Students asked Philadelphia mayoral candidates on Tuesday about playgrounds and guns, about jobs and drugs.

And one group of schoolchildren asked about charter schools.

Democratic nominee Jim Kenney wasn't shy.

"I believe in my heart that there was an effort to make every school a charter school," he said. It was a state effort, Kenney said, a plan to deliberately precipitate the Philadelphia School District's failure, then engineer a replacement made up solely of charter schools.

It was a quick answer to a multipart question from a class of fourth graders; Kenney, the presumptive next mayor in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, did not immediately elaborate.

He and Republican nominee Melissa Murray Bailey spoke at a forum sponsored by the Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement, attended by more than 100 fourth and fifth graders.

Later, in an interview, Kenney spelled out why he opposes charter growth.

"I don't want charter expansion until we get charter reimbursement back," he said. (In 2011, districts statewide lost funding they used to receive for children in charter schools. That year alone, Philadelphia took a $110 million hit.)

Kenney noted that every dollar spent on growing charters comes at the expense of traditional public schools.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. earlier this month proposed turning three additional struggling public schools over to charter companies. Twenty former district schools are now run by charters under the system's "Renaissance" program.

"You can't starve the schools of resources and then say they don't work," Kenney said.

Still, he emphasized his respect for Hite, who he said is doing a good job.

On Tuesday, Kenney spoke to Hite about the superintendent's future in the district, he said.

"I begged him to stay - please stay - and he said he wasn't leaving," Kenney said.

Both Kenney and Bailey said they were impressed and sobered by the ideas presented by students from the Sheppard, Howe, and de Burgos schools. The children spoke matter-of-factly about buildings with scant basics and no extras.

"Our schools are neglected," one de Burgos fifth grader said.

"They can't even fix the leak in our heating and cooling systems that has ruined our floor and made it moldy," another said.

"I wish our school had more teacher helpers," was the view of another.

"I remember my mom told me when she went to school they had art and music in school," one Sheppard student told the candidates.

"Where did she go to school?" another retorted. "Mars?"

The candidates offered some answers: Kenney pitched community schools - school buildings as hubs for things such as medical and mental health services. He wants to bring the model used successfully in other cities to Philadelphia, pledging 25 community schools during his first term.

Under that scenario, city services could help fix school problems such as the leaking heating system or the ruined playground.

He also reiterated his plan to rent out the mayor's box for sporting events, using the proceeds to benefit schools.

Bailey said the city needed to prioritize schools. She said funds would be diverted from other departments to better fund schools. She also said the city needed more police, and better enforcement of gun laws.

Kenney, who picked up an early, crucial endorsement from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, gave the city's educators a shout-out.

"Your teachers love you, they care about you, they sacrifice for you," he said. "I think teachers are underappreciated, underpaid, and under-respected."

After the forum, Bailey said she found the students' words "devastating" - remarkably mature takes on the city's problems.

"I had to struggle not to cry," she said. "For the adult problems to trickle down - come on, can't we fix them? We need to allow kids to be kids."

Former Gov. Ed Rendell said he was pleased with the students' poise and thoughtfulness. He urged the young people to maintain their sense of civic engagement.

"If everybody voted, they'd listen to us more in Washington and Harrisburg," Rendell told the students.

In an interview, Rendell, who has endorsed Kenney for mayor, said that Bailey was the best Republican candidate the city has had in years and that Kenney reminded him of someone else who won't take "no" for an answer.

"This is going to sound presumptuous," Rendell said, "but I see a lot of myself in Jim Kenney."

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