For 16 years, the Philadelphia School District has been under the control of the state government, which implemented wave after wave of “reform” programs that included closing schools, supporting charter schools with little or no accountability, and a “doomsday” budget that zeroed out funding for things such as paper, counselors and art and music programs.
That era is expected to end with a return to local control. Mayor James Kenney (D), who has been under pressure from community groups for some time, called on Thursday for the five-member state-dominated board that runs the district to vote itself out of existence. Kenney believes he has the votes to accomplish that when the School Reform Commission meets Nov. 16.
Kenney said in a speech that it is time for the city to take over control of its own school system in the form of a nine-member school board appointed by the mayor, a structure that city voters had previously approved. He mentioned some initiatives he wanted to undertake but did not say how the city would pay for them.
“You can hold me, and future mayors, accountable for the success or failure of our schools,” he said. “The buck will stop with us.”
Various constituencies in the city pushed Kenney to make the move, including a coalition of about 20 local community organizations, faith organizations and labor unions called Our City Our Schools. Todd Wolfson, an associate professor at Rutgers University who lives in Philadelphia, called Kenney’s decision a “huge victory” for city residents and for students who have been going to public schools run by a commission that had no local accountability.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Kennedy plans to name a nominating committee of city residents, including parents and experts in areas including education, finance and public housing. The panel will submit three names for each seat on the school board, and Kenney will choose from those nominations.
Public schools in Pennsylvania have long dealt with funding and equity issues, with the state legislature often cutting education funding. In Philadelphia, Wolfson said, the increase in funding for the city public schools has not kept up with the student population increase since the School Reform Commission was formed in 2001. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last month reinstated a lawsuit seeking an overhaul of the state’s system of education funding, which has long been blamed for failing to provide adequate resources for struggling districts.