A not-so-brief history of Philly’s rocky relationship with the SRC

The School Reform Commission is going away, and Philly is taking back control.

School District of Philadelphia administration building

School District of Philadelphia administration building

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The School Reform Commission, better known by its acronym SRC, is finally coming to an end. The organization’s five board members are expected to vote it out of existence by the end of the year, and Mayor Jim Kenney described in a speech this morning his proposal for wresting school district control away from Harrisburg and back to the city.

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

Kenney called on the SRC to dissolve itself and said he would return the school board to the way it’s set in the city charter, as a nine-member board recommended to the mayor by a nominating panel.

The particulars of Kenney’s proposal could bear scrutiny among education experts. The general plan of bringing the schools back to local control will have almost no opposition, at least from Philadelphians. As Councilwoman Helen Gym, who 16 years ago protested the formation of the SRC with a sit-in, put it in a statement, “I am glad to see the experiment known as the School Reform Commission finally come to an end. This is a win for every parent and community member who fought for fair funding despite a system that told us our children deserved less.”

Here’s a brief timeline that describes how the SRC came to be and why it has a poor relationship with Philadelphia, particularly over the last few years.

December 2001: Creation of SRC

The SRC, which has two members appointed by the mayor and three by the governor, came into existence because Philadelphia leaders were eager to get more funding resources from the state, and state leaders wanted more oversight and the ability to convert existing public school into charter schools.

Before its actual creation, Gov. Tom Ridge threatened to form the SRC in 1998 — basically in response to a warning from then-School District of Philadelphia Superintendent David Hornbeck that he would have to close Philly schools if the district didn’t receive a state bailout. In 2000, talk about state takeover picked up again when teachers threatened to strike. Finally in 2001, as Philly schools stared down a projected $1.5 billion deficit in the coming years, the SRC became official.

The SRC was set up to function as a school board. Whereas every other district in the state had an entirely local school board, Philadelphia’s was essentially based in Harrisburg. That didn’t go over well. Just before the SRC became official, hundreds of educators, union members and activists marched down Broad Street toward City Hall and ambushed then-Mayor John Street’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.

April 2002: Massive repurposing

About 75 Philadelphia schools, out of a total of just more than 250, were selected for reforms, many of them set to be repurposed as charters. The SRC, throughout the last 15 years, would vote to turn several public schools into charters and also decide on charter renewals.

But the major controversies wouldn’t begin until many years later, when huge state cuts to education and the SRC’s decisions to overhaul the school code brought greater scrutiny.

March 2011: Corbett’s cuts

Then-Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a budget with massive cuts to state education, none larger than in Philadelphia. A full 25 percent of his proposed cuts were for the School District of Philadelphia, even though Philly schools enroll only about 10 percent of the state’s students. These cuts made city leaders question the purpose of the SRC. A state body had control of Philadelphia schools and yet another state body was severely cutting its funds.

Left: Former PA Gov. Tom Corbett. Right: Outgoing PA GOP chair Rob Gleason

Left: Former PA Gov. Tom Corbett. Right: Outgoing PA GOP chair Rob Gleason

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December 2011: Bill Green talks about dissolving the SRC

Then-Councilman Bill Green recommended the SRC be dissolved and replaced with a local board. Before this point, politicians didn’t often speak about disbanding the SRC — though they did criticize it. Politicians were mostly concerned changes to the SRC could lead to less funding from Harrisburg.

Not that Green would go on to disrupt the SRC. In fact, the opposite: In 2014 he gave up his City Council seat to accept a nomination by Corbett to join the SRC.

2012: Changing the school code

The SRC began changing portions of the school code, voting to cap charter enrollment and close schools in a quicker fashion, without a hearing that previously needed to be held three months before a decision was made final. Many education activists thought the organization was overstepping its bounds. The SRC would continue doing this over the next few years, particularly in ways that would alienate teachers.

October 2014: Shredding the teachers’ contracts

The SRC voted to cut health benefits from teachers’ contracts and give the $44 million back to the schools. The move led to widespread protest and a court challenge.

May 2015: The referendum

About 75 percent of voters answered yes on a ballot question about disbanding the SRC and returning control of the school district to Philadelphia. It was non-binding, but showed what the general population thought of the SRC. Of the six Democratic mayoral candidates, all but one wanted the SRC to eventually be dissolved under the right circumstances.

February 2016: The crippling Supreme Court ruling

The end of the SRC began appearing inevitable when the state Supreme Court ruled it essentially had too much power. The ruling stemmed from a case involving the SRC’s ability to change portions of the school code with regards to capping charter enrollments.

October 2017: The rumors begin

The Inquirer reported the SRC was expected to dissolve itself by the end of the year and Kenney and City Council were in talks to replace it. This year, the article noted, would be the best time for the SRC to dissolve itself, given the majority of SRC board members are Kenney and Gov. Tom Wolf appointees. With Wolf facing re-election next year, the political makeup of the board could change.

November 2017: The end

The SRC meets next Nov. 18. Kenney has called for the group to disband itself then. Meanwhile, Kenney outlined how the school board will be formed. He said the nominating panel would be in place by the end of this year and will consist of 13 Philadelphians, nine of whom will be leaders of organizations and four of whom will be members of the public. They’ll begin soliciting recommendations for board leaders. City Council is introducing a resolution today to reauthorize the Philadelphia Board of Education.

As it stands, the school district is looking at a $900 million deficit. That’s about as tough of a situation as it was in when the state took over in 2001 and the deficit was projected at $1.5 billion.

Kenney explained a few ideas he would already propose to improve the schools in his next budget:

  • A capital improvement program for school buildings
  • A ninth grade academy focused on counseling and lowering the dropout rate
  • Specialized reading coaches for every school
  • More bilingual counselors and increased faculty diversity

Unlike in 2001, Harrisburg will now not be shouldering all of the blame for the state of the schools. Kenney acknowledged this sentiment.

“When the SRC dissolves itself and we return to a school board appointed by the Mayor, you can hold me, and future mayors, accountable for the success or failure of our schools,” he said. “The buck will stop with us.”