Education issues to consider in the mayoral race
By James Lytle on Nov 26, 2014 03:00 PM
Although the mayoral primary isn’t until May, prospective candidates for mayor are already testing their prospects.
Four have already announced their intentions to run: former head of the city's Redevelopment Authority Terry Gillen, former City Solicitor Ken Trujillo, former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, and State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams. In the view of many Philadelphians, there is no more important issue than the future of public education in the city. And advocacy groups like the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools are already determining what issues to focus on and which candidates they might support.
In some respects the issues seem obvious: increased funding, local control, and restored services like libraries, counselors, and nurses. But the devil is in the details. What specifically would the candidates do? What is the candidate’s record on support for city schools? What experience does the candidate have in dealing with City Council and Harrisburg?
Recently released census data has reminded us that Philadelphia is the poorest of the country’s 10 largest cities. It has the highest proportion of families in poverty. That suggests that children are not going to prosper unless the next mayor takes a holistic view of the city’s challenges and sees the job as dealing with employment, health and mental health care, public safety, food and nutrition, transportation, and other needs.
At the top of the agenda is a permanent solution for the School District’s seemingly perpetual financial crises. The $2-per-pack cigarette tax is now in place, although the projected revenue from this source has already been reduced. That makes the most immediate issue a fair formula for distributing state education aid. Crafting one may be an opportunity for a Democratic governor and Republican legislature to collaborate, but because this matter affects districts across the state, a new formula, if adopted, would not necessarily increase funding for Philadelphia schools. State revenues are already below estimates, and the prospect for an increased allocation for K-12 education is unlikely in the short term.
So one obvious question for mayoral candidates would be: How do they propose to raise additional funds (or cut costs)? The primary source for District revenues in the city is the real estate tax, which both the mayor and City Council have been unwilling to consider as a source for increased District support. But they have been generous with tax abatements for both residential and business properties, cutting the District out of an obvious source of additional revenue. Then there are the cigarette, sales tax surcharge, use and occupancy, and over-the-bar drink taxes.
The issue of local control does not necessarily solve the revenue problem either. Before there was a School Reform Commission, there was a Board of Education (appointed by the mayor), but unlike every other school board in Pennsylvania, it had no taxing authority. Instead, District budgets and tax authorization were the purview of City Council, making the School District dependent on its elected officials and school finance problems commonplace.
To address local control, several large cities, notably New York and Chicago, have eliminated their school boards and made their public schools a part of city government under mayoral control, but that approach has not always translated to increased financial support.
Another looming issue is that the cigarette tax approval was conditional on the SRC accepting new charter school applications, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will soon decide on lifting charter school enrollment caps. The city’s charter schools already educate more than a third of children in public schools, and charter school expansion would further complicate District finances. Where do mayoral candidates stand on this issue?
Then there are more specific issues. How can services to special needs students, recent immigrants, and English language learners be improved? Is it possible to have more school closings or employee givebacks to reduce budget problems without reducing educational quality? What can be done to satisfy middle-class families with young children who threaten to abandon District schools? How should schools be held to account? Is high school completion more important than test scores? Should charter schools be required to publish detailed annual budgets and audit reports? How can the city’s extraordinary higher education, medical, cultural and community resources contribute to educating school-aged children?
Mayoral candidates have a duty to respond in detailed ways to all these issues and questions and should be able to articulate a vision for Philadelphia that would make this an attractive place to live, work, raise children, and locate a business. Their responses should determine which candidate parents, advocates and registered voters choose to support.
James H. Lytle is Practice Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a former District administrator, and a former superintendent in Trenton.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.