By Progressive Philly Rising
Joel Mathis in his piece “Are We Ready to Boot the SRC” asks some important questions of those who are calling for a yes vote on a non-binding ballot question that calls for just that. Progressive Philly Rising is a supporter of this measure and helped collect petition signatures to get it on the ballot. We welcome discussion of the issues raised by Joel and offer this response.
From our standpoint the question is fundamentally about equity and democratic rights. In terms of school governance Philadelphia stands in a colonial relationship with the state. State control denies Philadelphians a voice in determining school policy, a voice that virtually every other community in the state has by means of an elected school board.
In our view it is not an accident that Philadelphia, a city in which the majority of residents are people of color, is viewed by Harrisburg as unfit for self rule, at least as far as its schools go. Resistance to funding our schools, which is what led to the state takeover in the first place, draws on racial stereotypes about our school children and their families. Many, if not most, legislators see Philadelphia, to quote Dr. Hite, as a “cesspool” where investment of state dollars will be wasted.
The state takeover was prompted, not by fiscal mismanagement, but by the backlash Superintendent David Hornbeck generated by charging the state with systematically underfunding the District which he characterized as racism. The imposition of state control was and is a denial of basic democracy and a continuation of institutional racism. The referendum is an opportunity to affirm democratic principle.
Having said all that, the three questions are important and deserve to be answered. Let’s take them up one at a time.
What’s your replacement? The abolition of the SRC would open the way for a full blown discussion of what should replace it, with all the options on the table. PPR favors an elected school board with full taxing authority. We believe an elected board would be more accountable and lead to a more robust, political engagement with the issues. Revenue raising authority is best vested in those people who are focused exclusively on schools, unlike Council which has to deal with the whole range of city concerns.
An elected board could be created by an act of the legislature, either at the same time ACT 46 is repealed or later. The legislature could also repeal ACT 46 and allow governance to return to the Mayoral appointed Board as dictated by the City Charter. The path would then be to amend the Charter to create an elected board with taxing authority.
Both the SRC and a Mayoral Board have served to keep school governance in the hands of elites and marginalized community voices. An elected board is the best opportunity for the people who are currently locked out to gain real power.
How are you going to pay for schools? First, there must be a continuing focus on getting the state to adopt a fair funding formula and raise more revenue by taxing shale and closing corporate loopholes. This is a fight Philadelphia must wage in alliance with other cities, poor rural communities and inner ring suburbs, all of whom are hurt by current state policy.
Abolishing the SRC will not, by itself, effect state funding in any way. But an elected board would be a far more effective advocate then the SRC, which naturally does not challenge the people who appointed them.
In terms of city finances an elected board with its own taxing authority could find new revenue by abolishing tax abatements on the school property tax, seek PILOTs from mega non profits and implement its own initiatives to go after tax delinquents.
Savings for schools could also be found by a more transparent, critical review of contracts, historically a place where money has been wasted or used to reward favored companies with connections in the administration.
How are you going to make it work? While we strongly believe democratic governance will make a difference in the performance of our schools, it’s no panacea. Joel Mathis is right that “poverty makes a difference.” That’s why the fight for quality education is bound up with the struggle for economic and racial justice. Schools are important institutions but they cannot, by themselves, end poverty and the whole range of problems associated with it.
We do need metrics for measuring progress. A democratic system of governance can make sure those metrics are authentic and that there is real transparency and accountability. Parents, educators and the broader community need to be engaged in assessing school progress and coming up with real solutions.
If the local control campaign does nothing else, it has been successful in getting a broad based discussion about our school governance underway. A big yes vote on the ballot question in May will undoubtedly move this discussion forward and lead to more concrete steps.