SRC You Later, Part III

On electing School Board, we vote no

(Photo Left) Is the best solution for Philadelphia's school board evident in the Pew Charitable Trusts’ urban schools report?  Report image courtesy of pewtrusts.org.

The third in a three-part series on the future of our school district without the SRC.

“Democracy, for all its flaws, is the best option of the bunch.” That was gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf staking out his vision for the future of Philadelphia’s school district as one rooted in local control by an elected school board.

We fear flawed democracy in the form of an elected school board will undermine local control of our school district and further imperil the future of our school kids. Accordingly we vote no on an elected school board.

To be fair, the call for an elected school board on its face sounds compelling. As Rand Quinn, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “We rely on our schools to transfer knowledge to the next generation, develop citizens who can participate in the civic spheres of society, prepare young people to succeed in their future careers, and more. Shouldn’t the individuals we entrust to oversee our local school systems be directly subject to their electorates rather than indirectly through a mayoral appointment process? Elected school boards are part of the fabric of the American system of education. The vast majority of the approximately 14,000 school boards across the nation are chosen by their local electorates, and local school board members are the largest constituency of elected officials in the United States.”

But just because the majority of districts elect members and democracy is a cause worth fighting for, doesn’t make it right. Particularly when it comes to Philadelphia.

In January 2016, The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research initiative published “Governing Urban Schools in the Future: What’s Facing Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.” The study “examined the school district’s governance approach — and its prospects — in the context of 16 large urban school systems … [Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit, Newark,] Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Miami-Dade County, Milwaukee, New York, and St. Paul, Minnesota were all part of the study. They were chosen for their size and economic and demographic similarities to Philadelphia.

Of the cities studied, 10 have elected school boards and six, including Philadelphia, have appointed ones. Among the six, the mayor has sole power to select members in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and Baltimore. In all of those cities except Chicago, the choices come from lists generated by nominating panels; Philadelphia would also have such a panel. In New York, the mayor selects eight of the 13 members, with the five borough presidents picking one member each.

City Council does not play a formal role in any of those cities, as it would in Philadelphia under the proposed charter change, which Mayor Kenney has indicated he supports. The change, if approved by council, would likely be put to Philadelphia voters in May 2018. If the mayor were to make his initial appointments before then, they would not be subject to immediate council confirmation.”

In the cities most like ours - Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, and New York - none have elected school boards and all are appointed by the mayor without formal city council oversight.

What do these cities know that we don’t?

They know that strong mayoral leadership is better than the more haphazard control that an elected school board would threaten. Elected school boards create fractured constituencies, be they elected by region or citywide. As these board members would not have the authority to tax, board members would have the freedom to stake out positions not moored in the financial realities of the district.

Underserved neighborhoods have a majority of households with children in public schools. What happens when their elected school board members call for City Council to hike property taxes? And then, what happens when wealthy residents without children reject this approach to close the school budget deficit? What happens when residents in areas with high rates of Catholic schooling reject this approach?

Then there’s political ambition. Seven newly elected board members, be they elected citywide or by district, creates seven new political threats to city council members and the mayor. Worse yet for the seated politicians, they are threats with a bully pulpit and no funding responsibilities.

When it comes to the future of our school students, democracy is better left as a subject to be taught in the classroom than a necessity for taking local control of their school board.


SRC You Later, Part III

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