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DN Editorial: Is local better?

A home-grown SRC replacement still faces state-held purse strings

THE Philadelphia Federation of Teachers have started a campaign seeking return of the school district to local control. You can hardly blame them.

The teachers union is locked in mortal combat over a new contract with the School Reform Commission, the state-created board that has overseen the schools since 2001. The SRC is demanding concessions from the union over pay, benefits and important work rules, and has gone to the state Supreme Court for the right to impose them.

So, it's no surprise that the PFT would prefer to have anyone other than the SRC running the district.

The union issued a report yesterday saying that most public school parents agree. The survey, paid for and conducted in person with parents by PFT members, said that only 3 percent of parents favored the existing SRC, while 97 percent want the district under local control.

Forty-five percent of the parents said they wanted an elected school board. Nearly 9 percent said we should return to a board appointed by the mayor. The rest favored some combination of the two.

We won't deal with the inherent problems of a survey among a less-than-random sampling, or the practicality of the idea, such as how likely Harrisburg would be to dismantle the SRC.

The SRC has made its share of mistakes, but the two mayoral and three gubernatorial appointees have worked without any partisanship evident. Generally, the commissioners have been high-quality appointees, a clear cut above some appointees in the days when the mayor appointed the board. (It's also worth noting that all members live locally. )

In fact, no one complained much at all about the SRC when the money flowed freely from Harrisburg, during most of the Ed Rendell years. The takeover did open the spigot to more state money, until the flow stopped abruptly under Gov. Corbett.

The SRC has been in crisis mode for the last three years. You can make a lot of enemies if your job is to close schools, extract concessions from employees and generally say "no" to most requests for help and aid. All in the name of financial austerity.

Would an elected board have done a better job? Could it have withstood the blowback on school closings, or asked the district's unions - presumably generous givers to board members' campaigns - to sacrifice perks and pay?

Think of City Council, and now think of a body just like it running the school district.

That frightening image aside, local control of the schools deserves serious consideration.

Remember that the state took control of the schools because, in its eyes, local control had failed.

And there are more options than an elected board. Some have suggested breaking the schools into multiple neighborhood districts overseen by separate boards, for example.

In the end, though, the schools aren't struggling because of governance. They're struggling because the state controls the purse strings. A local board isn't going to have any leverage to get them to open that purse wider, no matter who's on it.