The weird thing about school districts is that they're their own governments. They're not departments or offices in local governments, like they are at at the state and federal level. A lot of other things a municipality provides (police, water, human services, etc) have departments with deputy mayors or chiefs or other leaders, who all report to the mayor and are governed by elected bodies like a city council.
Not school districts, though. They have their own executives--superintendents--and answer to their own elected or appointed bodies, like school boards. This relative autonomy of school districts has been the case arguably since the 1700s.
Three hundred years later in the early 2000s, Philadelphia did something interesting. Mayor John Street created a Mayor's Office of Education (MOE) with a Chief Educational Officer, who serves as a kind of secretary of education in the Mayor's administration. In my ongoing project to understand the education apparatus in my city, here's some stuff about that office, with a particular focus on the superintendent search happening now.
From SRC to MOE to BOE
Street made the MOE when the Philadelphia School District was put under a receivership by the state government in Harrisburg. The district was found to be in "fiscal distress," its school board dissolved, and replaced with a School Reform Commission (SRC) with five appointed officials, three of which were picked by the Governor. (Congressman Dwight Evans had an outsized role in this process, btw, along with the city's extreme charterization.)
Think Flint, Michigan and their water supply. Think Puerto Rico's PROMESA oversight commission. The SRC was Philly school's version of state control.
To retain some local and mayoral connection to the new state-led body, Street created the MOE to be a mayoral liaison to the SRC, whose first chief was Jackie Barrett. After Debbie Kahn and Laurie Shore, Mayor Jim Kenney picked Otis Hackney, a former math teacher and principal to head the office (who should probably be the new superintendent, frankly).
Games of MOEnes
Now, the Office is a kind of resource for the new Board of Education (BOE), whose members are appointed by the Mayor but don't answer to the mayor. The MOE handles new appointments to this board, as well as overseeing programs like Kenney's pre-K program, a community schools initiative, increasing school internet connection, and providing scholarships like one named after Octavius Catto (who you should look up!).
Even though the MOE was placed in the new Office of Children and Families as of 2020, it retains its original remit. Hackney sits in on many (but not all) leadership meetings when it comes to the district. He's a touchpoint between the mayor's office and the Board. When school board members want to know some detail about the district, he advises them. When he speaks, they listen. He's in the room where it happens.
I'm getting feudal vibes from this whole thing. The Chief Education Officer is like a councilor operating between powerful bodies within an ornate, rickety, but powerful apparatus. Hackney's position is powerful but limited. He talks to the mayor. He talks to the Board. He talks to 440 Broad. He can communicate the (dis)pleasure of the Mayor to these players, all of whom are appointed by the mayor. Technically, the mayor can remove them from office if things got bad enough. The CEO could recommend this.
But at the same time, it's a palace court game: the CEO doesn't want to lose his position going back and forth between these various power players. It's a delicate balance. Hackney, on my read at least, isn't Machiavellian. But someone with a more game-of-thrones attitude could create some pressure if they wanted or were convinced to pick the battle if the stakes were high enough.
The new superintendent search, for example, which is perhaps the most politically interesting thing to focus on right now. Hackney is on the steering committee that's overseeing the new superintendent search (though he doesn't have a vote) .
Big city superintendents have been leaving their jobs all over the country amidst the pandemic. This isn't surprising given the no-real-options situation the pandemic has presented to large districts with diverse populations and relatively lower property value. The same goes for Dr. William Hite, who served this role for ten tumultuous years between the the fallout of the great financial crisis and the pandemic crisis. Movements are quite glad to see him go and are hoping for a newer vision for the district.
I should say that, in terms of accountability, the superintendent search is one of the most important processes happening right now. Everyone I've spoken to says that leadership at the top at 440 Broad sets the tone for the rest of the building. If someone good came in, things could be better.
The search, so far as I can tell, is run exclusively by the Board. But of course they'll have advisors of various kinds, including a Superintendent Search Advisory Committee (which is different than the steering committee), hire a search firm (Isaacson,Miller in this case), do listening tours and surveys, etc.
I think Hackney is an interesting figure to think about in this whole process. Much of the public listening tour, as well as the advisory committee, will be spectacle. The issues on the table in this search--the stuff that's most important when picking 440's next leader--will be determined in the palace court game of influence around the search. Hackney could be a significant given the unique role of the MOE.