Education reform and local control: The fight for Philadelphia’s schools

Abigail Perkiss

Abigail Perkiss from Kean University looks at long, complicated relationship between local and state control over Philadelphia schools, which is heading to the legal system in a contract fight.


On October 6, 2014, the School Reform Commission in Philadelphia made the unilateral decision to revoke the collective bargaining agreement for city teachers, when it dismantled its contract with the Philadelphia Federation for Teachers (or PFT).

The action had the effect of doing away with the PFT’s Health and Wellness Fund, up until then under union control, and requiring teachers to contribute 10 to 13 percent of their health benefits, which would amount to $21 to $200 per month, starting December 15. Previously the district paid for all health coverage.

The SRC has stated that the funds recouped by the district, some $44 million, will be channeled directly to schools in order to bolster resources and better serve the more than 100,000 students across the city.

Founded in 2001, the SRC was part of an historic state takeover of the Philadelphia School District. On December 21 of that year, Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Charles Zogby signed a Declaration of Distress for the district, effectively bringing an end to local control of education in the city. The SRC is comprised of five representatives, three appointed by the governor and two by the mayor.

Analysts have pointed to the current crisis as another example of a national trend toward limiting the power of public-sector unions to negotiate. In 2011, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker ushered in legislation that did away with the collective bargaining power of public-sector unions across the state, in the face of widespread protests. That same year, an Ohio law was passed to prohibit strikes and promotions based exclusively on seniority for public employees. The legislation was ultimately overturned by voter referendum.

Harvard lecturer Linda Kaboolian, in an interview for Education Week, argues that such governmental policies are built on a strategy that positions union members as parasites on society, effectively dismantling the liberal base in the city by pitting them against the poor and minority families who rely on the public school system – those who traditionally support the Democratic platform.

In Philadelphia, these tensions over public-sector unions touch off more than a power grab for the state’s political base; they speak to longstanding conflicts over who controls public education in the city, conflicts that date back to the mid-nineteenth century.

Consolidating Power

Prior to the establishment of the Philadelphia Board of Education in 1850, oversight was in the hands of local Controllers, elected throughout the city to manage schools in each ward of Philadelphia. Gradually, however, the state began to assert increasing control over the election process. In 1867, the Pennsylvania legislature conferred such power to the Court of Common Pleas. Nearly 40 years later, the state passed the Reorganization Act of 1905, centralizing authority and transforming local ward boards into advisory bodies with little formalized power.

Through the first half of the 20th century, district control became further centralized under the command of superintendents who maintained a firm hand on the organizing power of teachers across the city. Though educators there had been organized for decades under the Philadelphia Teachers Union, it was not until the 1960s that the local union, by that point the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, became the exclusive bargaining representative for all of the district’s teachers.

An Era of Reform

The mid-1960s was a time of pervasive educational reform across the city. In May 1965, Philadelphia adopted the Educational Home Rule Charter, which shifted fiscal control of education from the state legislature to the city school district. The legislation reduced the school board from 15 members to nine and called for seats to be filled by people with fresh energy and ideas.

Superintendent C. Taylor Whittier, who had taken office in 1964, struggled with how to implement these new initiatives, and in 1966 he resigned from his post. Mark Shedd stepped into the position.

Shedd, a graduate of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, had cut his Superintendent teeth in Englewood, New Jersey. His mission when he had arrived in the integrated Manhattan suburb five years earlier was to stabilize a district up in arms over a state-mandated desegregation plan. His success at managing the transition in Englewood earned the Massachusetts native a national reputation in school reform.

Still, many questioned whether Shedd was equipped for the larger and more volatile Philadelphia district. As the Philadelphia Tribune reported, Shedd was “leaving a position where there [were] only 4,000 school children out of a population of 28,000 and [taking] over a system that [had] 270,000 pupils in 256 schools, with close to 20,000 professional and non-professional employees.” But former Philadelphia mayor Richardson Dilworth believed he was ready. Shedd came to Englewood “amid racial turmoil and tension,” said Dilworth. He worked hard there to bring black and white families together to find quick and meaningful solutions to the growing racial divide. “He’s dedicated,” the politician continued, “and he knows how to get things done.” In 1967, Shedd came to Philadelphia to become the highest paid public official in the city.

In his first year in office, the new leader crafted an agenda so comprehensive and innovative that it prompted journalist Henry Resnik to write, “Philadelphia… seemed to be well on its way, more than any other American city, to coping successfully with the failures of urban education.” Shedd proposed a plan to redefine the relationship between the city and its schools. With an eye toward racial integration and a drive for improved quality across the district, the superintendent worked to create what he termed a “Model School District,” bringing Philadelphia residents and teachers into conversations with the Board of Education and calling on them to make decisions about what should take place within local schools. As Shedd wrote in an open letter published in the Philadelphia Tribune:

“New channels must be set to involve the community and satisfy it… What we are really talking about when we use the word “responsiveness” is creating an open, trusting, and accepting climate for human relationships: a tolerance not simply for race or religion, but a respect for ideas, feelings, and concerns of those above and below in the school hierarchy and those outside it. Without this climate, the unlocking of talent and the mobilization of resources needed will simply not be possible.”

Though members of his administration were wary of relinquishing control, the new superintendent believed that by bringing local residents and teachers together to engage in mutual exchange, he could ameliorate tensions throughout the city and avoid confrontation. Shedd and his team worked on a plan to decentralize the district, allowing for greater local control and community input.

From the moment he took office, Shedd sought to usher in tangible reforms in neighborhood schools. The school board passed ad hoc committees for curricular development; they developed such innovations as the experimental Parkway Program, offering students unprecedented control over their courses and teachers; and they worked within neighborhoods toward better race relations in schools and communities across the city.

During his time in Philadelphia, Shedd often butted heads with the city’s Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, a law-and-order leader with bullish bravado who condemned the superintendent as a soft-hearted liberal. When Rizzo was elected mayor in 1971, Shedd ended his tenure with the school district.

A Series of Strikes

In the years following Shedd’s departure, between 1970 and 1981, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers went on strike six times, agitating for higher wages, better health benefits, and more resources and fewer students in their classrooms. Throughout that same period, the district’s budget increased from $312 million to $711 million, class sizes swelled, teachers were put on furlough, and student enrollment fell.

The final strike of the 20th century, which lasted for 50 days in the fall of 1981, came in response to Mayor Bill Green’s revocation of a ten percent salary raise across the district, which had been written into the teachers’ two-year contract. Despite nearly two months of striking – the longest in the city’s history – the teachers never recouped their ten percent increase, and many describe the strike as the proverbial last straw in an already-eroding Philadelphia school district.

As Philadelphia Inquire staff writer Marc Schogol reported in 2000, “coming as it did on the heels of six strikes in twelve years, including a 22-day walkout just the year before, the 1981 work stoppage left the already troubled district’s reputation in tatters… the resulting migration from city schools and the city further eroded Philadelphia’s tax base and increasingly left public schools to the poor and disadvantaged.”

For the next two decades, the Philadelphia School District and the PFT maintained a precarious truce, as superintendents Constance Clayton, the district’s first black leader, and David Hornbeck ushered in new reforms aimed at standardizing the curriculum to improve student achievement and working toward modified desegregation across city schools.

But in the fall of 2000, when the school district sought to institute extended school days and school years without higher pay for teachers, increases in insurance copayments, and less classroom autonomy, the PFT’s 21,000 members moved to strike once again.

As William Kashatus of the Chester County Historical Society wrote at the time, “The slogan of today’s PFT – ‘Our working conditions are the students’ learning conditions’ – does, indeed, reflect the reality of working in a district that is overcrowded and rife with violence and drug abuse, and which spends half the money that wealthier suburban districts invest in their students. Under those circumstances, even the most dedicated teachers are hard-pressed to create a meaningful learning environment. At the same time, the PFT has a responsibility to back up its slogan with concrete actions, like using its leverage to create small class sizes, safe learning environments, and high standards of academic achievement and behavior. If those issues were resolved, teachers wouldn’t complain about ‘poor working conditions,’ ‘extending the work day’ or “better pay,” and Philadelphians wouldn’t have to worry about another strike.”

Ted Kirsch, president of the union, said of the strike: “we’re about addressing smaller class sizes, safety, and discipline. What the mayor is about is command and total control of his employees.”

Once again, conflicts over local control threatened to disrupt what was then the fifth largest school district in the nation.

Though negotiations ultimately prevailed and the district was able to avert a strike, the threatened disruption renewed calls for a state takeover of city schools, and one year later, the School Reform Commission was created.

This month’s contract dispute between the SRC and the PFT takes its place in this long and complicated relationship between local and state control over Philadelphia schools. As PFT lawyer Ralph Teti has argued, the Reform Commission is attempting to “take a democracy and turn it into a dictatorship.” Meanwhile, attorneys for the SRC assert that the Pennsylvania legislation that created the board gave them broad discretionary authority, including the power to cancel teachers’ contracts in the event of financial distress within the school district.

What happens next will be left to state courts, as the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas has recently issued a preliminary injunction on the contract cancelation, with the SRC seeking appeal to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.

The outcome could signal new shifts in the balance of power for public education in the city.

Abigail Perkiss is an assistant professor of history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey and a fellow at the Kean Center for History, Politics, and Policy. Her first book, Making Good Neighbors: Civil Rights, Liberalism, and Integration in Post-War Philadelphia (Cornell University Press, 2014), examines interracial living in post-WWII Philadelphia. Follow her on twitter at @abiperk and visit her website at