Commentary: Philadelphia still needs an elected school board
I studied music in school. That was an aspect of growing up in the ’90s that I came to take for granted as an adult, even while I was analyzing and discussing the deep budget cuts that were being inflicted on the students of the Philadelphia School District. I didn’t connect the tangible effects of such cuts on these students – that they would not have the opportunities that my education, although not great by any means, was nevertheless able to provide.
And tragically, in light of the dire conditions in Philadelphia schools, educational opportunities, which should be the sole purpose of a school system, are in fact the least of their worries. The buildings are filled with toxic materials such as lead and mold that threaten to poison students and faculty. The schools are infested with mice and insects. And as recently as last year, some students still did not have potable drinking water.
The existence of these Third World conditions in the middle of the richest country on Earth ought to be someone’s responsibility to address. Traditionally, it is the school system’s leadership.
Last week, a new school board took office in Philadelphia. Mayor Kenney made the announcement on April 4, after a public outcry led by the local grassroots campaign Our City Our Schools against the 15-year reign of the School Reform Commission.
This resistance was earned. During its tenure, the SRC implemented catastrophic austerity measures such as the notorious “doomsday budget” of 2013, which not only cut arts, music, and athletics, but unthinkably, even such fundamentals as books and paper. That same year, it shut down 23 schools at once, disproportionately affecting areas where black and brown people live. The commission also canceled its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in 2014 and took five years to reach an agreement with its largest union.
This pillage of our school system has led to further problems that underscore the institutionalized oppression at play in public education.
Zoë Buckwalter, a teacher at E.W. Rhodes Middle School, says the alarming absence of resources also extends to badly needed support services for the students.
“The state of the schools is incredibly insulting to students, families, and teachers,” Buckwalter laments. “Kids are dealing with immense amounts of trauma and pain from poverty, racism, family members incarcerated, etc., and are regularly acting out, yet teachers have no support, training, or resources to deal with this. Rather than providing teachers and schools with remedies … like comprehensive mental health services, school nurses, staff trainings on de-escalation, smaller class sizes, parent involvement in decision-making, and restorative practices, [we get] more police officers … metal detectors, etc.”
Such is the legacy of the School Reform Commission. So it was cause for celebration when, after so many years of struggle against its disastrous policies and practices, the people of Philadelphia finally succeeded in forcing the dissolution of the SRC last year.
Our City Our Schools had been campaigning that instead of this oversight commission, which was perceived by many as openly hostile to students, teachers, and the community at large, Philadelphians deserved a say in who ran their schools. They deserved to elect school board members to office.
The activists raged for this right. They were ignored. They submitted their own nominations for appointees – ordinary citizens, parents of Philadelphia students. None was selected.
So who did Mayor Kenney appoint? Although some new board members are in fact parents and former educators, most remain well-to-do elites, Wharton and Columbia graduates. Furthermore, two of the appointees, Chris McGinley and Joyce Wilkerson, were part of the defunct SRC. In its first meeting, the new school board elected Wilkerson, the former SRC chair, as its president.
I believe these to be bad-faith gestures on the part of the mayor and his new appointees. In light of the longstanding popular grievances leading up to the dissolution of the SRC, retaining SRC members after already rejecting education activists’ calls for democratization feels like a slap in the face. At the very least, Philadelphians should have been offered an all-new set of appointees in the hope of improving the conditions in their schools.
With no discernible shift in the nature of the membership, I see no reason to believe that the incoming Board of Education will conduct the affairs of the school system any differently from its predecessor, the SRC.
There is only one logical reason why city officials would refuse to allow the people to elect their own Board of Education. It is the same reason that the SRC remained in power despite continuous public opposition for a decade and a half. If these appointments are not benefiting the people of Philadelphia, they must be benefiting someone.
Buckwalter sees clear economic biases beneath the unconscionable conditions in her workplace.
“The problem isn’t that resources don’t exist. It’s that rich people are hoarding them and they’re not being fairly distributed,” she explains. “We get told over and over again that there’s no money and that the only way to acquire more is to put the burden on poor and working-class people by increasing taxes, implementing soda or cigarette taxes, etc. This is all unnecessary and due to the fact that [our City Council is in the pocket of] extremely rich corporations, universities, and developers, allowing these entities to be exempt from taxes. If they paid the same percentage of taxes to the schools that we regular people do, we could drastically increase funding for our schools.”
This local educator is also greatly disturbed by the lack of participation that the vast majority of Philadelphians have in the direction of their schools, even though they are the ones closest to where the daily hardships take place.
“It’s offensive and oppressive that the people who attend, work at, and are most involved in the schools on a day-to-day basis are left out of all decision-making processes that deeply impact our lives,” Buckwalter states. “We should all be concerned that parents, students, and teachers had absolutely no say in who these new school board members are and how they were chosen.”
She also notes and is dismayed by the continuity of McGinley and Wilkerson, saying, “Some of them were even on the SRC, which if you look at the state of the schools over the past few years while the SRC was in control, proved to have been extremely ineffective.”
Having lost the fight for popular participation in this new board, Our City Our Schools has refocused its energies on reform demands such as ending the 10-year tax abatement program and negotiating PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes) with universities and nonprofits. These ideas are extremely positive, but I believe there is no need to give up on the vision of democratization.
Holding open elections in which ordinary Philadelphians have the opportunity to run and to vote for Board of Education seats would not be out of order for our city. It would not be difficult to achieve. It is only being blocked because it would not benefit the privileged few.
This power which is rightfully ours is being taken out of our hands, the power to make decisions regarding budget, administration, curriculum, and climate for our own children. Being handed another SRC should not deter us. The people of Philadelphia must demand control over who is running their schools and how.
Bessam Idani is a freelance journalist from New York who has written for a number of publications in Philadelphia, including WHYY. Bessam holds a master’s degree in English from Arcadia University. He lives in West Philadelphia.