A growing push to abolish the SRC

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.
A growing push to abolish the SRC

Evan M. Lopez and Neal Santos

Pennsylvania Working Families plans to deliver 40,000 petition signatures this morning to Philadelphia City Council asking them to place a question on November's ballot demanding that the state abolish the School Reform Commission.

The measure would add a section to the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter charging that "the state's takeover of our schools through the School Reform Commission has weakened the voices of parents and community" and "call[ing] upon the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the Governor to abolish the School Reform Commission and return local control of Philadelphia's schools."

City Council can propose a Charter amendment to appear on the ballot by a two-thirds vote, or by only a majority if a petition signed by at least 20,000 registered voters is submitted—but still only if Council chooses to do so.

The move comes as Philadelphia's public schools slip deeper into financial crisis and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett faces intense criticism for his budget cuts to public education. The state has controlled Philly schools since 2002 but has often failed to take responsibility for funding a District where students, largely low-income and non-white, have tremendous needs. The SRC, which has presided over deep staffing cuts, rapid charter school expansion, and widespread school closures, has drawn loud protests from students, teachers and parents.

The ballot measure would not abolish the SRC. Committee of Seventy Policy Director Ellen Kaplan points out that by statute the SRC can only be abolished by the state Secretary of Education on the recommendation of a majority of the SRC's five members. Contrary to the petition's language, the legislature would not play a direct role—unless they voted to change the state takeover law.

"It may turn out that the ballot question, if passed, would have more symbolic importance as expressing the views of Philadelphia voters than any actual impact at the time of passage," says Kaplan.

That symbolism could have political consequence. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf has called for the state-controlled SRC's abolition, and education advocates would likely use an anti-SRC ballot initiative to drive Democratic voters to the polls in November. In other states, labor-allied Working Families Parties back Democrats who support progressive civil rights, economic justice and environmental policies. Pennsylvania Working Families has not yet launched a party. It could very well do so soon.

If Wolf does defeat Corbett, and wants to follow through on his call to abolish the SRC, he will have to convince the legislature (currently under Republican control) or current SRC members to do so. Otherwise, he will have to wait until current members' terms expire (or convince them to resign) and then nominate three members of his own (subject to Senate confirmation). Gubernatorial nominees serve five-year terms, and Corbett nominees Bill Green (SRC Chair) and Farah Jimenez were confirmed February of this year; Feather Houston was confirmed in December 2011.

Philadelphia's next mayor will also be able to appoint two members to the SRC—but again, only once the two members appointed by Mayor Michael Nutter then in place leave office. Mayoral appointees serve four-year terms: Wendell Pritchett was appointed in September 2011, Sylvia Simms in February 2013.

If the SRC is abolished, says Kaplan, it would then be a matter of deciding what would replace it. Would it be an elected school board, a mayoral-appointed school board, or a school board appointed by the mayor with City Council's approval? Would it have the authority to levy property taxes or, like the current SRC, no taxing power? Or something else?

"There are a number of options," says Kaplan. "And they will be playing out as the 2015 mayor's race gets underway."

Corbett and Nutter appointees are positioned to control the SRC for years to come. Only a groundswell of grassroots political opposition could convince current members, or the state legislature, to put it out of business. Such a movement may be taking shape.

Correction: Ellen Kaplan did not say it would be a matter of the state deciding what sort of governing body would replace the SRC. Indeed, it is not clear which entities would play what roles in deciding what happens next.

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