Mayor Kenney accomplished a longtime personal goal last month by finally unveiling the first statue of a single African American on Philadelphia public property. The moment was long overdue, and the mayor should be commended.
As an advocate of democracy, civil rights, and access to high-quality education for all of Philadelphia’s children regardless of race, Octavius V. Catto deserves a revered space among the pantheon of great Philadelphians.
Just as Kenney toiled for more than 15 years to erect this monument to equality and democracy for all, others have been advocating for the same amount of time to destroy a Philadelphia institution that symbolizes the exact opposite. Inequity, corruption, a lack of public input, and autocratic rule have defined the governing body of the School District of Philadelphia since the turn of the century. It’s time for the state-controlled School Reform Commission to go.
Philadelphians are the only Pennsylvanians who are not permitted to democratically choose who represents them on an elected school board. Since 2001, this undemocratic body has consistently underserved the children and parents of Philadelphia. Commission members have decimated our traditional public schools by turning over dozens of them to outside providers and charters, been unable to get anything that even faintly resembles equitable funding from Harrisburg, and made unaccountable decision after decision behind closed doors as they divvied out more than $3 billion a year.
Yet, somehow, the citizens of Philadelphia have been expected to find this acceptable. To this we have resolutely stated: not without a fight.
For more than 15 years, advocates of public education, social/racial justice, and democratic values in this city have made the commonsense demand that our schools be returned to local control — and we have never been closer. If Gov. Wolf and Kenney urge their current SRC appointees to act by December to dissolve the commission, a school board controlled by Philadelphia and beholden to its residents can become a reality.
So far, Wolf has publicly committed to such a task, but Kenney has wavered.
Octavius Catto dedicated his life to increasing democratic participation among his people, guaranteeing their access to high-quality education, and ensuring that citizens of color were not relegated to second-class status. Today’s Philadelphians deserve no less. Erecting a statue at City Hall is not the only way to honor a great man. The mayor also can follow in Catto’s footsteps by making a public commitment to dissolving the SRC.
George Bezanis is a social studies teacher at Central High School, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ representative at the school, and a leader of the union’s Caucus of Working Educators. firstname.lastname@example.org @gbezanis