During a mostly harmonious debate on the plight of education in Pennsylvania, the state's four Democratic candidates for governor agreed Wednesday that the state should change or abolish the School Reform Commission that governs Philadelphia's beleaguered school system.
The candidates, speaking at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia, said control of the schools should be returned from the state to local officials, whether they are elected or appointed, to improve accountability. But, each Democrat added, Pennsylvania is morally obligated to ensure that the district is adequately funded.
State Treasurer Rob McCord, who lives in Montgomery County, said Harrisburg would not return control of the district to the city "personally, I believe, because of racism" and because Philadelphia receives significant revenue from the state.
"Every school district in the state gets some money from the state," he said. "I believe the School Reform Commission has not worked . . . and, very importantly, we don't know who to hold accountable."
Much of the two-hour forum was a bashing of Republican Gov. Corbett, viewed as one of the country's most vulnerable sitting governors, whose policies on education funding have become a liability in Philadelphia. However, the beginning and end of the debate saw brief attacks against front-runner Tom Wolf, a York businessman.
McCord accused Wolf of failing to disavow a former York mayor who shouted "White power!" as a young police officer during that city's 1969 race riots and who was charged - and found not guilty - three decades later with murder in the death of a black woman. Wolf served as Mayor Charlie Robertson's honorary campaign chairman in 2001. Wolf's immediate reaction at the time was to say he would continue to serve as the mayor's campaign chairman. Robertson dropped his bid a day after he was charged.
McCord invoked Donald Sterling, the now-disgraced owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, and U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz pressed Wolf on the issue as well.
After the debate, Wolf called the attacks "desperate" and "disgraceful," and said he had not talked to Robertson since the campaign.
The debate, however, was mostly a chorus of four Democrats agreeing that the governor's No. 1 priority should be to adequately fund schools across the state, that charter schools can be useful but must have better accountability, and that Pennsylvania's shale gas industry should be taxed to help fund education.
Philadelphia's school system was a common topic. The School Reform Commission was formed in 2001, when the state took over the academically and financially struggling school district. Three of its five members are appointed by the governor and two by the mayor.
Over the years, city and district officials have debated the appropriate time to seek the return of the district to full local control, but have opted to work in partnership with the state, believing that would bring the best chance of obtaining more state funding.
"We absolutely have to move away from the SRC," said Katie McGinty, a former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and a White House aide during the Clinton administration. "Getting back to what we know works, and that is neighborhood schools and local ownership of those schools."
Inquirer staff writers Thomas Fitzgerald and Susan Snyder contributed to this article.