This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
On May 19, Philadelphians will hit the polls to winnow the field of City Council at-large candidates. Out of 28 declared candidates, only seven will be elected in November (including at least two from a minority party). Each party can run five candidates in the general election. The Notebook reached out to the candidates, asking their opinions on the election’s most gripping issue: education.
Where do candidates stand on the School Reform Commission’s decision to approve five new charter school applications? Whose job is it to find more money for public schools, the city’s or the District’s? Absent an agreement with the teachers’ union, do they think the SRC is right to pursue concessions through the courts? And finally, what ideas do they have for how the District can fix its financial problems?
Over the next few weeks, we will post statements from City Council candidates responding to these prompts in the order we received them. Today’s statement comes from Democrat Isaiah Thomas, an educator and athletic director at Sankofa Freedom Academy, a committee person for the 10th Ward, and an alumnus of Frankford High School.
Responses were edited for length and clarity.
As a career educator who works in a charter school, I am a strong believer in the positive impact that public charter schools can have for our children. However, I opposed the School District’s decision to authorize five new charter schools for two reasons.
First, adding charter schools in the midst of the District’s ongoing fiscal crisis is irresponsible, because it takes away money and desperately needed resources from existing public and public charter schools. Before we expand charters, we need a stable funding system and a return of charter reimbursements from the state, so that traditional public schools and public charter schools aren’t fighting over the same scarce resources.
Second, the District needs to greatly improve its oversight of charters, which now educate a third of Philadelphia’s public school students. I will work to form a task force of educators, parents, and other professionals to develop new standards for charter school oversight, so we can better evaluate the performance of all our schools and better ensure that children get the education they deserve.
Because the District cannot levy taxes, it is the responsibility of the state and the city to provide a stable funding source for Philadelphia schools and end the current fiscal crisis. As a councilman, I will work closely with our legislative delegation and Gov. Wolf to ensure that the state adopts a full and fair funding formula that provides students with the resources they need to succeed. At the local level, I will also champion foundation and philanthropic investment in our educational system. I will also work to provide increased funding for schools without imposing a broad-based tax hike by reforming the real estate tax abatement. By cutting to five years the portion of the abatement that covers the District’s share of the real estate tax, I would accelerate funding to schools. At the same time, I would increase the abatement covering the city’s share of real estate tax revenue to 16 years to retain a core economic development tool for the city.
Is the School Reform Commission right to pursue contract concessions through the court system? No. I believe that the best place to work out a new contract with teachers is around the bargaining table, not in a courtroom. The lawsuit is symptomatic of a breakdown in trust between the District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. As a councilman, I would work to bring education advocates of every ideology together around our shared interest in securing the funding we need to provide a quality education to our children. The current lawsuit is not productive and doesn’t get us closer to that goal.
I believe that the city and the state must work together to solve the District’s problems, and as a councilman I would work closely with the mayor, my fellow council members and Harrisburg to ensure the District receives the funding it needs to provide the education our students deserve. The most important reform that must occur is the implementation of a full and fair state education funding formula. I would also work to increase local funding in the manner I described above.