In early November, Lee Huang announced his resignation from the Philadelphia Board of Education, making him the third board member to vacate a seat this year. Based on guidelines set forth in Philadelphia’s City Charter, board members are appointed by the mayor, but with a full third of the school board in need of replacing, some educators and activists are wondering if it’s time to reconsider how members get a seat at the table.
The Inquirer tapped an educator and parent to debate the city’s chief education officer: Should the Philly school board be elected instead of appointed?
Yes: Philadelphians deserve a say in who guides school decisions.
By Zoe Rooney
Over the last few weeks, we’ve watched threats of voter disenfranchisement play out on a national scale. As we’ve seen Philadelphians step up to ensure every vote is counted, we have simultaneously been confronted with our own disenfranchisement when it comes to our Board of Education.
We recently learned that another member of our appointed board is resigning, and the mayor is in the process of filling the vacancies. Philadelphia’s students, families, and educators are locked out of the process, afforded neither a vote nor a voice.
With the recent resignations of Ameen Akbar and Lee Huang, following that of Chris McGinley last April, the Philadelphia Board of Education has three open seats. These vacancies come just as the district faces many extraordinary challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, looming budget deficits, district systems that perpetuate anti-Black racism, and ongoing issues with toxic school buildings.
The nominating panel, selected by Mayor Jim Kenney, convened on Nov. 17 to begin the process of selecting candidates. The mayor’s chosen nominees will then be passed to City Council for confirmation in December. Since the panel first convened in 2018, there has been little opportunity for public comment or involvement. Instead, they have met almost entirely behind closed doors, locking out the residents of the only Pennsylvania district without an elected school board. This round was no different — the first remote meeting only allows citizens to submit written comments in advance, with no public participation during the meeting.
Members of the Our City Our Schools coalition, who worked to abolish the School Reform Commission, looked forward to a return to local control that would give Philadelphians a voice in the decisions made about our public schools. We wanted local control to mean community control, accountability, and board members who listened and responded to the needs and concerns of students, families, and educators.
Instead, we have seen the mayor’s Board of Education continue the legacy of the SRC, acting as a rubber stamp for district leadership, and ignoring community members who testify and write in with concerns. Even worse, they do this while giving lip service to transparency, community engagement, and communication. Philadelphians will continue the fight for a transparent, representative, and accountable elected school board. Until then, we demand that the mayor open up the current selection process so that it is fully public and transparent.
“We wanted local control to mean community control, accountability, and board members who listened and responded to the needs and concerns of students, families, and educators.”
The nominating panel should conduct its business in public, not in executive sessions out of the view of most Philadelphians. Public hearings must be held at multiple points throughout the process, before backroom decisions are codified by handshake deals. The public must be able to review the full list of candidates with sufficient time to learn about them and must have the opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns in front of the nominating panel and City Council.
While members of the Our City Our Schools coalition believe that community voice and a more transparent process are important steps forward, we know these steps alone will not fix our Board of Education. We need more.
We need our board to include public school educators, activists, and parents of students who attend schools other than those in expensive, gentrified neighborhoods or with special admissions criteria. We need students to have a real voice as voting members of our board. While the two nonvoting student representative seats are a step in the right direction, the role functions more as a token than an opportunity for actual student power in decision-making. The student members lack a vote, autonomy, preparation, and training, and two students cannot effectively represent a district of more than 200,000.
We need board members who understand the necessity of undoing years of SRC-imposed “reforms” on the district, such as the large-scale expansion of charter schools, rampant outsourcing of district jobs and services to contractors, a revolving door of standardized tests, curricula, and mandates imposed on educators, and the traumatic closures of numerous neighborhood schools.
Philadelphians must have the right to vote on their board members just like every other Pennsylvanian. While we keep organizing toward that reality, we deserve real transparency and a voice.
Zoe Rooney is an educator, parent, and member of Parents United for Public Education, a citywide organization focused on engaging families on issues of quality and equity in public schools. It is part of the Our City Our Schools coalition.
No: The mayor is and should be accountable for school success.
By Otis Hackney
In 2017, when Mayor Jim Kenney announced that Philadelphia had secured local control of our public schools, he was adamant that members of the school board should be mayoral appointees. “You can hold me, and future mayors, accountable for the success or failure of our schools,” he vowed at the time.
Three years later, it’s clear this is still the best choice for the School District of Philadelphia, which educates almost 200,000 students each year.
This structure was not decided in a vacuum: prior to that change, we had examined different board structures, including the idea of elected board members. But the mayor and I believed that a mayoral-appointed school board, with Council confirmation, was the best type for Philadelphia.
Remember that this came after years of finger-pointing during which students and families were told that the state of their schools is someone else’s responsibility. We knew that accountability rests with the mayor who makes the appointment, and with the City Council who approves the members. The buck truly does stop with us.
This month, the mayor will select three new board members for approval by Philadelphia City Council. Once approved, they will join a committed group of six other leaders who volunteer their time, expertise, and energy to set the vision and goals for the School District. The board also hires, supervises, and evaluates the superintendent and authorizes and renews charter schools.
“To transition to an elected school board would require significant changes to the charter and state law.”
Through this governance, we have stepped up as a city, increasing our investment in and accountability to our students. Between 2018 and 2021, the city’s contribution to the district more than doubled. This effort, combined with the oversight of our Board of Education and leadership of Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., led to a stable two years of operations and education for the district.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also shown why true alignment between the School District and the City of Philadelphia is vital. Through the partnerships we’ve built with local control, we’ve established support systems for students and families, such as PHLConnectED, Access Centers, and our food distribution efforts.
The Board of Education nominating process was established under the public education supplement to the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter. To transition to an elected school board would require significant changes to the charter and state law.
And elections for the Board of Education in Philadelphia would set up regular, deeply ideological battles that would be costly, painful, and not necessarily focused on student success. As we have seen over the past decade, there is significant monetary support of different ideologies. A school board election would open a fierce process with the potential for other interest groups — besides education experts — to shape the future of public education. By placing the appointment with the mayor, who has responsibility for the success of the city as a whole, there are opportunities for all voices to be heard and moderated.
Research has shown that urban districts under mayoral control have performed better than their peers. The Center for American Progress (CAP) reviewed peer cities Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C., and noted these systems have seen substantial improvement in student performance. CAP also found that mayor-led districts use resources strategically, leading to lower administrative costs, and resources getting directly into classrooms through lower teacher-student ratios.
Now, as we look to the day when students can return safely to the classroom, we build on three years of local control and accountability. We have made tremendous progress for our children and cannot reverse course. This administration looks forward to advancing three new leaders to the school board next month. And our mayor gladly shoulders the responsibility that comes with these appointments.
As always, we welcome feedback on this important topic. You can provide public comments to the educational nominating panel or apply to serve on the Board of Education. And since the buck truly does stop with him, you can email Mayor Kenney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Otis Hackney is Philadelphia’s chief education officer.