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School Reform Commission votes to dissolve itself

Philly schools will soon revert to local control.
City Councilwoman Helen Gym speaks at a protest outside School District headquarters in May, 2016. (Charles Mostoller)

The state-controlled School Reform Commission, born in 2001, voted at its Thursday night meeting to dissolve itself, a major step in the long and tangled history of public education in Philly.

“Many of us have been waiting for today for a long, long time,” said City Councilwoman Helen Gym in prepared remarks for the meeting, in which she recalled attending meetings 16 years ago to oppose the state’s takeover of Philly schools via the School Reform Commission (SRC). “For 16 years, I’ve come to the SRC often to testify, but tonight I come to say thanks.”

The board’s vote to dissolve itself came as the School District has seen balanced budgets and new hires for the first time in years under Superintendent Dr. William Hite, as well as a new contract with teachers.

In joint testimony to the SRC, Mayor Jim Kenney and city council president Darrell Clarke touted the School District’s positive strides in arguing for the SRC’s lack of utility, noting the city has chipped in “$500 million in new recurring annual revenue over the past six years” to support schools.

“The School District has had multiple years of balanced budgets,” they said. “The District now has contracts with each of its bargaining units, and there have been improvements in both student test score achievement and the high school graduation rate. We believe now is the right time to return to local control.”

Kenney has argued that a Board of Education, with local membership, reporting to the mayor, would offer the most accountability to students and parents.

But with no SRC, the process of getting to local control will still take several months.

Over the years, many accusations have been lobbed at the SRC – including that it took a pro-charter school slant, which some say prompted the closure of more than two dozen schools in 2013.

“The state’s decision to take away local control of Philadelphia schools was also a move to turn over large chunks of our school system to for-profit companies,” Gym, who has been heavily critical of charter schools, said in her remarks. “The takeover was a massive educational experiment on black and brown and immigrant children – from reckless charter expansion to mass school closings. These were strategies not backed by any educational research, they didn’t solve the existing and terrible problems within the district, and they hurt far too many children.”

Only time will tell if the future Board of Education does any better, but one group who was celebrating Thursday was Philly’s teachers.

As the School Reform Commission voted in favor of its own demise, the decision was lauded by the Philly Federation of Teachers, who organized an “#SRCYaLater” rally outside the School District of Philadelphia, attended by national teachers union leader Randi Weingarten.

"PFT members have taken to the streets over the years to protest the SRC's many destructive actions," PFT president Jerry Jordan said in a statement. "On Thursday, we'll be outside to celebrate the end of this failed experiment."