Philly Parents Want Elected School Board

Would you rather vote on your child's education?

The shocking idea of having free elections to choose a school board in the city of Philadelphia where free elections were born has flared up a couple of times over the past few years only to be extinguished by the keepers of the status quo. But this time, the flames of discontent over the politician-appointed board, fanned by City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, cannot be put out so easily.

School closings, staff layoffs, and cuts to sports, arts and music programs have pushed parents and other concerned citizens to demand a voice in how the schools are run and where the money is spent in Philadelphia’s public school system.

Currently, the governing School Reform Commission is made up of five members; three are appointed by the governor, and two by the mayor. Governor Tom Corbett hasn’t weighed in on the issue yet, but Mayor Nutter hates the idea of an elected school board. Mark McDonald, the mayor’s spokesman, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The mayor would argue that at this point in time the last thing we need is more politics in our education system.”

So having politicians appoint the SRC members is less political? Doesn’t make sense.

Philadelphia isn’t the only city fighting to keep control of the school board away from its people. Although about 95 percent of the school boards in the country are chosen by the electorate, major cities started taking control away from the people decades ago. Today, 20 cities have politically appointed boards.

Boston, the first to start the trend in 1991, is also dealing with a push for elections by some city council members. The neighborhoods of Boston don’t feel they are represented by the current board. Sound familiar? Recently the Boston Globe blasted the idea of elections because “the board is working well right now.”

Can we say the same thing about the SRC?

The most compelling argument for an elected school board in Philadelphia is simply that it could not get any worse. Appointed members have failed, and because there has been little transparency, we are left to guess how they mismanaged the schools and the money so egregiously.

Several studies have been done on big city school districts and the rise of political power grabs in the guise of reform, and not one has had anything glowing to say. One analysis of mayoral-controlled school boards in Chicago, New York and Washington D.C. found “few benefits” and went on to say the appointed boards “often harm the students they purport to help.”

Any change in the SRC would have to go through the state legislature. Philadelphia State Senator Michael Stack already has a bill in the works to get rid of the SRC and replace it with an elected board.

Stack had the same proposal in 2011 and it went nowhere, but things have gotten exponentially worse since then. It is an idea and a bill whose time has now come, because the status quo is not a viable option.