Today's DN editorial reflects some concerns we share about electing a school board in Philadelphia. The city already has several elected positions that no one thinks about. Consequently, the row offices are elected by the city democratic machine, and the public doesn't really monitor them. We aren't sure who would effectively elect a school board -- maybe that same machine, maybe the teachers' union, maybe some millionaire school voucher backers -- but it seems unlikely it will be an engaged public.
A relatively engaged public does, however, elect the mayor and governor, who are currently in charge of the School Reform Commission. We're not saying the form of school oversight shouldn't be changed at all -- certainly the district could afford some clearer lines of acountability -- but we're very wary of introducing new elected positions.
State Sen. Mike Stack wants to abolish the School Reform Commission and replace it with an unpaid elected board.
Which could be a worse idea than the contract that allowed Arlene Ackerman to walk away with nearly a million dollars after three years as superintendent.
State Sen. Larry Farnese, who supports Stack's proposal, claims that since SRC members are appointed, "they are neither responsible or accountable to the taxpayers." But if elected officials are so accountable, then it would hold that the SRC should be, too, since, after all, they are appointed by elected officials.
There are many problems with the idea of an elected board, but they all revolve around one thing: money. It takes money to get elected, and that money could become considerable, especially if this is a state elected board, in which campaign-finance rules are summed up by two words: no limits.
The problem with a city elected board can also be summed up in two words: Democratic machine.
If these positions are unpaid, it's fair to ask why anyone would run for such a position. The answer, once again, is money. The school district has a budget that is nearly as big as the city's. That's a lot of contracts . . . laying the groundwork for a lot of quid pro quo.
Plus, the city's historical low voter turnout increases the potential for special interests to prevail and undermines the accountability argument.
The speed with which Stack and his supporters rushed to this idea, days after the ouster of Ackerman, suggests that very little thought has been given to what is actually the right solution to the SRC problem.
What we need is serious and thoughtful debate about just what we can and should expect from the governing body of the school district. This is especially critical not just because of current problems, but also because of the transformative, and sometimes traumatic, changes the district has undergone and will continue to navigate.
That includes an explosion of charters, with funding and oversight still a moving target; the possibility of vouchers and other school-management models that have been hardly addressed at the governance level. Teacher evaluations and testing-score scandals loom as a new challenge.
What background should the governing body bring to bear in helping the district navigate these changes? Should it have educational expertise? Financial and management experience? Should these board members be overseeing the day-to-day operations and the superintendent, or serve as long-term visionaries? Should Philadelphia follow the lead of many cities with a hybrid board that includes elected and appointed members?
None of these questions was asked when the current SRC was appointed, and none of them will be asked if we begin a new round of school-board-candidate fundraisers and campaigns that will not ensure better schools, but will guarantee a new, and very lucrative, political empire.