State Rep. Louise Williams Bishop (D., Phila.) has introduced legislation that would abolish the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, created by the state in 2001 as part of a takeover of the Philadelphia School District. The SRC consists of five members - three appointed by the governor and two by the mayor - and has certain "extraordinary" powers, including the ability to impose terms on the district's unions to speed reform.
Ten years in, Bishop said, it's not working. In terms of academics, violence, and finances, the district is "worse now" than it was when the state stepped in to revamp the system, she said.
"Our children are suffering, no matter what they say," Bishop said. "They're not where they should be."
It's hard to dispute that there has been progress. District test scores have risen eight straight years, and for the first time, more than 50 percent of students are meeting state goals in reading and math. Officials have pointed to that as evidence that the takeover law and the SRC are working as they should.
But this year's funding crisis raised a serious question in Bishop's mind. The district must slash $629 million to balance the 2011-12 budget. To do so, officials are proposing eliminating full-day kindergarten, most transportation services, and extended-day programs; chopping individual school budgets considerably; and making cuts to special education, early-childhood education, alternative education, athletics, and a host of other programs.
For the first time in recent memory, the state is taking away funding from the district, not increasing it. "If you're not going to fund it, give it back to the city," Bishop said, "and let the city do the best it can."
She's calling for an end to the state takeover and the establishment of an elected school board, something Philadelphia did not have before the state intervention. (But she'd be willing to consider an appointed board, she said, as long as it was city-appointed.)
But who's to say the city could come up with more cash for the district? "Whether the city can come up with the money or not remains to be seen," Bishop said. "But you ask yourself which is worse - for state to own it and not fund it, or for the city to own it and not fund it?"
(Just a note that this is the week that the district goes before City Council to present its grim budget picture. Officials will make their case Tuesday morning, with public testimony Wednesday.)
Others have complained that the SRC has evolved into a rubber-stamp panel for Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman and that a new body is needed to bring more oversight to the district. Bishop said that was not her concern.
The legislation has several cosponsors, including Reps. James Roebuck (D., Phila.), chair of the House Education Committee, and Michael McGeehan (D., Phila.), who has called on Ackerman to be removed.
Williams said she was not sure where the legislation would go. "We're taking a chance on it," she said. "We want to see what will happen. I hope that they will say, 'You know, that's not a bad idea. Let's do better than we're doing.' "