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In a town where leadership usually consists of ducking or changing the topic, William Hite stands out as a man apart.

Hite has been at the center of the maelstrom over Philadelphia’s public schools since he arrived in September 2012, but the superintendent has emerged from this storm if not unscathed, then certainly unbowed.

In the face of anger, he remains calm. In the face of hysteria, he talks the facts. To the incessant demands that the district live in the past, he insists on looking to the future—beyond the fog of rhetoric and the immediate financial chaos.

His ability to suffer fools gladly, though seriously tested, remains intact.

To a large degree, his predecessor, the late Arlene Ackerman, made Hite’s path easier.

Ackerman was obdurate, narcissistic and imperious—a dangerous combination, unless you happen to be a Bourbon king, ruling by divine right.

Her rampaging personality had dominated the entire debate over public education in the city. Her “my way or the highway” style brooked no naysaying, no “negativity.”

One way to compare Hite to her is to imagine how she would have handled the current and ongoing crisis. On second thought, let’s not.

Had someone who was merely polite succeeded her, it would have been enough.

Hite is polite. A native of Virginia, he has a certain southern courtliness to him, formal but friendly. More important, he listens. He actually listens. To parents. To teachers. To children. It’s not a sham. He cares about what they have to say.

He has empathy. It’s a trait you can fake, up to a point.  But people see through it eventually. Hite’s empathy is genuine. It is clear, for instance, that the steps he has had to take—close schools, lay off employees, reduce services to bare bones—pain him in a deep and personal way. This was a man who began his life as a teacher so he understands the everyday challenges of life in schools.

This empathy has served him well in his time in Philadelphia. The fact that he calls himself a “servant leader” reveals not only his attitude but also his disposition. It invests new meaning in the shop-worn phrase public servant.

Still, that does not mean that Hite is a man who is all personality and no ideas. His Action Plan, first released in January, got little attention while the district swooned under its financial stress. Schools were being closed. Layoffs were beginning. The plan got drowned out in the din.

It’s not exciting reading. Although called an action plan, it isn’t really a call to action. It’s more a statement of principle, which I would boil down to this:

Children deserve our best efforts when it comes to giving them a meaningful education.

We need adequate money if we are to have any chance of completing this task.

We, the employees of the district, have to move away from ingrained practices and procedures and focus on meeting the needs of parents and children.

The rest of the plan outlines the details of how to achieve those goals. It’s a remarkably jargon-free document by pedagogical standards. It also contains some fairly radical notions, at least by Philadelphia standards.

One can be found on page 21, where he lists, as a goal, “Improve customer service.” Once again, Hite is being polite. For years, customer service was an alien notion in the district. It didn’t have customers, it had parents, who were to be either endured or ignored. That era is over, as Hite makes clear in his plan:

“The history of education is littered with broken promises and fickle change. We routinely over-promise and under-deliver. However, time is no longer on our side. Districts must now succeed in an era of accountability where a model of publicly-funded monopoly has largely passed.”

Hite has two problems, one of his own making and one not.

He seems insistent in believing that he can talk people into change. That attitude informs his relations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. He has gone out of his way to employ the language of diplomacy when it comes to the PFT. He uses the phrase “our partners” when talking about the union, as if there was a partnership, not an inherent conflict between his goals and the union’s goals.

The union is not about change. It is about preserving prerogatives, work rules, emoluments and benefits built during the era of monopoly. You can’t talk people into giving this stuff up. It is a power issue, usually settled at the negotiating table.

Hite and the School Reform Commission have a clear advantage at the table, given the powers invested in them by the state takeover law. I regret they haven’t used them to the fullest.

Hite’s biggest problem is beyond his control. By coming to Philadelphia, he waded into a lake of molasses, where keepers of the status quo, a list that includes most of the political class, impede meaningful change.

If you see the district as a jobs’ program and a contract machine, it works just fine. There is no problem, except for lack of money. If many children don’t learn, that is an acceptable level of collateral damage.

As superintendent, Hite proposes, but the political establishment disposes. He lacks the necessary fulcrum to move it. So, he’s stuck, without the money he needs, without the changes he seeks, and without a broad political constituency for public education.

Among parents, the district doesn’t have supporters, it has defectors. Those who can flee. Those who can’t are mostly poor and lack the political heft to serve as a counterweight to supporters of the status quo.

While the media dutifully records the travails of the district, most Philadelphians have no direct stake in the schools. To them, public education is a sideshow and not a very interesting one—mostly because the plot never changes. It’s our version of the movie Groundhog Day.

By his actions and his character, Hite has become an honest broker in the eyes of the public, someone who genuinely cares about educating children. Someone they trust. He has earned the political capital to make change under the powers granted by the state.

I hope he spends that capital this year.

 

Photo: The Associated Press