The future of the Philadelphia schools does not rest on the result of School Reform Commission member Bill Green's legal fight to regain the board's chairmanship, from which Gov. Wolf unceremoniously demoted him a year ago. But the public schools' well-being does depend on the governance of the district and the state, and Green's lawsuit raises necessary questions about both.
The Democratic governor's roughshod removal of the former city councilman over an apparent policy disagreement casts doubt on the independence and utility of the SRC at a time when it's besieged on multiple fronts. Moreover, being one of a series of ill-conceived gubernatorial assaults on semiautonomous agencies, it betrays an uncompromising approach that has kept the Wolf administration's list of achievements short.
Appointed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in 2014, Green was demoted the following year, three months into the current administration and shortly after a closely watched SRC vote on a slew of applications to open charter schools. With Wolf insisting that the district couldn't afford additional charters and Republican legislative leaders pushing for more, Green's SRC approved five of 39 applicants. While the low approval rate suggested a search for middle ground, Wolf nevertheless replaced Green with Marjorie Neff, a former principal and a charter school skeptic.
Green says he refrained from contesting the governor's power to do so at the time out of deference to his efforts to wrangle more funding for city schools. But now that Wolf has largely capitulated to recalcitrant legislators after a record nine-month budget impasse, Green wrote in an Inquirer op-ed this week, he wants to test the issue in court.
While there is no evidence that Neff is any less qualified to lead the commission than Green, the latter's ouster weakens the entire SRC as long as it is allowed to stand. The governor wields great power over the commission and the schools by virtue of his statutory authority to appoint three of its five members to five-year terms. (The mayor appoints the other two to four-year terms.) But if the members don't have the power to act as they see fit within the confines of those terms - if their leadership and decisions are at the perpetual mercy of the governor - then why have a commission at all?
As Green notes, the law that created the SRC indicates that the members are meant to enjoy a measure of political independence, prescribing that "no commission member may be removed from office during a term" without convincing evidence of malfeasance, written notice, and a hearing.
Especially in the wake of a recent state Supreme Court ruling invalidating supposed special SRC powers, Green's lawsuit provides an opportunity for a court to decide what power the panel retains. The dispute also underscores the need for an SRC successor that restores local control of the Philadelphia schools after 15 years of state management with generally underwhelming (albeit lately improving) results.