City of Philadelphia Announces Plans to Wrestle Back Local Control of School District

What to Know

  • Sixteen years ago, Pennsylvania created the School Reform Commission to oversee Philadelphia's embattled public school system.
  • Mayor Jim Kenney is asking the SRC, which is made up of three governor-appointed members and two locals, to dissolve.
  • The move would give city officials full control of the district, which leaders argue has continued to falter under its tenure.

Philadelphia city officials announced plans to wrestle control of the city school district from the state, which would end a 16-year experiment that gave the governor more say than local leaders.

Mayor Jim Kenney is asking the five-member School Reform Commission (SRC) to vote to dissolve itself when the governing body meets on Nov. 16.

“Ultimately, our children’s success and Philadelphia’s success depends on the quality of our schools,” Kenney said in a speech before city council on Thursday. “And, right now, we are leaving our city’s fate largely in someone else’s hands.”

The SRC oversees the city’s public and charter schools, makes major policy and budgetary decisions for the school district and appoints the superintendent.

The SRC currently comprises three members appointed by the governor who serve five years each and two members appointed by the mayor who serve four years each. There is no limit to the number of terms a member can serve.

About 130,000 students are currently enrolled in traditional public schools and another 60,000 students attend charter schools.

Kenney hopes to reverse some of the perceptions and troubling realities facing the city’s education system by adding AP classes, free standardized testing, boosting libraries, adding more teachers, repairing old buildings and “ensuring no student’s fate is determined by their zip code.”

A line spilled into the sidewalk as teachers, educators and other community members clamored to get a seat at Thursday’s announcement. Supporters of the plan held up signs that read "A people's school board: No more profits off our kids."

"We are the experts. We are in these schools," parent Sheila Armstrong said. "We want to ensure the people's voice is heard."

SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson also added to the outpouring support for the mayor's request to disband the SRC. 

"As a result of progress and stability, we have the opportunity to reexamine the governance structure including the restoration of local control," she said.

"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.”

On Wednesday evening, council members unveiled plans to replace the SRC with a nine-member board appointed by the mayor. Those appointments would be recommended by a nominating panel, which would include four members of the public at-large and nine community leaders.

Kenney painted a somber picture of what could happen if the city’s education system does not undergo drastic changes.

“If we do not have quality schools in every neighborhood, the people who have helped to reverse the city’s decades of population loss will not stay. The children whose families cannot afford to leave will be unprepared to compete in the 21st century economy," he said. "Businesses will not come to Philadelphia, and those that are here won’t have the local talent pool to grow, and the City’s poverty and crime rates will remain stagnant or worsen."

Superintendent William Hite signaled a willingness for change.

“I 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,” he said.

Since the SRC's creation, the school district has closed more than 24 schools and laid off 4,000 teachers, Kenney said. At the current rate, two schools per year stand to shut down.

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