Goodbye to Pedro Ramos ... and to state oversight, too?

Posted: October 23, 2013

PUBLIC service takes on many stripes in this city - whether you're talking about workers punching the clock at City Hall, or the social butterflies of high-culture volunteers who go to black-tie galas, or block captains who monitor their neighborhoods.

Pedro Ramos, who announced yesterday that he'll be leaving his post as the chairman of the School Reform Commission, was a public servant who spent countless, and thankless, hours overseeing public education in the city at one of its more contentious points in history.

Ramos presided over a controversial school chief, a contentious union negotiation, a gaping fiscal crisis . . . and that was just the first time, back in 1999, when he was appointed head of the school board at 34. Twelve years later, with the school board long gone, Gov. Corbett appointed Ramos to the School Reform Commission, where he presided over the remnants of a controversial school chief, as well as now-ongoing union negotiations and a fiscal crisis that is ongoing, too.

During his tenure, he hired Superintendent William Hite, brought new reckoning to the district's finances and retained high marks for his calm and dedication. He pulled the trigger on closing schools - which leaders before him wouldn't take on - and bore the brunt of public pushback on this and other decisions. It's a rare public servant who would do all this for no pay.

Ramos' legacy is not only notable for his stints in service to the schools, but for his own pedigree: a product of the city's public schools, where he also has sent his children.

When Corbett appoints his replacement, it will be hard to find someone with his combination of skills and background. But before that happens, Ramos' departure may be an opportunity to consider whether the current arrangement of state oversight should be re-examined. The state took over the school district in 2001. State officials who insist on measuring progress in the schools should have to answer the same things they expect of teachers and students: What did the state achieve, and how can that be measured?

This year was no testament to state oversight. The schools opened with gaping holes - without nurses, counselors and other essential support. There are no music or art classes, no athletics, although $45 million finally being released by the governor - far short of what the district needed - could restore some of those essentials. But for years the schools have continued to lurch from crisis to crisis. Under state supervision, the district has seen a rise in charters, a cut in funding (especially driven by charter expansion, and an elimination of the reimbursement for charter students) and falling achievement.

The question remains, though, whether schools would fare better under city oversight. The city has stepped up funding of schools in a big way, although much of that funding relies on state legislative approval. Some favor the idea of an elected school board, although in this city that could be a dangerous proposition.

Whatever the right model, the outcome should reflect the interests of the people of Philadelphia, not lawmakers in Harrisburg.

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