Philadelphia Mayor Calls for Local Control of City’s Schools

By Denisa R. Superville — November 02, 2017 5 min read
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Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney is calling for the abolition of the city’s School Reform Commission—the state-controlled body that has overseen the school district since Pennsylvania officials wrested control in 2001 amid fiscal strife.

In a speech on Thursday from the City Council chambers, Kenney presented the return to local control as one on which the future of the city itself and generations of Philadelphians depends, and one that would sustain the progress that both the city and district have made in recent years.

“Right now, we are leaving our city’s fate largely in someone else’s hands,” he said.

Missing from Kenney’s speech was a definitive plan to fund a host of proposals he outlined to improve the system.

With a return to local school governance, city residents will be able to hold him and future mayors accountable for the success or failure of schools, he said.

“You can hold me, and future mayors, accountable for the success or failure of our schools,” he said. “The buck will stop with us.”

Local control would allow the city to work under a unified vision; find ways to improve and share school facilities; review transportation routes and safe ways to get students to school; develop quality educational experiences for students—including mentoring, job shadowing, and summer job experiences; and move away from the unhealthy debate over district and charter schools.

Kenney proposed a return to the school board structure laid out in the city charter—a nine-member board, recommended to the mayor by a nominating panel. The school board members would not be elected.

The mayor pointed to districts, including New York City and the District of Columbia, which are under mayoral control and have seen improvements in student achievement in recent years.

Joyce Wilkerson, the chairwoman of the School Reform Commission who noted that the body was created as a temporary form of governance, said the commission will consider a resolution to dissolve itself on Nov. 16.

Since its creation, “the school district has weathered multiple fiscal crises and leadership change,” she said. “The District now has a balanced budget, strong leadership in Dr. [William] Hite and is making real academic progress,” Wilkerson said in a statement.

“As a result of this progress and stability, we have the opportunity to re-examine the governance structure including the restoration of local control. .... Strong public education is the most significant factor in the welfare of our city and the future of our children. It is time for Philadelphia to take ownership of that future.”

When the state takeover occurred in 2001, it was the largest of its kind and it came with the approval of then-Democratic Mayor John F. Street. Edison Schools, a private company, first ran the school system before a five-member panel, appointed by the governor and mayor, took over the district.

In the intervening years, the district has been buffeted by a host of issues—many of them financial, which Kenney detailed in his speech. The district has had three superintendents under state control, with the current superintendent Hite serving the longest.

The School Reform Commission has become increasingly unpopular in recent years. In 2013, against howls of protests by parents and residents, it voted to close nearly two dozen schools. Staff cuts of nearly 4,000, including teachers, counselors, and nurses, were deeply unpopular. A four-year contract dispute with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers recently concluded with a new pact.

Two years ago, Philadelphia voters overwhelming supported a non-binding ballot measure to abolish the commission and return the school system to local control.

Superintendent Hite said in a statement that he will continue to “advocate for the resources that will increase the successes, stability, and positive momentum we have been able to achieve as a school district. I am optimistic and excited about the future of the School District of Philadelphia and about our work to improve academic outcomes.”

Kenney made it clear that Philadelphians cannot depend on legislators in Harrisburg, the state capitol, to come to the district’s financial rescue after years of failed efforts by local representatives and advocates for additional state funding.

And Kenney said he was unwilling to “sacrifice the hard-won progress” in recent years or go back to the days of understaffed classrooms and schools without nurses. Failing to act now will relegate generations of Philadelphia families to poverty, he said.

Kenney said his next budget will include proposals that will address the capital improvement needs of the school district; a 9th grade academy with academic support and counseling to help reduce dropout rates; expanding college access; additional Advanced Placement courses; and providing additional supports for teachers and other staff.

He said there were no easy solutions to funding the proposals.

“We owe it to those kids and we will do this together,” he said.

Jerry Jordan, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that state control had not been successful in other places where it’s been attempted.

“Act 46, the legislation that created the SRC, also paved the way for privatization, exploding deficits, mass layoffs, school closings, and the (ultimately failed) attempt to cancel the PFT contract,” he said. “While today’s announcement is significant and exciting, we also recognize that local control, by itself, is no solution for the deep poverty that creates obstacles for so many of our schoolchildren. It also does not address the chronic under-funding of our public schools.

“We must continue the fight for more resources from the state to combat the effects of poverty and provide our children with the programs and services they deserve. The PFT feels that a locally accountable school board will make a stronger ally in this fight.”

Then-Democratic candidate for Mayor James Kenney speaks during a 2015 debate at Temple University in Philadelphia.

--Matt Rourke/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.