Tony Williams Is Finally Starting to Own School Choice

At a mayoral forum Tuesday, he argued passionately in support of charters. Is it a turning point in the campaign?

Photo Credit: AP/Matt Rourke

Photo Credit: AP/Matt Rourke

For years, mayoral candidate and state Sen. Anthony Williams has been Pennsylvania’s highest-profile Democratic champion of charter schools and vouchers. When he ran for governor in 2010, he received a whopping $6 million-plus from three multimillionaires who back school choice. He’s sponsored voucher legislation. He founded a charter school. Williams has arguably been more passionated about school choice than any other policy question he’s wrestled with in his career.

But not on the mayoral campaign trail.

His first TV ad doesn’t mention school choice once. His education policy paper doesn’t say anything about vouchers, and though it touches on charters, it mostly focuses on reinstating charter reimbursement funding from Harrisburg. At a press conference earlier this month, Williams said it was “curious” that he had been dubbed the charter-school advocate in the mayor’s race, since his contenders had expressed support for charters, too.

It’s led to quite a bit of speculation: Is he keeping quiet because he’s the presumed frontrunner, and it’s simply a good strategy to lay low as your contenders tear each other apart? Do the polls show school choice is unpopular among Williams’ base? Are Williams’ true motives — maybe, just maybe, turning the entire School District of Philadelphia over to charter operators — too extreme to discuss with voters? (FWIW, when we asked Williams to clarify whether there is any truth to the rumors that he wants to fully charter-ize the district, he said, “I don’t know where they got that.”)

Perhaps the answer is “none of the above,” because at a mayoral forum Tuesday, Williams finally … kind of, sort of … began to own the issue of school choice.

Consider a couple quotes from the education-themed debate, which took place at G.W. Childs Elementary School in South Philadelphia:

  • “I am exhausted by our time spent on beating up on a type of school. Why are we not focusing upon good schools? Maybe I missed the moment when, in the district, that before charters existed, before we were broke, that the schools were great. Two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand students were in existence in Philadelphia County before charter schools showed up, before we went broke. We need to be honest. These children are suffering. These families out here are suffering. And we’re pandering to one group versus the other, and I refuse to do that. Charters, publics, magnets, all of them should be a part of the public school experience, and we need to stop beating up on one type and face the facts: We need fix them all and fund them all.”
  • “A third of the district is charter … that’s not born out of a desire to desert public education. It’s born out of a desire to find an experience for one’s child. And all of us have to confess publicly that if you don’t have a good school in your neighborhood, you have a right to find a good one. Charters are just one option. They’re not a silver bullet. Not every one’s excellent. But guess what? Not every neighborhood one is a great school, either. We need to judge the quality of a child’s experience, allow the money completely for a public experience, to drive what we in Philadelphia know is necessary. It will keep people in Center City and in my part of the neighborhood in Philadelphia.

Williams still remained cagey while discussing vouchers, however. When mayoral candidate Nelson Diaz took a thinly-veiled shot at Williams over the issue, moderator Kevin McCorry of WHYY gave him an opportunity to respond. Williams’ rebuttal? “I’m not the only one up here who’s talked about vouchers. … We’re not playing that silly game tonight.”

We’re not suggesting that this is a profile in courage, just that it may signal a turning point in the campaign. Don’t be surprised if Williams flies his school choice flag a little higher in the coming weeks. A survey released earlier this month by the Pew Charitable Trusts gave no indication that Williams’ views on education are unpopular. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said charter schools “improve education options and help keep middle-class families in the city,” while 33 percent said they “take too much money away from the public schools and lack sufficient oversight.”

Fifty-five percent of those polled also said investing more in traditional public schools would help improve the district. (Only 35 percent said a better fix would be to “allow more charter schools and other new options.”) Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that one of Williams’ main talking points has been that, as a member of the General Assembly, he’s done more than any other mayoral candidate to increase state funding for Philadelphia’s schools.

At last night’s forum, he said, “The only person up here who has delivered a quarter of a billion dollars [to the city’s school system] since 2010 is me.”