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Philly’s school board isn’t elected. That’s a problem.

Most communities elect their school boards democratically. Philadelphia's is appointed by the mayor, which has created an inherent conflict of interest.

School District of Philadelphia Board of Education members listen to chief talent officer Larisa Shambaugh during a Board of Education public meeting at the School District Headquarters on Thursday, July 14, 2022.
School District of Philadelphia Board of Education members listen to chief talent officer Larisa Shambaugh during a Board of Education public meeting at the School District Headquarters on Thursday, July 14, 2022.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Between debates over remote learning during COVID-19 and which books to stock in school libraries, issues around public education have been among the most divisive of the last few years. Across the country, this has led to more interest in school board races than we have seen in a long time. How much funding goes to education, and how those funds are spent, are questions of great importance to average Americans. They are decided, like most political questions, through the democratic process, in which community members get to vote for who sits on the local public school board.

Except in Philadelphia.

Unlike most places in the country, Philadelphia’s school board is not elected. Each member is appointed by the mayor.

» READ MORE: Philly board moves to close 3 charters amid allegations of bias against Black-led schools

For such important positions, the lack of democracy is surprising. Philadelphians elect the register of wills. Statewide, Pennsylvanians elect our attorney general, auditor general, and treasurer — not to mention all of our judges. These positions are not elected in every state, but they will probably remain so here, either because of our commitment to democracy as an ideal or just through simple inertia.

When government schools were first made free to all Philadelphia students in 1837, the schools were governed locally, with an elected board of directors managing each public school. In 1867, in an attempt to improve the selection of candidates, the state legislature transferred the power to choose board members to Common Pleas Court judges. Progressive Era reforms centralized control of schools in 1905, creating one board — still judicially appointed — to oversee the entire district.

Philadelphia’s democratic deficit in education is long-standing and almost perfectly unique to the city. Control of schools was even further removed from the people in 2001, when the School Reform Commission shifted control to the state to remedy low test scores and budget deficits. Local control returned in 2018, but the mayor, not the people, still chooses the board.

Philadelphia’s school board is clearly an outlier. That alone is not a reason to change it, but looking at how the school board has handled one of the major educational issues of our day — school choice — shows just what a problem the lack of democratic control has become.

“Philadelphia’s school board is clearly an outlier.”

Kyle Sammin

To start, the school board has the power to approve new charter schools and to renew or revoke existing ones, which creates an inherent conflict of interest. Mayor Jim Kenney won the 2015 primary in part because of the strong endorsement of the Philadelphia teachers’ union. That union has also been consistently resistant to the creation of charter schools, many of which (though not all) employ nonunion teachers. Is it any surprise, then, that the school board Kenney appointed has not approved a new charter application since regaining control of schools in 2018?

This dearth of new charter schools is not for lack of demand. Polls have consistently shown that parents want more options than the public school monopoly. A 2019 poll by The Inquirer found that twice as many Philadelphia voters support charters as oppose them. Nationwide, polls show similar results, including among the mayor’s own Democratic Party. A majority of Black and Hispanic Democrats support charter schools.

When given the chance to vote, Democratic voters in the city often choose candidates who support expanding school choice. State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who represents West Philadelphia and parts of Delaware County, is a longtime supporter of charters and school vouchers. This May, he easily won his primary over a challenger who was less supportive of charters — and who was endorsed by the teachers’ union. Two Philly Democrats in the state House, State Reps. Amen Brown and Danilo Burgos, have also supported legislation in Harrisburg that would provide kids with scholarships to leave traditional public schools. Most prominently, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro has also come out in support of school choice.

Charter schools are not a partisan issue, although they are often portrayed as one. Most Philadelphians support them, including many Democrats. So when Philadelphia’s appointed school board unanimously denies charter applications, it is reasonable to wonder whom they represent. Because it is not the people of Philadelphia.

Government should be responsive to the people, but Philadelphia’s school board seems to only respond to the interests of the mayor and his teachers’ union allies in preserving the status quo. Electing a school board — preferably on a nonpartisan basis — would not solve every problem in our educational system, but it would solve this one.

At a time when so many are concerned about democracy itself being imperiled in America, wouldn’t a little more democracy be in order?

Kyle Sammin is editor-at-large at Broad + Liberty.