Did you get your ballot for the primary election? Be sure to send that in because it’s important that we vote for the people who will best represent us in Harrisburg and Washington. Our elected officials make crucial decisions about our future every day — how tax dollars are spent, what services may have to be cut, and now whether public schools will thrive or face another round of devastating cuts. The state has taken the unprecedented move of postponing this primary election and encouraging mail-in voting so that social distancing guidelines do not result in disenfranchisement. But making sure that Philadelphians can select the best candidates for the Board of Education, which oversees a $3 billion budget and makes decisions about the conditions in which the city’s children learn — not so much. Unlike voters in every other district in Pennsylvania, those in Philadelphia continue to be disenfranchised when choosing their local school board.
Philadelphia’s new handpicked Board of Education was sworn in recently, immediately after City Council’s one mandated confirmation. The hearing, confirmation vote, and swearing in created nary a disturbance in the Force, without coverage from any major newspaper, radio, or television outlet, save the independent Public School Notebook.
In fact, little notice was paid to the nomination process itself. Although many Philadelphians believe that “local control” was restored after the abolition of the School Reform Commission, the district actually operates under mayoral control. Months ago, the mayor selected his nominating panel which, at his direction, held deliberations in closed executive session, arguably violating the state’s Sunshine Act and shutting out those with a heavy stake in the district — parents, educators, students, and community members.
The Council hearing on the mayor’s choices offered one brief opportunity for the public to hear from the nominees. For some reason, though, all questions were directed to the incumbents, none to the one new candidate. Ameen Akbar was sworn in without having to explain his philosophy of education, his vision for the future of the district, or his work in the charter sector, in particular his affiliation with the Universal charter network, whose former CEO and chief financial operator were indicted in January on bribery charges, alongside one councilmember and his wife.
The dearth of coverage is puzzling, as education issues have dominated headlines this year. In September, the district had to relocate students from two high schools because a major reconstruction project was not completed on time and revealed unsafe levels of toxins. Lead and asbestos were discovered in more schools, necessitating relocations and changes in transportation.
Then the virus hit.
The new board will be making decisions under conditions unimagined just a few months ago. They will have to withstand pressures from purveyors of online learning programs looking to make a killing during the coronavirus crisis.
They will have to create new policies on social distancing in schools, backed by adequate funding for smaller class sizes. One district priority must be to hire more counselors and school psychologists to talk to returning students about the grief they feel about losing relatives to the virus, not to mention the existential crisis of worrying about catching it themselves. The board can only fund those positions by changing spending priorities, starting with eliminating unneeded and intrusive professional development services with unqualified vendors.
The board’s commitment to stricter oversight of charter spending and enforcement of standards could return millions to the district.
When board members took their seats in 2018, each gave a brief statement about themselves and their views on education. In the free world outside the city limits, citizens get to hear that before they choose their public servants. Philadelphia needs an elected school board.