Issue Brief

Governing Urban Schools in the Future

What’s facing Philadelphia and Pennsylvania

philadelphia schoolsThe Pew Charitable Trusts

Since 2001, the School District of Philadelphia has been run by a state-controlled commission.


In 2001, the state of Pennsylvania took over the School District of Philadelphia. The move, which came with the consent of the city’s mayor and included an increase in state and city funds for the schools, followed years of turmoil during which the district twice sued the state over funding, the superintendent resigned in frustration, and state officials pushed to have a private company manage Philadelphia’s schools. The School Reform Commission (SRC), which was created as part of the takeover, runs the district, with three members appointed by the governor and two by the mayor. That arrangement has been the subject of continuing debate, with education advocates calling for a return to local control—and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter also advocating an end to the state takeover of the city’s schools.

Given that debate, The Pew Charitable Trusts commissioned an analysis comparing key elements of Philadelphia’s school governance system with those of 15 other major urban districts. The districts—serving Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Miami-Dade, Milwaukee, Newark (NJ), New York, and St. Paul (MN)—were chosen for their size and their demographic and economic similarities to Philadelphia.

Three key findings emerged:

  • Ten of the 15 districts studied and more than 90 percent of those in the U.S. are run by elected school boards; those in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and New York are not. The School District of Philadelphia has never had an elected board.
  • Of the 15 districts, only Baltimore, Boston, and New York lack the authority to raise revenue on their own—relying instead on city government for the entire local share of the school system’s operating funds. This has always been the case in Philadelphia, even before the state takeover. While the absence of taxing power is rare among districts nationally, it is not uncommon in large northeastern cities.
  • In all of the districts studied that have experienced some form of state intervention, the governance change has been long-lasting; in Philadelphia, it is entering its 15th year in 2016.

There is no consensus among researchers about whether any particular form of school governance—including state takeovers, mayoral control, or elected local boards—leads to better student performance or fiscal management. But there is strong agreement that any governance system must avoid uncertainty about responsibility and accountability in order for schools to make progress.

If and when state control of the School District of Philadelphia comes to an end, policymakers will have to decide how to govern the city’s schools. This brief is intended to inform those decisions.

Media Contact

Elizabeth Lowe

Officer, Communications