HARRISBURG - The School Reform Commission is braced and ready to make tough choices, new member Feather Houstoun promised state legislators Tuesday.
Before the Senate Education Committee approved her candidacy Tuesday, Gov. Corbett's nominee to the five-member SRC reminded lawmakers that she had led Pennsylvania through welfare reform as state welfare secretary in the early 2000s.
"I personally - and I think the other members, too - have experience that will lead [us] to have a spine to do things that are unpopular at the moment, but that are good for children," said Houstoun, who must still be confirmed by the full Senate.
They've got their work cut out for them.
The Philadelphia School District's governing body must cope with a brutal budget shortfall that is forcing midyear cuts and layoffs. It will also vote to close schools in the next few months and must pick a new, permanent superintendent.
Four of the five members of the SRC are new. But the one veteran member - Joseph Dworetzky - helped steer the facilities master planning process that led to recommendations to close nine schools, Houstoun pointed out.
"I don't think that you should necessarily assume that . . . the people who are appointed are not going to make tough decisions or do the right thing," she said.
Houstoun, who said she has been described as a "bean counter with a heart," said she would focus on the Philadelphia School District's shaky finances.
"You have to run a tightly run fiscal organization, because without that, everything is in shambles," said Houstoun, who most recently was head of the William Penn Foundation.
Houstoun, who also billed herself as someone "who can accomplish more with less," said she thought former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman had done a good job creating a vision for the district.
"There were serious implementation problems, clearly," Houstoun said. "But moving the needle for all children, while addressing the deficiencies at the lower level, was an important, coherent strategy."
She said a top school administrator's job is to first guarantee quality in school programs before making any decisions on whether to invest more money in them.
The challenge for the new superintendent will be bringing people together to build a new vision for the district, she said.
"You can't align people if the vision is not something they have a stake in, or had a voice in," Houstoun said.
On the issue of charter schools, she said, the SRC will need to address two things - whether at the state or local level, to establish quality standards for schools and consequences for any school not achieving them.
"I hope we can build a consensus on that," Houstoun said. "It will be difficult, but it should happen."
She also said charters and vouchers are controversial because taking children out of individual classrooms lowers the number of children in the school, but does not necessarily save the schools money.
"I think the strategy that the school district has used, of asking high-performing charters to do turnarounds of schools that are challenged, is looking like a very, very promising approach," she said.
But, Houstoun said, public schools remain crucial.
"I can't envision a good education for every child that does not involve some strong, well-performing, at-scale public school system," she said. "I believe in the public school system . . . but if a child is defined as eligible [for a voucher] because a school is low-performing, we should all be focused like a laser on that school."
The full Senate confirmation vote is set for next week, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) said.