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Why Philadelphia needs a 'Citizens' Commission for Education'

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We need a better mechanism for authentic public participation in the governance of the state-controlled School District of Philadelphia.

Education Voters has launched a new effort calling for the creation of a “Citizens’ Commission for Education” in Philadelphia.

Our current structure is inadequate. “We the people” really don’t have a way to ask questions about what is going on with schools. We can go to School Reform Commission meetings and make comments or ask questions, but that is all – speakers have no certainty of a response.

A formal committee convened by City Council could be a space where hearings can be held, issues can be explored, and questions can be asked with some expectation of an answer. Such an entity could help give citizens a way to explore how public education is functioning, how it is being run and whether it is meeting community needs. It could give them a way to talk about issues, even if the SRC or District administration is not talking about them.

The committee could look more closely at school closings, vendor contracts, and property sales. It could hold hearings on school discipline policy, the role of charter schools, the condition of buildings, or the admissions process, helping to ensure those conversations are happening in a transparent and public way. It could educate itself, and all of us, on critical issues such as how poverty and trauma affect learning and guide decisions based on what we learn. A commission could help explore how to better align city services and create authentic community schools that meet the needs of children and families.

Council has stepped up in the last few years, responding to community desire for more financial support for the schools and greater engagement. We are seeing leadership there, and that is good. The new intergovernmental cooperation agreement on finances and data is also a leap forward.

However, Council has many obligations, and it is being pulled in multiple directions. In fact, a singular focus on this issue could be to the detriment of other important quality-of-life issues in the city.

A Citizens’ Commission could be a tool that marries a stronger role for city government officials and an expanded role for citizens. It could advise and assist City Council (and the mayor) in exercising review and oversight of the public schools and the financial investment we provide. And it could happen quickly instead of waiting for several years.

We can't let the same people who have had the power in the past decide the future. It is time to change not just the players, but the game. 

Education Voters has already suggested that it is time to look for new governance models for the School District of Philadelphia. Last fall, we suggested a new governance structure to replace the SRC, comprising a mix of appointed and elected officials. That conversation needs to happen, but governance is not a proven method of reform, so just changing the governance structure again is not a solution. We must also stop the politics of churn and disruption.

We need a true civic dialogue about what we need for and from our schools and how any governance model can accomplish that. A commission could take on the task of looking into what our community’s needs are and how to meet those needs, instead of starting with the question “Who gets to decide what to do next?”

To be effective and credible, the commission should have an array of diverse, representative stakeholders that includes parents, community members, students, educators, and a selection of policy people, financial experts and people with community planning credentials, in addition to Council members. It wouldn’t necessarily need to be a permanent body; it could be a “special committee” or task force.

With its budgetary role and power to hold hearings, City Council is uniquely positioned to directly engage the School Reform Commission and School District administration. Therefore it is uniquely positioned to provide a mechanism to create meaningful and robust public participation.

We are getting ready to welcome a new mayor and new members to Council, so now is a perfect time to usher in a new era of citizen involvement and access to information and decision-making.  As we enter a new budget cycle, it would be good to have a stronger base of widely available information to inform those decisions – and to talk about the priorities and direction of the District, instead of just its survival. This entity could facilitate that conversation. 

Will a new body be a panacea? Of course not. It will only work if it is a workhorse group, not a beauty pageant. We’ll need to work together to give it some thought and clear direction and work out the details.

 

Susan Gobreski is the executive director of Education Voters Pennsylvania.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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