With the imminent return of the School District of Philadelphia to local control, lessons from the 16-year history of the School Reform Commission (SRC) illuminate both future concerns and what we should advocate for in the transition.
Lesson 1: Beware Magical Fiscal Thinking
The SRC has created the possibility of today's discussion of a new governance structure through its sound management of the district. In fact, that was its whole purpose. More quality schools and school choices exist today than when the SRC was created.
Though the SRC was activated because of the district's fiscal problems, it began its tenure without budgetary constraints. For example, politically connected figures were authorized to open charter schools without clear standards or accountability. The SRC entered into generous and expensive contracts with its labor unions. Spending on administration increased by more than 45 percent.
Not dissimilar from the housing bubble, the magical thinking through 2009 seems to have been that revenues would be ever increasing. They did when Ed Rendell was governor. Then came the recession, a governor with different priorities, and a spendthrift superintendent who threw away one-time federal stimulus money on operating costs. The result, at the height of the recession, was a shortfall of more than a billion dollars.
Today's magical thinking has many believing that a lawsuit will force the General Assembly to fund school districts at a much higher level. But the courts have ruled that Harrisburg must pay for the state's courts, and lawmakers have ignored this mandate. If the General Assembly did provide more money for schools, it could reduce funding elsewhere, requiring local governments to increase taxes to make up the difference for critical city services. A new school board and the city could face hard choices if the state no longer has a say in district governance. When you tell the state to get lost, it just might.
Lesson 2: Credibility and Independence Matter
The most important recent achievements of the SRC were recruiting Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.; establishing credibility (telling it like it is, even when deeply unpopular); and preserving resources to enable sustained investment over a period of years.
Newfound credibility has led to tremendous respect for the leadership of the district in Harrisburg on both sides of the aisle, perhaps one of few areas of bipartisan agreement in the Capitol. This respect is based on the willingness of Hite and the SRC to make extraordinarily difficult decisions, while also generating faith that additional resources would be well and smartly spent on children and families rather than on administration, white-collar patronage, and rewarding unions for support in campaigns.
While making painful cuts in 2013 and 2014, Hite and the SRC planned for sustained investments in students and schools to be made once sufficient resources were available. Today, there is much positive momentum: graduation rates are up and charter authorization is now standards-based and more rigorous, beginning with the detailed Authorizing Quality Initiative.
Although the final details of the new school board are still under discussion, the most likely path seems to be a mayor-appointed board, with City Council confirmation powers. The mayor and Council are both seeking veto power over the hiring of a superintendent.
All those involved in this process should keep in mind that the district's recent progress came not from making easy, crowd-pleasing decisions, but from staring into the abyss and not flinching.
Lesson 3: Leverage the Opportunity in Transition
The new board members will face a five-year, $700 million deficit and the loss of the key SRC supports: the requirement that the city maintain its funding level and the prohibition on teachers' striking.
My advice to prospective board members is to insist, before taking office, that the city implement three years of funding stability. Incoming board members will never have greater leverage to set the district's fiscal course than before agreeing to serve, especially if they work together. Funding stability could be accomplished with an annual increase of $150 million (equivalent to an 11 percent annual real estate tax increase) starting with the 2018-19 budget. Waiting until after the election would require an even greater funding increase and deeper cuts if the money were not raised. I'm sure the new board would not want to reduce personnel and services in its second full year of operations.
Of course, stability is not the same as investment. The additional $150 million would not cover investments such as the elimination of leveling or libraries and librarians in all schools that parents, advocates, and district leadership would like to add, to say nothing of the new board's priorities.
I left City Council to serve as chair of the School Reform Commission with a clear purpose in mind: support Superintendent Hite in the work of rebuilding our public schools. I am proud of what we have accomplished but recognize how much more work is required to ensure that all Philadelphia children have access to the quality public education that is their civil right. In that spirit, I say to the incoming board members: Be mindful of history, maximize this opportunity, and best wishes.