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 Republican Dennis O’Brien, who has been an at-large City Council member since 2012. Before that, he was a state representative for 30 years. He is a graduate of Archbishop Ryan High School and LaSalle University.
I strongly supported the effort to stop the School Reform Commission from expanding the number of charter schools. The SRC squandered an opportunity to stand strong and push back with the rejection of all applications. We need increased charter school accountability in our city. We are writing checks with no strings attached, and that is unacceptable to me. There are too many charter schools, and we should not be looking to expand their numbers.
I believe in quality and sustainable jobs that can support a family. I believe in creating and maintaining quality work environments, including giving educators the proper tools for success.
Additionally, I believe in protecting the rights of workers. Collective bargaining allows for a fair and inclusive negotiating process that is predicated on good faith. It’s a proven process that gives workers a strong voice, the best opportunity for good conditions of employment and fair wages. Finally, it’s important to remember Philadelphia educators are paid about 19 percent less than teachers in Bucks and Montgomery Counties and there’s no comparison to the overall challenges they face each day.
The funding of our schools is a shared responsibility with the state. Over the last four years, City Council has increased annual funding to the District by nearly $327 million. The shamefully weighted cuts and the absence of a fair funding formula represent a fair portion of the problem.
Philadelphia has 10 percent of all Pennsylvania public school students and the District was decimated by receiving 30 percent of the total statewide education funding cuts. Of the 500 school districts in Pennsylvania, about 400 saw an increase in funding last year, but the 100 poorest districts saw substantial decreases. These are districts, like Philadelphia, that strive to educate the children with the fewest resources, whose best hope for a life better than their parents’ is our nation’s commitment to a public education.
The challenges are most evident in how we educate children with disabilities. These students are exponentially impacted by increased class size, cuts in staff, and reduction in other resources. While federal law protects their educational rights, that law is premised on a basic educational foundation that all schools should provide. When we cut these basic resources, this foundation is pulled out from under them and they often become isolated and ignored, despite best intentions. The strength of our commitment to our children can be measured by how we care for those with disabilities.
This crisis will not abate until Harrisburg steps up and recognizes its responsibility to our children by adopting an appropriate and fair funding formula. We must continue to fight for fair funding for our students.
Finally, we need recurring revenue that will sustain our schools. One-time funding fixes aren’t fixes once they lapse. We need to avoid the several-times-a-year emergency that limits the options and creates angst for our educators, students, parents and the entire city. We need reliable and predictable funding, not one-shot deals.