Candidates tout connections to Philadelphia schools
Michael Nutter, victorious in the contentious Democratic primary and widely expected to be the next mayor of Philadelphia, has already aired his comprehensive education plan before the public in a race where issues of school safety and funding came to the fore.
His Republican opponent in the general election, Al Taubenberger, president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, has published little in the way of education policy proposals.
But like Nutter, he has highlighted his family connection to the Philadelphia schools. His wife Joanne is a Philadelphia schoolteacher, and three of his four children have attended public schools.
Nutter prominently advertised the fact that he was the only candidate in the Democratic primary who is a public school parent. His daughter is a student at Masterman School. His wife Lisa heads Philadelphia Academies Inc., a high school reform group.
Commenting on the School District’s overall condition, Nutter’s education platform states, “Although Philadelphia has some excellent public schools, the overwhelming majority of them are inadequate.” A focus of Nutter’s education platform has been how to help the District balance its budget, eliminate a growing deficit, and secure funding that is comparable to suburban districts.
Nutter insists that solving the School District’s critical challenges must begin with significant increases in state and city funding. “Anyone who pretends otherwise,” he proclaims, “is being irresponsible.”
The former city council member promises to work with the governor and the General Assembly to reform the state funding formula so that it reflects the circumstances of each Pennsylvania school district. Many Philadelphia-based organizations (see Who’s working on school funding ) are working to achieve this goal as well.
Nutter favors a return to local control of Philadelphia public schools and to a policy established by a 1999 referendum that gave the mayor the ability to appoint every member of the school board. The board was supplanted by the School Reform Commission as part of the state takeover of schools in 2001.
Nutter supports an increase in the share of city property tax revenue that is allocated to the School District. The City Council is presently considering a piece of legislation that would increase the District allocation by 2 percent (see Activists campaign for Goode’s school proposal).
In addition to tapping city and state resources, Nutter calls for a greater infusion of private money. As mayor, he says he will serve as an ambassador for Philadelphia schools in appeals to potential private funders.
“The city must reassert its responsibility to Philadelphia taxpayers to ensure that our money is being well-spent,” Nutter maintains. Toward this end, he promises an independent audit of the District during his first month as mayor. Moreover, he proposes that the District create “a more inclusive budget advisory team that would include parents’ organizations, civic leaders [and] business leaders.”
The Democratic mayoral hopeful also says the District should cut back on private contracts. In his education policy proposal, he suggests that outside contracts be sought only under specific and predetermined circumstances, such as when “a particular expertise is required that the School District doesn’t have and doesn’t need to have.”
When surveyed by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers about resolving the District’s budget woes, Taubenberger’s recommendation was to tap casino revenue for additional school funding.
Taubenberger’s school improvement recommendations concentrate on school safety. A recent string of high-profile assaults on Philadelphia teachers has led to public outcry against violence in city schools, including a demonstration by School District principals.
At an April mayoral forum on education sponsored by the Cross City Campaign for School Reform, a local activist network, Taubenberger maintained that the key to making schools safer without making students feel like criminals is “active participation of the students” in the process.
Taubenberger says he wants the District to ensure that disruptive students are “placed in proper classes or schools.” He also calls for class size reduction, saying it’s “the only way to improve the classroom.”
Nutter’s approach to school safety includes a plan to hire a consultant to devise a school safety plan for each Philadelphia school. He calls for increased violence prevention training and support for teachers.
Nutter suggests that school leaders be rewarded for getting a variety of stakeholders involved in the process of creating caring school climates. Like Taubenberger, Nutter maintains that disruptive kids should be removed from their schools and placed in alternative programs.
Other issues addressed in Nutter’s education plan include:
- Smaller class sizes, the education battle cry for all of the candidates in the Democratic primary election. Nutter says his goal will be an ambitious reduction in class size to 20 students.
- Working with the Philadelphia Youth Network to implement high school dropout prevention strategies identified through Project U-Turn, such as targeted interventions for students with risk factors and reaching out to young people who have already left school.
- Parental involvement initiatives: he says he will make it easier for parents to attend parent-teacher conferences by encouraging businesses to provide parents two hours off per semester to attend parent-teacher meetings.
- Expanding principal training programs so that even the neediest schools have highly qualified school leaders. But in his education plan, Nutter makes no other specific policy recommendations for reducing inequities among District schools.