At her Tuesday confirmation hearing, Estelle Richman, Gov. Tom Wolf’s pick for the School Reform Commission, reiterated her support for school choice — and indicated she does not want to dissolve the SRC.
After the hearing, the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee unanimously approved Richman’s nomination. Her nomination now heads to the full State Senate for a final vote that could come as soon as Wednesday.
Tuesday’s vote was something of a formality. Lawmakers struck a congenial tone with Richman, a longtime civil servant with years of experience in Harrisburg. The former head of what was formerly the state’s Department of Public Welfare reciprocated the pleasantries during a largely drama-free hearing.
But Richman did reaffirm and reveal positions on key issues that will likely interest Philadelphia observers.
In opening remarks, Richman reiterated her support for school choice and said she had no philosophical qualm with charter schools.
“I’m most interested in schools being of quality and school choice,” Richman said. “I believe parents should have viable choices on where they send their children to school.”
Later, in an exchange with Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, she was more forceful.
“I strongly believe in choice,” Richman said.
Support for charter schools is a prerequisite for many Harrisburg Republicans, and even some Democrats. With the GOP holding a veto-proof majority in the state Senate, any Wolf nominee for the SRC would likely have to express support for charters.
Richman did, however, say that she has no built-in preference for charters and wants to support quality traditional public schools with equal vigor.
She also appeared to dismiss the idea of dissolving the SRC.
“I’m just going on, and I’m not going for the purpose of putting myself out of business,” said Richman.
The SRC can disband with a majority vote from its members, and pressure has mounted recently for a return to local control of Philadelphia schools. The five-member SRC, installed 15 years ago, includes three gubernatorial appointees and two mayoral appointees.
Wolf, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, and various city politicians have called for the breakup of the SRC. Some Harrisburg Republicans, however, are reluctant to relinquish their control over Philly schools.
Richman seemed to allay their fears Tuesday. Though she left open the possibility of disbanding the SRC in some undefined future scenario, she did not sound particularly receptive to the idea.
“I want an opportunity to see if I can make a difference, and I can’t do that if I’m not there or if [the SRC] doesn’t exist,” she said.
Richman’s confirmation hearing also touched on other hot-button education issues
Sen. Daniel Laughlin, R-Erie, asked Richman if she supported school vouchers. Though she did not directly answer the question, she listed a number of concerns with vouchers that leant the impression of skepticism.
On the topic of standardized testing, Richman said that her views had been colored by her daughter, a teacher in the Cheltenham School District, and that she worried about an overemphasis on exam results
“When everything teachers do is based on teaching, they end up teaching to the testing inadvertently,” she said.
Richman did, however, state that testing was necessary in “the right proportion.”
She also spoke about the lingering contract stalemate between the School District of Philadelphia and its teachers union, which has dragged on for more than three years. It’s been four years since Philadelphia teachers have received a raise.
“Not to have had a raise in four years, I think, is actually pretty outrageous,” Richman said.
She was careful to note that she has not yet been briefed on contract negotiations and doesn’t know the financial details of what each side has offered.
Much of the evening was framed by mutual flattery, perhaps the advantage of Wolf appointing someone who has been through the Senate confirmation process before.
“I think you’re one of the most qualified candidates we’ve ever had,” said Williams. “And I don’t say that lightly.”
To start her service on the SRC, Richman will need a majority vote from the full Senate.
That vote could come as soon as Wednesday, said Sen. John Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, committee chair.
Eichelberger said he did not know if the vote would come within 24 hours, however. He noted that if the vote doesn’t happen Wednesday, it likely won’t occur until early March. The Legislature is about to begin weeks of intense budget review and debate.
The SRC, which now has only four members, will meet Wednesday and Feb. 16.