AMERICA WAS founded on a system of open government in which all citizens, rich or poor, should have equal access to those who make the laws and should be able to express opinions on those laws before they are enacted. Our nation's founders recognized that power must be divided among branches of government and that there must be checks on power. And when government officials betray the public trust, we can vote them out of office.
But there are no checks on those appointed to govern the School District of Philadelphia and no way to vote them out. The School Reform Commission, which has invoked "special powers" when it sees the law as an impediment to its agenda, is not compelled to follow the basic tenets of democracy.
Consider: To pass a bill, City Council must introduce the bill during a public meeting; advertise it in a major daily newspaper; hold committee hearings with opportunity for public comment before sending it to the full Council; give the public another chance to speak; and no less than two weeks later, vote the bill up or down.
Contrast that with the SRC's power to compose, introduce and vote on a resolution in the same session - with no opportunity for public review or comment. The SRC has not hesitated to use this power, for example, to cancel the teachers' contract and to turn over a public school to a charter company.
During recent hearings on the proposed renewals of Renaissance charters, the SRC seems to have moved from its role as protectors of the rights of students and taxpayers to advocates for special interests. The purpose of Renaissance schools, according to the district's website, is to "dramatically improve the learning environment in underperforming school district schools and to create highly effective schools that provide exceptional opportunities for student achievement . . . " Despite overwhelming evidence, gathered by its own Charter School Office, that some Renaissance schools have failed to carry out this mission, the SRC has voted several times in the past two months to delay its decision on those renewals.
The charter office, after thorough review of nine schools' academic, managerial and financial performance, recommended non-renewal for Olney High and Stetson Middle schools, which were turned over to Aspira Inc. over six years ago. Among the reasons cited: Neither school exceeded district averages in standardized test scores in any year of Aspira management; students reaching Advanced or Proficient levels at Stetson dropped significantly; Aspira violated the School Code for several years by not releasing required financial statements - probably because the schools' treasurer had no financial background; graduation rates during the first year of Aspira management at Olney declined 24 percent. Conditions became so untenable at Olney that 50 percent of its teaching staff left after the 2014-15 school year. In addition, Aspira has admitted to diverting funds for Olney and Stetson to other business endeavors. A vote for renewal for would amount to the SRC's condoning Aspira's incompetence and corruption.
The SRC has violated its own nine-step renewal process by conducting private negotiating sessions with a former city solicitor representing Aspira who has been granted special access to SRC members and district staff. Those who opposed the renewal of the two schools were granted no special access. Imagine a judge, after hearing from both sides, and after all the evidence submitted, inviting the lawyer representing one side to speak privately in chambers. In another disturbing development, one commissioner abstained from the vote on the Aspira schools at one meeting, citing a conflict of interest, but publicly advocated for keeping the schools under Aspira management at the next one.
Last year, the city's voters spoke clearly when they approved a non-binding resolution calling for the dissolution of the SRC and a return to local control. Until that day comes, the SRC must be held accountable to all of the students, parents, teachers and community members who must live with the consequences of their actions.
Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.