Darrell L. Clarke
is president of Philadelphia City Council
Jannie Blackwell, Blondell Reynolds Brown, and Helen Gym
are members of City Council
The abrupt resignations of two well-regarded appointees to the School Reform Commission present an opportunity that Philadelphians must grasp with urgency.
Our mandate is clear: Bring the failed experiment of state control of Philadelphia public schools to an end and mitigate disruption to classrooms and to the School District of Philadelphia administration.
A tall order, certainly. But not impossible.
After 15 years of state control, some Philadelphians have gotten used to managing expectations for what public schools can deliver. Unpredictable annual state funding and political turbulence in Harrisburg have created a state of crisis fatigue, where conditions that would be viewed as outrageous elsewhere are numbly accepted here - including, unfortunately, by some people in positions of political power.
The fatigue is real, but so is the crisis. Recently, the Inquirer reported that young teachers, weary of a protracted contract dispute, are leaving the profession and/or our city. If this trend continues, the quality of education in our schools will suffer, as will our city's long-term economic health. We cannot hope to stop the cycle of poverty in more challenged neighborhoods if we do not consistently offer adequate resources to our public schools.
To retain teachers and students, we must rebuild confidence in the School District. That can begin only by making the district a truly public institution, both transparent and accountable. The next two SRC members, appointed by Gov. Wolf and Mayor Kenney, respectively, must commit to work with stakeholders toward a more democratic governing institution to oversee district operations, and to eventually vote to dissolve the SRC.
We recommend the current board be replaced by one whose members are appointed by the mayor and approved by City Council.
This need not be a fraught process. Our current system of selecting commission and board leaders by mayoral appointment and Council consent works well and is consistent with the design of our city government. Such bodies are accountable to the public but at a remove from campaign politics. The first few years of this new school board surely would be the bumpiest, which is why elected members of Council and the mayor should bear the brunt of outside pressure.
Appointees should have a record of involvement in district schools, whether through a home and school association or prior employment, and be vetted through public hearings. Criteria for appointees will be decided based on consensus among the Kenney administration, Council members, district leaders, educators, and parents and guardians.
We understand that some people will have reservations about building a school board from scratch. But, we would benefit from our experience of failures and disappointments. Fiscal controls would be a must. Vigilance over outside contractors and privately managed charter-school operators would be prioritized. A community input process would be implemented in every school.
Teachers would have the time and resources to do their jobs effectively and prepare for the future, because they would at long last have a fair contract.
Council has made the difficult but moral decision to impose higher taxes on residents and businesses for five consecutive years, for a net increase of more than $423 million to fund district operations. Like many Pennsylvanians, we were hopeful that a new education-friendly governor would mean the end of state budgets that starve public schools, and the beginning of budgets that restore previously denied resources.
To Wolf's credit, that has begun to happen. But the broken, partisan politics of Harrisburg all but ensure that the largest public school district in the commonwealth will not be made whole in the near future.
Our kids can't wait. We must seize this opportunity to reclaim and reimagine our public schools while the constitutional mandate for the General Assembly to fund all schools appropriately exists.
When one institution fails, faith in all institutions suffers. We have seen that elsewhere, most recently at the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which also is not locally controlled. As a revenue generator, the PPA is viewed as too dazzling a jewel for state lawmakers to relinquish. By their words and deeds, the Republican majority does not show the same regard for Philadelphia public schools.
We believe that every child is precious, regardless of the circumstances into which they are born. As elected officials who are committed to the mission of quality public education, we ask for the opportunity to reclaim ownership of our schools so that every child in Philadelphia has a chance to shine.