Here's a simple question for the next mayor: What are you going to do about public education?
The district is woefully underfunded, not graduating enough students; too many of those who do aren't reading and writing at grade level. There is a stalemate between the district and teachers' union, and the members of the school board you inherit will have been selected by a previous governor and the previous mayor. One plus: We have a good superintendent.
Poorly performing schools have cost us jobs, growth, and, most of all, the hopes and dreams of too many young people ignored by an economy increasingly built on knowledge, not hands. Millions of philanthropic dollars are being thrown at some schools while others receive scraps. Some ask why give money to the Titanic? But it's not about the ship; it's about the young people in steerage. Whether we have vouchers, more charter schools, privatization, or whatever, there will still be tens of thousands of kids on board, anchoring down a city on the rise.
Business leaders blame the unions; the unions blame management; advocates claim privatization is sinful or government doesn't work. But, right now, who cares what they think? You are running for mayor. Tell us what you think. Not next year. Now, before Philadelphia votes in the May primary.
What kind of governance structure do you favor and why? Retain the School Reform Commission? Return to mayoralty control of the board? Have an elected school board? With taxing power, or without? Make the district a department of city government? Create regional school boards? There are all types of permutations and combinations.
Just saying "local control" isn't enough. Details, please.
As for funding, how do you persuade the Republican-dominated General Assembly to do more? If you hope to use charm or resort to facts and common sense, go play the slots instead. The odds of success there are better. Are you willing to give up control of the airport? PGW? Muster votes among the Philadelphia delegation for liquor privatization and/or pension reform? Remember, you are arguing your case in Harrisburg, not heaven.
And there's the city's portion of school funding. Are you willing to make up for money the district loses because of the city's generous tax-abatement policy or twist the arms of so-called nonprofits, which are exempt from real estate taxes for education, to donate money for, say, nurses or books? Would you recommend an increase of real estate taxes for schools?
Some will ask whether you are for charters or against them. That's a red herring. Charters are here to stay. What's more important is how you think they should be funded so those attending district schools aren't unduly punished with fewer resources. And how can their operations be better monitored? If changes aren't made in funding and oversight, we run the risk of bankrupting the district and creating another underperforming system.
You wouldn't be the only mayor who has tried to improve public education. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg threw a bear hug around New York schools, gladly accepting control and accountability; in San Jose, Calif., the city provided housing stipends to help recruit teachers; in Los Angeles, a nonprofit was formed to run underachieving schools. In fact, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has a report on mayors and schools: http://www.usmayors.org/74thwintermeeting/edguide2006.pdf.
A good example of city-school district cooperation is the recent SRC decision to farm out its investigations of fraud to the city's inspector general. There are other opportunities for the district and city to improve cooperation. But as one who has worked in both bureaucracies, I know it won't happen just because a mayor wills it. You need to work at it.
You may not have control over the district, but you do have the bully pulpit. The issue is how you use it. You can run down our schools or highlight the gems. You can denigrate teachers or underscore their importance. You can support district schools as well as alternatives. They are not mutually exclusive. Most important, you need to be the voice of those children in steerage. To paraphrase President Lyndon Johnson when he decided to fight for civil rights, "Well, what the hell's the mayor for?"
Despite our woes, the irony is that we have the most diverse and potentially intellectually rich schooling in the nation - prestigious private schools, a strong parochial school system, a critical mass of charters, magnet, and special-admission schools, privately run public schools, renaissance schools, and traditional neighborhood schools.
We have, in our midst, a virtual laboratory of models where we can learn about learning - what it takes to succeed in producing the next generation of learners regardless of their background.
The next mayor should view this diversity as an asset, not a battlefield, as a laboratory for facts, not ideology, not just for Philadelphia but for the nation. This variety of schools makes us extraordinarily rich in data. The engineers of Google and Amazon take zillions of data points and turn them into useful information to determine pathways to success. They figure out what works for their customers, and, in the process, they make gobs of money. Even sports teams use data-sabermetrics.
Imagine if Philadelphia could tease out what improves learning using data on funding, poverty, composition of household, teaching experience, extracurricular activities, the model of school - all those issues we debate and hold on to for dear life, using our self-selected facts to score points against one another rather than to help those kids in steerage.
Maybe we can even market what we learn - and help fund our schools in the process.
Phil Goldsmith has been managing director of Philadelphia and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia School District