Trending: Mayoral Candidates Should Ignore Schools

File it under really bad ideas.

It’s becoming trendy to declare that, since the mayor doesn’t directly control the School District of Philadelphia, education shouldn’t be the dominant theme of the 2015  campaign. Brett Mandel, echoing arguments I’m increasingly hearing online and in private conversations, contends that “if education is what mayoral candidates are going to talk about, they might as well offer their Philadelphia weather platform.” Tom Ferrick doesn’t go that far, but he suggests a mayor’s real role when it comes to schools is to provide the cash, and that’s pretty much it.

I’m not sure this campaign has a coherent theme yet, but it’s certainly true that education is sucking up a lot of oxygen so far. I understand the worry that the debate over schools—which does have a Sisyphean feel to it—will sideline conversation about economic development and tax policy, mobility planning and quality of life, infrastructure and criminal justice, ethics and good government. A mayor’s portfolio is large, and schools are just one page of the portfolio.

But schools are a damned important page, and I find it bizarre to hear so many suggesting that the mayor’s role in education is more or less irrelevant. Let’s consider a few points:

  • Mayor Nutter played a huge—perhaps determinative—role in selecting the last two superintendents of the schools. Wendell Pritchett, a Nutter School Reform Commission appointee and a confidante of the mayor, ran the search process that ended with Bill Hite. Nutter and Ed Rendell both personally signed off on the hiring of Arlene Ackerman. And the embattled Ackerman only was forced out after she crossed Nutter (you really think that’s a coincidence?). Call me crazy, but wielding massive influence over the identity of the district’s CEO seems like a pretty consequential schools decision.
  • The mayor doesn’t control a majority of the School Reform Commission, but he or she does get to pick two out of five members. And there have been times when one of the state appointees was sympathetic to the mayor’s point of view, as was the case with former SRC member Denise McGregor Armbrister, who happened to be married to Nutter’s then chief of staff, Clay Armbrister. Are we really pretending that having two of five appointees doesn’t count as influence? Do we really think Democratic Governor Tom Wolf will appoint members that will ignore the next mayor?
  • Nutter’s embrace of the Great Schools Compact was an incredibly pivotal moment in the trajectory of education in Philadelphia, marking the emergence of the now dominant “portfolio model” of schools, wherein the district aims to close or reinvent low-performing schools and replicate the models of high-performing schools. I don’t think the Great Schools Compact goes anywhere without the mayor’s full-throated support. Are those who argue the mayoral candidates should shut up about schools confident there won’t be another educational fork in the road in the next four years?
  • Are we forgetting that Governor Wolf wants to disband the SRC and restore local control of the district? Granted, Wolf may think better of that idea, and it’s hardly a slam dunk even if he does not. But it’s got to be considered a possibility.
  • Rhetorical question: If the mayoral role in education is so irrelevant, why are national ed reform groups and wealthy ed-reform advocates primed to pour millions of dollars into the race on behalf of Anthony Williams, the state’s leading Democratic ed reform advocate?
  • I’d argue Philadelphia has at least as much responsibility as the state does to pump up funding for the school district. The city is, compared to other towns, a poor funder of its schools, although recent local tax hikes have improved the situation some. Nutter and City Council have chosen approaches that put city funding for the schools at the mercy of Harrisburg (sales tax, cigarette tax, etc.), but it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s entirely within City Hall’s control to raise property taxes for the schools, or to cut spending elsewhere in city government and allocate the savings for the school district.  A mayor can—just spitballing here—improve collection of delinquent taxes, which would help the schools. A mayor can develop a coherent policy around vacant land redevelopment, which would improve the tax base over time, and thus help the schools out financially. There’s a lot the city can do—if voters and City Hall deem it important enough—to increase local funding for the schools.
  • There are education-related initiatives outside of schools that mayors can fund, such as pre-kindergarten, as Jim Kenney is championing, or after school programs.

Not to mention the whole bit about how-the-schools-are-probably-the-single-greatest-challenge-facing-the-city.

Now, does the mayor have less control over schools than he or she will have over other areas of government? That’s true, to a point. But I think Mandel and others arguing his point overstate their case there as well. Mandel, for instance, wants the candidates to talk about extending the Broad Street line to the Navy Yard. That would be awesome! But the mayor doesn’t run SEPTA. The mayor doesn’t control Congress, or direct the federal funding that would make such a project possible. If we apply Mandel’s reasoning about the schools to the Broad Street Line, well then it’s not worthy of mayoral discussion either.

Paul Levy and Jerry Sweeney want to restructure the city’s tax burden, shifting the load off of wage and business taxes and onto real estate taxes. It’s a big, important idea. But it can’t be done as they propose without authorizing legislation in Harrisburg. Should the mayoral candidates decline to discuss tax policy as well, as it’s not entirely within their control?

Mayors aren’t autocrats. They very rarely enjoy complete control over much of anything. City Council checks them. Union contracts hem them in. Harrisburg is cranky and uncooperative. Macroeconomic conditions have a lot to say about how successful any mayor is, or is not. Is the indirect authority a mayor wields over the School District of Philadelphia really so different?