Mayor Nutter on Tuesday recommended scrapping the School Reform Commission, which has governed Philadelphia publicly funded schools for the last 15 years, saying it is time for "the experiment to end."
In his final policy speech on an issue he called the most important of his administration, Nutter advocated creation of a board of education composed of five people picked by the mayor and four selected from City Council nominees.
The mayor suggested this change be put in place by September 2017 - but only if schools are better funded by Harrisburg, with a restoration to districts of state reimbursement for pupils in charter schools; if a "fair" funding formula is enacted; and after a full year of public forums on the topic.
"Returning to local control means the voters of this city know who to hold accountable for educational outcomes: the mayor," said Nutter, whose eight-year term ends Jan. 4, effectively leaving the matter to his successor.
Nutter's education valedictory was less a reflection on his record and more a call to action. He promised in 2008 to halve the city's dropout rate and double the number of college graduates during his tenure, neither of which he came close to achieving.
Just one in 10 Philadelphia ninth graders earns a college degree. The city's graduation rate has improved 12 percentage points to 65 percent, but still lags behind that of other American big cities. And on a recent visit to the public school for incarcerated youths, students told Nutter that the best educational experience they ever had was in prison.
"Education is our first line of defense against the growing tide of inequity in our city and this nation," the mayor said. "Right now, our current system is failing too many of our young people."
Nutter, who criticized Harrisburg for years of cuts to city schools and its current budget stalemate, said shifting governance was one way to drive necessary educational changes already occurring in districts around the country.
The likely next mayor, Democrat Jim Kenney, has said he fears dissolving the SRC would give the state license to give the district less funding.
On Tuesday, a Kenney spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions about his stance on Nutter's proposals.
"Jim's immediate focus is on the funding crisis," Lauren Hitt said. "He feels that the city cannot allow a debate over the district's governance to put the state funding we desperately need at risk."
SRC Chair Marjorie Neff, a Nutter appointee, said that "having a nine-member school board is preferable to having only five people involved in decisions," but made it clear that she does not "want the issue of governance to overshadow the issue of full and fair funding. We need resources to change outcomes for students."
William R. Hite Jr., Philadelphia School District superintendent, declared himself "a firm believer in local control, whatever that looks like," but also underscored that the money situation has to be fixed before that happens.
"Without addressing that issue, it actually doesn't matter what the governance structure looks like," Hite said.
The state took over the school system in 2001, replacing the board because of academic and financial struggles.
For the SRC to be dissolved, its members must vote to abolish the commission. The legislature could also amend the law that created the SRC. Unless changes are enacted, the district would then revert back to a board of education, as outlined in the City Charter.
Nutter called for more charter school funding, but also more charter accountability.
"Charters cannot be allowed to expand just because they want to. They need to perform just like everybody else," the mayor said, adding that "some are excellent, some are OK, and some should be closed."
He declared himself a steadfast supporter of teachers, but dinged the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers: "Rather than talk about ways to improve classroom performance, the conversation has been about contract disputes."
Nutter said that the SRC needs more staffing flexibility and the union should agree to benefits changes. The SRC is currently appealing to the state Supreme Court to nullify the teachers' contract.
He also said that teachers must be better paid or Philadelphia will continue to be a "boot camp" for teachers to leave for better opportunities in the suburbs.
The mayor also said he wants better teacher evaluation and tenure systems.
Hillary Linardopoulos, a PFT official in attendance at Nutter's speech, said she was "taken aback" at Nutter's comments, which attempted to separate teachers from a union that she said is focused on fighting for equity for children.
"The speech did not acknowledge how dire things remain in the schools every single day," Linardopoulos said. She took issue with the mayor's suggestion that the union was focused only on its contract, which she called "disingenuous and unfair."
Also, she said, the union and community groups have been pushing to abolish the SRC for years, helping to drive onto the May ballot a nonbinding referendum where a majority called for an end to the commission.
The mayor, Linardopoulous pointed out, did not support or acknowledge the movement then.
Nutter said he had "pretty much spent every day, for almost the whole day, for the last eight years" focused on education.
He urged his successor to "set a new, ambitious education goal, not just an achievable one."
"Education," Nutter said, "is the single issue that can take a good city and make it great, the best it can be."