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?
We are posting statements from City Council candidates responding to these prompts in the order we received them. Today’s statement comes from Democrat Helen Gym, an education advocate, mother of three children in public schools, and co-founder of Parents United for Public Education. She is also a co-founder of the Notebook, where she has written regularly.
Responses were edited for length and clarity.
I disagree with the characterization that our schools are in fiscal “distress.” There’s a difference between fiscal distress and the deliberate underfunding of schools. That our elected officials refuse to meet constitutional obligations is not a matter of distress. It’s a political and moral failure.
Presently, charter expansion is a zero-sum game. With funding levels at a historic low, we created two very unstable and unfunded systems (District and charter), which are cannibalizing each other. No one wins in this situation.
The SRC’s decision to expand charters is a major reason why it has lost the public trust. When parents, students, and staff talked about restoring nurses, counselors, or librarians for our schools, we were told our asks were unreasonable, given the financial crisis. But when it came to high-risk charter expansion, costing millions, the SRC hardly batted an eye. It’s ironic that, the following week, the SRC claimed in an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that it was too impoverished to meet the obligations of its teachers’ contract. It rings false to plead poverty when it comes to District resources, but then sign off on charter expansion.
Moreover, I oppose the zip code designation and catchment area preference in the new charter applications. This directly pits underfunded, stripped-down public schools against a brand new charter operator. Our neighborhood schools deserve investment and support, not another “Survivor”-like competition where they are set up for failure.
Despite our situation, I see hope. Gov. Wolf’s commitment to restoring school funding is dramatic and should be a catalyst for city investment. State funding alone won’t solve our problems. I have proposed a number of solutions.
• The city must restore to schools a minimum 60 percent share of real estate taxes. A shift in percentage would not place any new tax burden on homeowners.
• Council must reform an overly generous tax abatement program.
• We need a more progressive approach to the "use and occupancy" tax that would focus revenue growth in larger, more profitable businesses, which received tax breaks under AVI reform.
• We have to do a better job collecting other school taxes: delinquent taxes, liquor-by-the-drink, and the school income tax, in particular.
• Our nonprofit giants must think expansively about ways they can financially support funding equity for the District as a whole.
The SRC needs to end its war against teachers and school staff. Research has shown that quality teachers are the key to student achievement. The SRC must offer a reasonable contract that gets us back on track and is focused on teaching and learning.
If we are going to fix our schools, we need to re-build a culture of investment in public education. We need to end a sickening approach of austerity and deprivation for Philadelphia’s children. We have an incredible moment today to change a decade of failed “reform” efforts. I’ve got three children in this system. I am and have been invested for the long haul. It will take a mother’s passion, an educator’s vision and an organizing sensibility to set this city straight and bring financial stability, educational equity, and racial justice for our children.