Insider: 4 Things Jim Kenney Must Do To Fix Philly’s Schools

Saltz: Kenney should take on Harrisburg, instead of hiding under the table like current officials.
Jim Kenney | Photo by Jeff Fusco

Jim Kenney | Photo by Jeff Fusco

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.) 

If you’re a parent in the School District of Philadelphia, you may have worried that officials would try to close your school. Or that your child wouldn’t have a nurse, would have to walk two miles just to get to school, or that their favorite teacher would strike.

But City Council has a different worry: Can your child read and write cursive?

At Council’s hearings on school funding this week, cursive — not Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposal to plug the district’s budget gap by raising property taxes  — dominated the debate.

My school has no air conditioning, one-fifth of a nurse, a rotating school-police officer, and the only technology upgrades are the ones we literally lug onto a truck ourselves. Writing this on a 90-degree day, my response to CursiveGate is entirely inappropriate for Citified and begins with a capital “F.” Whether that “F” contains the proper ascenders and descenders is at Council’s discretion.

Jim Kenney, the city’s presumptive next mayor, may have an easier time pushing his education agenda through Council than Nutter has.

School activist Helen Gym will likely sit in City Council next year. And in a mayoral election where education was the No. 1 issue, Kenney won a clear majority against five opponents, one of whom was funded by school-choice oligarchs. He has, dare I say, a mandate.

And yet, the mayor has little direct power over schools. But Kenney will be far from powerless. Here are four things he can do to support strong schools for every child:

1. Back “Friends Of” Organizations.

School choice advocates thought that the younger, newer Philadelphia would welcome charter schools like Uber or Hoizer. Some did. But many more, appalled by the condition of their neighborhood schools, decided to do something to improve them. These groups cannot replace civic investment, but they are a welcome breath of fresh air.

Money would be great. But Mayor Kenney can also pitch in by greasing the gears of City Hall and the Mayor’s Office of Education to help these volunteers get things done. He could also promote these groups to donors and the wider city.

2. Make Schools More Transparent.

Mayor Nutter loved open data, but he didn’t love open schools quite as much.

The Great Schools Compact,” funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has quietly driven charter school expansion and school closings. Their closed-door meetings are not open to parents, educators or reporters.

The William Penn Foundation spent $1.4 million for a plan that drove official policy, but that proposal would have never been revealed to taxpayers if not for a public records request by the group Parents United for Public Education.

The unchecked influence of these organizations undermines public trust in public schools.

Unless he strikes oil in the Schuylkill, Kenney can’t eliminate outside groups and their secret meetings. But he can push their work into the daylight. Kenney could require any group dealing with the Mayor’s Office of Education to do so openly, in addition to releasing old documents.

3. Be Bold with Funding.

As a teacher, I’d love for Nutter’s school funding plan to succeed. As a homeowner, I’m skeptical. Mayor Kenney should take a page from Gov. Tom Wolf. Like it or not, Wolf’s budget plan is big, bold and interesting. Kenney should make it clear that sacred cows such as tax abatements and the tax exemptions for universities are all on the table. Kenney, unlike Nutter, can show guts by putting his own electability on the line.

4. Lead the Charge on Harrisburg.

Politicians love to talk about Harrisburg as the problem, but only indirectly, without hurting anyone’s feelings. Sometimes it’s because they have no issues playing politics with kids’ lives. But mostly, as I understand it, they are scared of retaliation from state lawmakers.

However, the pragmatists believe that, despite the rhetoric, there are plenty of allies in Harrisburg who can work with Philadelphia.

Last June, a group of Philadelphia principals rallied in Harrisburg. One Republican lawmaker told them, “If Dems don’t vote for the budget, we are going to bury Philadelphia.” Then there’s the guy who wondered if SEPTA was “welfare” for a “minority of our population.” And remember all that money state Sen. Anthony Williams claimed he brought to the district? That was our money, and Philadelphia had to pay ideologically (with an amendment that opened the door for more charters) and politically (with a hotel tax) in order be allowed to tax ourselves.

Imagine if Chip Kelly told his players not to trash-talk the Cowboys before a big game because he was worried that they would hit too hard.

Screw that.

Harrisburg hasn’t respected Philadelphia since guys like disgraced state Sen. Vince Fumo were running the place.

I’m not pining for corrupt pols to retake the wheel. But if Kenney can’t fix Williams’ failings by uniting the Philadelphia delegation, he can do what he does best: Speak his mind. Speaking truth to power, though scary, has a way of getting things done. Under Kenney, Philadelphia could lead the charge instead of hiding under the table.

Andrew Saltz has been teaching children reading and composition for 8 years at the Paul Robeson High School for Human Services. Follow him on Twitter at @mr_saltz.