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Does Philly need a citizens’ commission to better engage the public?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Education Voters of Pennsylvania has proposed a Citizens’ Commission for Education to provide a formal platform for public participation in the District.

The commission’s structure is undetermined, but a petition to City Council requesting the establishment of a commission as a “mechanism” for participation has so far received more than 300 signatures. Organizers hope the move will jump-start a discussion about increasing civic engagement in District decision-making.

“What we currently have is inadequate,” said Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, also known as Ed Voters PA.

“People need a better way to look at and discuss what’s happening in the School District of Philadelphia,” she said.

Gobreski said the proposal arose from the lack of opportunities for the public to get formally involved in Philadelphia’s education system. The petition stresses the need for “a better mechanism for authentic public participation” and asks City Council to convene a “formal representative body, such as a Citizens’ Commission.”

Gobreski envisages a commission fulfilling multiple roles. First, she said, a commission could ensure greater transparency in District governance by reviewing decisions affecting education. In a commentary written for the Notebook in October, Gobreski suggested that it could hold public hearings on the role of charter schools, the condition of school buildings, or school admissions procedures, “helping to ensure those conversations are happening in a transparent and public way.”

She also said a commission could advise and assist City Council by communicating the needs of the community and by “exercising review and oversight of the public schools and the financial investment we provide.”

Gobreski said that at this stage, Ed Voters PA is hoping to engage community and organization leaders to discuss in more detail how a citizens’ commission might fulfil these roles.

Not everyone agrees that a new commission would improve communication between the District and the public.

“I’m not so sure that City Council is the right organization to seize this initiative,” said Debra Weiner, a longtime education advocate and analyst and Notebook editorial advisory board member. She said that instead, the Council’s Committee on Education, not a separate commission, should be working to engage the public.

“I don’t really see the sense of creating another whole entity. When you create another entity, you take the responsible parties off the hook.”

Gobreski emphasized that the proposal offers an avenue for more focused public involvement at the same time as “strengthening” the work of the Education Committee.

“This gives us an opportunity to have a group of people representing broad sectors to support and work in conjunction with City Council,” she said.

Gobreski added that Ed Voters PA hopes to initiate meetings with Council within a month to discuss the potential for creating a commission and increasing public engagement in District affairs.

“We need to figure out how to have a broader civic dialogue about what we need from governance, what happens in the School District and who gets to decide,” she said. “Let’s roll up our sleeves and figure out what needs to happen to move the District forward.”

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