Why Harrisburg’s silence on demise of Philly’s School Reform Commission speaks volumes

This wasn’t just any governance shake up. It was a bet that state government could and should help fix struggling school districts.

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Douglas Leach, teacher and graduate of Lincoln High School, holds up a sign at a rally ahead of a School Reform Commission meeting in November. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Douglas Leach, teacher and graduate of Lincoln High School, holds up a sign at a rally ahead of a School Reform Commission meeting in November. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Sixteen years ago, Pennsylvania’s state leaders did something dramatic and unprecedented.

They dismantled Philadelphia’s local school board and replaced it with the School Reform Commission — a five-member panel made up of three gubernatorial appointees and two mayoral appointees.

This wasn’t just any governance shake up. It was a bet that state government could and should help fix struggling school districts.

The SRC voted to disband last week, and Philly’s mayoral-appointed local school board will soon be back in power.

The news prompted speeches and celebrations in Philadelphia, particularly among those who see the SRC as a hostile intrusion on local control.

In Harrisburg, however, there’s barely been a blip.

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D-Philadelphia), a prominent voice on education reform, was among a small group of lawmakers who attended Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s November speech on dissolving the SRC.

But he’s noticed little reaction from his colleagues.

“It’s the proverbial…giant tree that fell over in the forest that nobody noticed,” said Williams.

State Rep. John Taylor (R-Philadelphia) senses a similar vibe.

“I think they’re indifferent to it,” Taylor said of his Harrisburg colleagues. “I don’t think anybody’s ox was gored at all.”

Looking at recent history, that lack of reaction seems somewhat odd.

When the commission started in December 2001, there was a powerful coalition of state leaders who prioritized a proactive school reform agenda.

“You had a nucleus of people on both sides of the aisle who were genuinely interested in education reform,” said Charles Zogby, then the Secretary of Education under Republican Governor Mark Schweiker.

When Philadelphia hit a fiscal crisis in the early 2000s, state leaders didn’t simply send money. They saw a major opportunity for the state to flex its muscles.   They asked for control, and wanted — at least on some level — to be more responsible for making Philly’s public schools better.

So what changed?

Some point to the ebb and flow of local politics.

In the early 2000s, powerful reform-minded Philadelphia lawmakers like Republican State Rep. John Perzel, who became House Speaker, and Democratic State Rep. Dwight Evans, who chaired the appropriations committee, held major sway in Harrisburg. Those influential lawmakers naturally took an interest in Philadelphia’s school system, and pushed the state to a more interventionist posture.

“The whole thing was very specific to how the leadership was structured,” said Taylor. “I think John [Perzel] had a sense that there was a lot of things in Philly we could do better.”

Within that powerful Philadelphia delegation, Taylor recalled, many were intrigued by emerging education reforms that hinged on greater state oversight and the expansion of school choice.

“It was an energetic time,” said Taylor.

The energy wasn’t confined to Harrisburg.

In 2001, President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind, an education bill that strengthened federal oversight over educational achievement and incorporated many school reform principles. To its proponents, NCLB represented the growing sense that government could fix whatever ailed America’s lowest-performing schools.

Viewed through that lens, the SRC looks less like a political coincidence and more like a product of its time. In an era of revved-up, top-down accountability, nearby New Jersey and Maryland also intervened in low-performing school districts.

Many of these interventions helped struggling school districts patch up their finances and root out corruption, said Kenneth Wong, Chair for Education Policy at Brown University. But improving the academic outcomes of an entire system proved much harder.

State leaders started “realizing maybe there are some limitations to the extent to which they can turn things around,” said Wong.

Now, it seems, the pendulum is swinging back. Major cities such as St. Louis, Baltimore, and Newark, New Jersey are back under local control or headed that direction. New Jersey was once a pioneer in state interventions, but incoming Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, is an outspoken critic of state control.

“I’m seeing a gradual trend across the country, the state returning school control back to the hands of communities,” said Wong.

That trend jibes, once again, with shifts at the national level. Congress’ latest update to the national education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, replaces some of No Child Left Behind’s prescriptions with increased flexibility for states.

And there are other signs of a philosophical shift at the state level.

When the distressed Erie School District came to Harrisburg with hat-in-hand recently, lawmakers approved a generous recurring revenue package. The dollars came with some added accountability provisions, but nowhere near the sort of controlling oversight baked into the SRC model.

Other proposals that have promoted greater state control have sputtered in recent years.

In 2015, Senate Education Committee Chairman Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster) proposed grouping low-achieving schools into a separate “opportunity schools” district run directly by the state. The bill passed the Senate, but went nowhere in the House.

“There aren’t people around who are looking to insert the state into these local school districts to prod change and reform,” said Zogby.

Other avenues

It’s not, however, as if education reformers at the federal and state level have abandoned their cause. They seem, instead, to be directing their energy into other avenues that circumvent the debate over public school governance altogether.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has championed school vouchers, which allow parents to use public money for private schooling.

Harrisburg Republicans have adopted a similar approach. Leaders have successfully prioritized expanding a tax credit program that functions similarly to vouchers, and have recently begun to champion the establishment of education savings accounts, another voucher-adjacent program.

So what is the future of state oversight in a post-SRC era?

It should be noted, first, that the SRC isn’t the Commonwealth’s only state-intervention model.

Dating back to 1994, the state has intervened multiple times in the financially-troubled Chester Upland School District. Chester Upland, located in Delaware County, is now among four school districts — along with York, Harrisburg, and Duquesne — in Financial Recovery Status, a designation established by law in 2012.

That status does not force districts to dissolve their local school boards, but it does require them to create a financial recovery plan overseen by a state-appointed recovery officer. Under current law, the state can have as many as nine districts in recovery status at once.

There’s nothing preventing state leaders from reviving the SRC concept, whether in Philadelphia or elsewhere. But there doesn’t appear much appetite for that approach right now.

“I can’t tell you there’s going to be another SRC,” said State Senator Williams “I can tell you there’s going to be another crisis. And the crisis will require us public folks to say, ‘What are we gonna get in return for us giving you taxpayers’ money?’”

In 2001, state lawmakers wanted control and input. Next time, the political and ideological winds may produce another request.

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