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Mayoral candidates present their visions for improving Philadelphia education

A clear blue sky over the clock tower of Philadelphia’s City Hall in Center City.

Eight Philadelphia candidates for mayor presented their plans to improve education at a forum sponsored by the city’s Board of Education. Their ideas ranged from free student transportation to demolishing old school buildings.

BasSlabbers / Getty Images

In Philadelphia’s first mayoral forum devoted solely to education issues, eight candidates presented a few bold ideas about funding, facilities, and safety, but avoided talking about whether they would seek major changes in district leadership.

The biggest influence that the mayor has over the schools is the ability to appoint the school board members, who in turn select the superintendent. But with all nine board members sitting in the room – and in fact, sponsoring the forum – discussion of how they would shape the school board was virtually nonexistent. 

The terms of the board coincide with the mayor’s, so the new mayor can decide to keep current members or appoint all new ones.

Candidates Warren Bloom, James DeLeon, Derek Green, Helen Gym, Cherelle Parker, Rebecca Rhynhart, and Maria Quiñones Sanchez attended the two-hour forum Tuesday night, half of which featured questions from students. Candidate Amen Brown stayed for one hour. 

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This article is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. To learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters, visit www.everyvoice-everyvote.org. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.

Jeff Brown and Delscia Gray did not attend. Nor did Allan Domb, who cited the board’s involvement as a deterrent. “I do not believe it is appropriate to participate in a forum held by a group I would have to make decisions about whether to reappoint when I become Mayor,” Domb said in a statement shortly before the forum convened. “There is no other forum I am aware of that is being hosted by mayoral appointees.”

At the forum, candidates made innovative proposals but didn’t fully explain how they would fund, enact, or otherwise see their visions realized. 

In general, the candidates said all teachers should be paid more, to bring their salaries up to those in surrounding suburbs. Sanchez said that she would find ways to recruit more Black and brown teachers, including through additional incentive pay. Parker, meanwhile, said she would work toward year-round public schools and a longer school day. 

Both these proposals would be costly and require some novel negotiations with the teachers union.

Gym said she wants to restore nurses, counselors, and school psychologists who were cut from schools in 2013 due to budgetary constraints and not replaced.  She also promised to guarantee free transportation for students, including those who live less than a mile and a half from school and are currently ineligible for it. 

She also proposed unifying the city and school district budget and “stopping the idea that we fund the number of teachers based on the number of students that we have, rather than on the learning environment students deserve to have.” 

The current contractual maximum is 33 students per class in grades 4-12 and 30 per class in grades K-3, and teachers are allotted on that basis, although sometimes class sizes can go higher if there are vacancies.  

“Every mayor before us has turned their back on our public schools or has failed to fulfill their promise,” Gym said.

The candidates also said they would advocate for more education aid from the state. 

Bloom proposed taxing coffee as well as alcohol and tobacco to raise money for the schools. DeLeon called for more transparency in federal COVID relief money spending. And Rhynhart said her experience as city controller, city treasurer and budget director makes her uniquely suited to “get more money from the state” for the district. 

She also said she will “appoint a school board that shares my vision for improvement and accountability in our schools.” 

“We need a plan. We need goals. And then we need to measure success against those goals,” Rhynhart said

To help raise money for what would be costly proposals, Gym, Parker, and Sanchez said they would devote a higher proportion of city property taxes to public schools. Now, the schools get 55% of local property taxes.  Sanchez noted that she had introduced in city council a bill to increase the district’s share to 60%, but it lacked support. 

They also talked about redoing the property tax assessment system to ensure that people are paying their fair share; Rhynhart called the system “broken.” Philadelphia’s property tax is the single biggest source of local revenue for the school district. 

Redoing that system, however, wouldn’t necessarily yield more tax revenue for  schools.

Expressing frustration about the condition of school facilities, Sanchez said, “I am tired of debating the condition of buildings that we just need to knock down.”

Brown said in the first 100 days of his term he would “evaluate each and every school” building “to see what needs to be done, whether it needs to be knocked down, rebuilt, or if it’s a historical building, we’ll keep the building and relocate the school in that same area.” 

“We shouldn’t have our students and our children learning in these horrible conditions where you feel like you’re in prison,” Brown said. 

Green said he would improve communications between the city and school district. Earlier this month, city and school officials had a testy exchange about whether the district had been appropriately transparent about the safety of school buildings. 

“We should not be seeing our tax dollars being used in a fight between two parts of our city government,” Green said. 

Bloom’s position was one of delegation: at one point, he suggested he would appoint all of his fellow candidates to his cabinet and “adopt” their ideas. 

All the candidates said public safety is a major issue in the campaign, especially for students and young people. They also noted how safe and effective schools are a key factor in determining the city’s quality of life. 

DeLeon leaned heavily on his proposal for a Local Incident Management System to coordinate city responses to gun violence. Sanchez, meanwhile, said the city should have “an honest conversation around safety” and rethink the juvenile justice system that sometimes incarcerates children over misbehavior in school. 

The system here “removes children from families more than anyplace in the world,” which worsens poverty and destabilizes families, she said.

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at csitrin@chalkbeat.org.

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