work done," Ackerman said. "We don't have another 20 years to negotiate the right thing for children."
Both sides agree that unequal conditions for white and minority children are still a reality in Philadelphia schools. The agreement, they said, should go a long way toward achieving equal education for all students.
Ackerman said that some of the inequality "has been benign neglect, and some of it has been intentional."
Decisions were made by previous administrations to take resources away from predominately minority schools, she said. For instance, she said, money was not invested in building maintenance.
Michael Hardiman, attorney for the Human Relations Commission, said the agreement was a victory for both sides.
"The students whose needs are the greatest are the students whose resources will be the greatest," Hardiman said today.
The suit initially sought an order for the district to bus students to establish racial balance in city schools. However, for the next 25 years, a series of superintendents resisted the order and a series of judges declined to enforce it.
When Constance Clayton became superintendent in 1982, she, too, rejected the demand for busing to desegregate schools. 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.
In Commonwealth Court 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 no court action in the case.