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City Council candidates’ views on education: Paul Steinke

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?

The Notebook has been posting statements from City Council candidates responding to these prompts in the order we received them. Today’s statement comes from Democrat Paul Steinke, former general manager of Reading Terminal Market and former finance director of the Central Philadelphia Development Corp. He is a graduate of Northeast High School and Penn State University.

Responses were edited for length and clarity.

While I wish the School Reform Commission had rejected all new charter applications last month, I also understand why commissioners felt they had to approve at least a few new charters. Because of its organizational makeup, the School District is too often an organization at war with itself. But I do oppose any additional charter schools until full funding is restored.

The state, city and the District must all work to find new sources of revenue. First, the state must restore charter reimbursements and basic education funding to Rendell-era levels through a weighted funding formula. Charter schools are public schools, too, and must be held to the same standards of transparency and accountability to ensure that taxpayer money isn’t going to underperforming or unethical charter operators.

Although the city has raised property taxes multiple times in attempts to close gaps in the School District budget, more local funding must be generated. I would consider increasing the ratio of property taxes collected for the District and would pursue more aggressive collection of delinquent and under-collected taxes. We should also reconsider the entire range of tax incentives and eliminate those which are no longer necessary, including possibly scaling back the portion of the real estate tax abatement that would go to the School District.

Having spent my entire career working in economic and community development, I know transformation is possible in our city. But buy-in is needed from all stakeholders. Every Philadelphian has a stake in the success of the School District, whether they realize it or not. In some sense, we all own the District’s fiscal problems – whether it’s because we didn’t vote in every election, didn’t join our local civic group, or never read up on the city’s and state’s budget. The fact that the SRC still exists is testament that too few Philadelphians have gotten involved.

I am running for City Council because I know that if enough of us get involved and are willing to work hard, we can effect change. The District absolutely needs more funding. But more community engagement and buy-in from stakeholders – particularly business and large nonprofits – are critical to turning our schools around.

Philadelphia public school teachers did not create this crisis and should not be forced to bail the District out via court-mandated contract concessions. Teachers like my brother, who teaches at Feltonville, make sacrifices every day and would be willing to do so at the negotiating table. The SRC’s pursuit of concessions through the courts is a distraction from the lack of adequate funding from state government and only further contributes to the negative environment that plagues our district and makes our schools undesirable for high-quality teachers.

The District can help fix some of its own problems by becoming more transparent and more willing to engage with City Council, District staff and teachers, and the public. But as long as the state controls the District and the SRC exists, we must maintain pressure where it belongs – on our elected leaders. If elected to City Council, I will work with state and local officials to get the District what it needs to become self-sufficient and to end this crisis once and for all.

Read responses from the other City Council candidates

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