Last week, Mayor Kenney fired his state baby sitters and seized control of the Philadelphia public schools. As a conservative, I deeply support local control of schools. However, the state baby sitters were there because of a compromise funding deal worked out during the Mayor Street years. Philadelphia got more state money, but also got the baby sitters, because the belief was local officials couldn’t be fully trusted to run their schools efficiently.
The New York Times reported in late December 2001 that the deal to have the state essentially control Philadelphia public schools was due to the need for more state money to fund the schools. Republican Gov. Mark Schweiker’s contended that such unprecedented measures were necessary because more than half of the city’s students failed to achieve a basic level of comprehension on state reading and math tests. Street told the Times, “We don’t believe we can have a world-class city with a second-class public education system.”
So, what has changed to dramatically upend this compromise? Will the city of Philadelphia be able to better able to fund its schools? Have reading and math scores risen dramatically? How will Philadelphia suddenly cover the $1 billion deficit the school system is projecting over five years?
Kenney is unclear about the source of the funding. Is there a new industry he can demonize, as he did so successfully with Big Soda? It’s also unclear what this means for the robust charter school movement inside the public schools.
Politically, I think this a master stroke by Kenney, because he satisfies the dreams of activists such as Councilwoman Helen Gym and others to seize back control of the schools. He also knows that Philadelphia is a place that will not place responsibility for continued failure on him, but rather will blame Republican legislators, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, President Trump and yet unnamed people and groups conspiring to undermine the public schools.
Kenney might also be reading the tea leaves from a recent school funding case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In a late September decision, thenotebook.org reported, the court ruled that courts can get involved in determining equitable funding for Pennsylvania public schools. It ruled that a lawsuit seeking more equitable funding brought by some school districts across the state and some individual parents can proceed to trial.
This ruling could open the door for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which is controlled by Democrats, to determine education funding and reward Kenney and Philadelphia. A former high-ranking state Education Department official told me that this reminded him very much of the Abbott School decision, which has jacked up state funding to poorer school districts.
As if to celebrate these cunning moves, on the day after seizing control of the schools, Kenney announced that the Frank Rizzo statue would be moved from its place of honor in front of the Municipal Services building and taken to a site that will be determined by the city’s Art Commission. Of course, this commission was supposed to lead spirited public debates about whether to move the sculpture. I guess Kenney was so jubilant from his schools’ seizure that he forgot about that promise. He also forgot any sense of manners by failing to call the Rizzo family and inform them of his decision.
Or could it be that both moves crystallize his vision of New Philadelphia. It’s a place that trashes its history without public debate. It’s a place that virtue signals responsibility for the education of its kids, while demanding outsiders pay more and more for those kids. It is a city that treats residents and businesses not as constituents, but an ATM to fund their never-ending list of pet projects. It’s a place that a guy such as Kenney is perfectly suited to lead.
So where will the New Philadelphia banish the Rizzo statue? In a Philly.com poll, the bottom of the Delaware was among the leading choices. I have a suggestion that might please Rizzo supporters and also get anti-Trump supporters revved up for 2020. Let’s move the statue to some federal property in downtown Philadelphia. Pick a spot that is not owned by the New Philadelphia. Supporters will feel good about it and activists will be able to have another reason to defeat Trump.