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The case for an elected school board

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This is the second in a three-part series about governance of the Philadelphia schools.

Today, Philadelphia's schools are governed by a state commission with a majority selected by the governor in Harrisburg. Ten years ago we had a school board appointed by the mayor and nominated by a panel of civic notables, who were selected by the mayor based on criteria enumerated in the city’s charter. In both cases, Philadelphia's citizens did not select the people responsible for the city's public school system.

While the school board had broad oversight for District policy and administration, it lacked the power to appropriate funds. Then, as now, Philadelphia City Council controls the purse strings, deciding on both property tax rates and the share of revenue that will go to the schools. The District depends on the city for about 40 percent of its budget, leaving it dependent on state and federal funds to make up the difference.

Over the years, the school board had its share of strong leaders and advocates, but membership was largely drawn from the city’s elites and community-based activists were under-represented. While the board was grounded in local politics, the absence of elections limited accountability and meant that there was no broad forum for debating education issues.

Defenders of an appointed board often argue that elections would be dominated by ward leaders and party organization and would degrade the quality of school leadership. Some have also argued that elections carry the risk of increasing racial and ethnic polarization. The public schools are disproportionately attended by children of color, but the city’s White property owners tend to be more interested in keeping taxes down. 

These arguments are characteristic of an anti-democratic bent that is quick to substitute the authority of elites for the decisions of ordinary people. The same arguments cited above could be used to justify an appointed city council. Democracy rests on two premises:

  1. People have right to control their own political destiny.
  2. In the long run, a democratic form of government is likely to lead to the happiest results when compared to alternatives. 

Granted, an elected school board is no panacea. Without a broad-based, well-informed movement for quality public education it is unlikely that we will see positive change regardless of what form of governance we have.

The question, as I see it, is what system would provide the best context for building and sustaining such a movement? Instead of simply petitioning the SRC, or in past years, the school board to address our many issues, we could take our case directly to the voters, building support for positive reforms, educating the public, and, ultimately, electing supportive candidates.

Changes in governance are almost always propelled by popular dissatisfaction with the substance of what government does and less by its form. If the British had avoided imposing onerous and excessive taxation on its American colonies, we might all be singing "God Save the Queen" instead of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

In Philadelphia, the last time the city’s charter was a focus of major controversy was in 1978 when then-Mayor Frank Rizzo tried to change it to gain a third term.

The electorate, by a two to one margin, shot him down not because of some abstract attachment to term limits, but because of deep-seated opposition to his regime of repression and racial polarization. The broad-based movement that emerged from the charter change struggle changed the city’s political landscape, among other things, paving the way for the election of the city's first African-American mayor.

If a movement for altering the way schools are governed is to gain traction it has to be able to connect with longstanding grievances about our schools and link them with a reform program. Few will be drawn to an abstract debate about the virtues of an elected versus an appointed board or state versus local control.

Another concern cited about returning to the schools to local control is, particularly given our dependence on state funding, state oversight is critical to insure fiscal responsibility. Yet with the SRC in place and absolute state control there was a major budget deficit in the last year of the Vallas era and, according to some critics, poor fiscal management of stimulus money contributing the tsunami proportions of next year’s budget deficit. So, clearly, state control doesn’t equal fiscal discipline. Nor would local control prevent the state from auditing spending. As long as city schools are dependent on state funding, the state retains substantial leverage.

Attention needs to be given to the form an elected board would take, much of which is prescribed by state law.

  • Should seats be elected at-large, by neighborhood, or by some combination of the two?
  • When and how often should the elections occur?
  • Should the elections be non-partisan?
  • What should the ballot requirements be? 

How these questions are answered has bearing on what kind of board and process develop.

In the next installment, I'll suggest a road map of how to establish an elected school board in Philadelphia.

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