A panel of leaders from every sector of education in the city gathered tonight at the Franklin Institute and pledged to work together to ensure quality education for all Philadelphia students.

Anthony Conti, chairman of the World Affairs Council, which hosted the event, said the group's mission is to bring education issues to the forefront of the local policy agenda.

He noted the achievements of Bodine High School, a special-admissions school that graduates 100 percent of its seniors and where for three straight years instructors received the Ruth Hayre Community Service Award, named in honor of a former president of the Philadelphia Board of Education.

During a panel discussion moderated by Daily News editorial page editor Sandra Shea, Michael O'Neill, cofounder of the Philadelphia School Partnership, said that the district should open its doors to more charters.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said she's willing to offer up empty space to charters. The district has 45,000 empty seats in its schools.

"We ought to be able to offer up our empty buildings," she said. "It doesn't matter what kind of school they go to. They're Philadelphia children."

But as more charters open, more Catholic schools will close, said Mary Rochford, Superintendent for Catholic schools.

"It's hard to get businesses to invest," she said. "We are lighting candles every night for the governor to give money for school choice."

Ackerman said she's also open to partnering with the Archdiocese. "If we're talking about real innovation, we have to go there," she said.

But, according to Janine Yass, of the Philadelphia School Partnership, it's ultimately the quality of teachers and education that matters in a school.

"Children shouldn't care if they're in a charter school, district school or private school, she said earlier in her remarks. "They just need and deserve a good school."

Roughly 200,000 Philadelphians don't have high-school diplomas, 550,000 people are severely illiterate and one-third of the population has difficulty reading simple materials, Mayor Nutter said during his opening remarks.

"Education in the United States should be considered part of our national defense - it's just that important," he said.

Marsha Perelman, chairwoman of the institute's board of trustees, agreed. She cited recent Pennsylvania System of School Assessment science scores in which only 13 percent of 11th-graders and 7 percent of black students scored "proficient."