By Christopher Paslay
The Philadelphia School District is experiencing a leadership crisis. Amid all the controversy surrounding Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, however, it's easy to forget to ask whether the School Reform Commission is serving the interests of the city's public schools.
Some education advocates have wondered if it's time to get rid of the SRC, the appointed body charged with overseeing the Philadelphia School District for the past decade. In a series of articles for the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, the activist and retired Philadelphia schoolteacher Ron Whitehorne highlighted some of the major criticisms of the SRC, including that it provides no real oversight of the superintendent, simply rubber-stamping whatever comes across its desk. Whitehorne also noted that the SRC's decisions are too often made behind closed doors, and that its meetings are not very accessible to parents and concerned citizens.
It's hard to comprehend why Philadelphia voters should not have control over their own school system. Of the 501 school districts in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia's is the only one effectively under state control. (The governor appoints three of the SRC's five members, while the mayor appoints two.) This is largely thanks to State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), who helped secure the passage of Act 46 and Act 83, the two pieces of legislation that enabled the state secretary of education to declare the Philadelphia School District "distressed" and take it over in 2001.
Besides replacing Philadelphia's school board with the SRC, the legislation helped pave the way for district schools to be reconstituted and turned over to private managers. Foundations Inc., a nonprofit education management firm whose employees have donated about $80,000 to Evans' campaigns, is one of the companies that have benefited from the legislation. In March, at the urging of Evans himself, the SRC hired Foundations to take over the failing Martin Luther King High School. SRC Chairman Robert Archie - whose law firm, Duane Morris, has represented Foundations - admitted to attending a closed-door meeting with Evans at district headquarters about the fate of the deal, potentially worth $60 million.
The conflicts of interest surrounding the SRC don't end there. David F. Girard-diCarlo, who was on the School Reform Commission from October 2009 until February, is a former managing partner of the law firm Blank Rome, which has collected $6.3 million from the School District since 2007. Pedro Ramos, whom Gov. Corbett recently nominated to fill Girard-diCarlo's seat, was billing the district $325 an hour for legal work. The School District paid Ramos' law firm, Trujillo Rodriguez & Richards, more than $300,000 over the past year.
There have been few consequences for those involved. Evans has been the state representative for the 203d legislative district, in Northwest Philadelphia, since 1981. Although his SRC legislation prohibited teachers from striking and limited collective bargaining, he continues to enjoy ample support for his campaigns from the Pennsylvania State Education Association and other unions.
After Evans was reelected last year, I asked a fellow teacher who lived in his district if she voted for him. Amazingly, she said she did. When I asked why, she told me he was the better of two undesirable candidates - in other words, he's a Democrat. Then she launched into a rant about Corbett and how the evil Republicans are destroying education by taking money away from poor students.
The SRC was designed to stop the corruption that existed under the school board in the 1990s, but it hasn't had much success on that or any other score. It's time for the city to reclaim its schools. The voters should demand that legislators repeal the SRC legislation or face the consequences.
Of course, that might be difficult in a one-party town where legislators seldom have to worry about their reelection prospects. "How is it possible to gain political leverage if the party is never forced to compete?" President George W. Bush asked the National Urban League Conference in 2004, suggesting that Democrats took the urban vote for granted. Philadelphians must ask themselves the same question if they want to take back control of their schools.