Late Sunday, Gov. Tom Wolf fired Bill Green, the head of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission, replacing Green with fellow commissioner Marjorie Neff. The move came 11 days after Green approved five new charter schools for the district. Neff is a former principal of the prestigious Julia R. Masterman School, but she might have one qualification that is more important. She was the only member of the five-person SRC to vote against all 39 charter school applications at a special meeting in February.
Before last month’s vote on charters, the district had not accepted applications for new charters for seven years. They were forced to do so by Republicans in Harrisburg, who wanted a vote on new charters in exchange for a $2 per pack cigarette tax the district needed to close a budget hole.
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When a child goes to a new charter, the district pays the charter roughly $10,000 -- equivalent to what the district spends per child. The district, however says it can only cut about $3,000 in costs, leaving the district stuck with approximately $7,000 in costs related to building maintenance and administration. Those are funds that must come out of the budgets of existing public schools. Wall Street ratings agencies who advise investors buying the district’s bonds have begun to look at the growth of charters warily.
SRC members said they faced incredible political pressure ahead of the vote by elected officials in Harrisburg who have significant control of the district’s budget. State House GOP Speaker Mike Turzai said he expected the commission to approve 16 schools proposed by operators who already run schools that exceed statewide performance benchmarks. Wolf, citing the financial burden on the district said he expected no new schools to be approved. At a press conference after the vote in Wednesday, Green said the SRC had tried to appease both masters, and that both sides had promised more resources for the district.
What’s the Difference:
Green is a former city councilman who resigned to take the unpaid position with the SRC. A Democrat, he was known for gaining the respect of Republicans in Harrisburg, but he was largely seen as the architect of a plan to gut the district’s contract with its teachers union.
Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters PA hopes Neff’s career as an educator will help smooth relations with the union.
“Negotiating with someone who has been in the district and been in your shoes is a lot different than negotiating with somebody who has a high-profile, shake-em-up reformer,” Gobreski said.
Green, who will remain a member of the commission, said in a video statement that he would file a lawsuit to retain his chairmanship of the SRC. He says Wolf doesn’t have the authority to replace him because state law insulates the commission from political interference.
Wolf, who rode to office on public disapproval of his predecessor Tom Corbett’s education policies, said in a statement that he looks forward to working with Neff to “restore cuts and reverse the public education deficit in Philadelphia.”
Philadelphia educators will be looking ahead to Wolf’s budget address today to see if he puts his money where his mouth is.
“We can only hope the budget address will signal some good news for Philadelphia,” said Farah Jimenez, a member of the SRC.
Charters in Philadelphia
number of students attending charter and traditional schools in 2015
number of students educated in Philadelphia in 2007
number of students educated in Philadelphia in 2015
amount of money Philadelphia spend on charters in 2011, about 18 percent of the budget at the time
charter payments in 2015, about 30 percent of the budget.
Source: School District of Philadelphia.