I must admit that I have been sleepwalking through the gubernatorial campaign between Republican Gov. Corbett and Democratic challenger Tom Wolf. Up to now, it's been same old, same old. Corbett stokes fear about tax increases, and Wolf, surrounded by his children, wife, and mother, acts as if he is running for Father of Pennsylvania, not its chief executive.
But I was jolted out of my slumber when I read that Wolf supports the abolition of the School Reform Commission (SRC) and wants to replace it with an elected school board. Now that got my blood moving. Most dumb ideas do. And this one is a doozy.
Either Wolf is just cozying up to union leaders or he is naïve about the ways of Philadelphia. Or, most likely, both.
Whether the SRC should continue is a legitimate issue. It was born out of political necessity in 2001, when the School District was financially strapped. Mayor John Street reached a deal with Republican Gov. Mark Schweiker for millions of additional state dollars for the city's schools in return for giving the state majority control of a newly appointed five-member school board known as the SRC.
With more than a decade of experience, it's fair game to examine how effective that deal has been, most notably the SRC. Clearly some changes are in order, even if the SRC remains, such as making the terms of some of its members concurrent with the term of the appointing authority. For example, when Mayor Nutter and Gov. Ed Rendell assumed office, the SRC was still composed of appointees of their predecessors. Under those circumstances, you really do wonder who is in charge and, even more importantly, accountable.
But those types of housekeeping changes are a far cry from Wolf's call to replace the SRC with an elected school board. Wolf cloaks his reasoning in the fact that, of all the school districts in the state, only Philadelphia has an appointed board. "Democracy," he says, "for all its flaws, is the best option of the bunch." Moreover, he adds that City Council and the mayor have other issues to worry about, like "police, fire, sanitation, and other things that can take precedence."
People don't flee Philadelphia because of poor garbage collection or snow removal. They leave because they want their children to have the best and safest education possible, and if that means spending loads of money on private or parochial education or moving across City Avenue to the suburbs where the schools are better funded, so be it. In short, there is no more important issue for the long-term viability of the state's largest city than the quality of public education. And that is precisely the type of issue the city's chief executive should be focused on.
Why shouldn't Philadelphia have an elected school board, when virtually every other school district has one, as Wolf argues? His argument would sound good if Philadelphia were like Lancaster or Ephrata or Lower Merion. But Philadelphia, like most urban school districts, has a set of challenges different from those of smaller districts, whose finances, demographics, and scale might call for a different governance approach.
As for democracy Philadelphia-style, all you have to do is look at the meager turnout for our municipal races to realize that our elections are largely determined not by the "people," but by a handful of power brokers.
Those who win are those who are supported by the party bosses or special-interest groups, who are able to control the results since few eligible voters come to the polls. If you want to get a glimpse of what the Philadelphia School District as envisioned by Wolf might look like, consider the composition of City Council and row offices like the sheriff or the city commissioners.
It is unlikely that the school unions would take a hands-off approach to a school board election. They would donate globs of money and organize their members on Election Day to elect their candidates to the school board - among whose biggest responsibilities would be negotiating contracts with the very interests that put them there. Political bosses would also have their folks on the board, and they would be pressured to hire the bosses' friends, family, and supporters, as well as to dole out millions of dollars in contracts to favored donors.
Some say watching democracy in action is like watching sausage being made. In this case, watching an elected school board in Philadelphia would be like watching the pigs at the trough.
Finally, if an elected school board comes with taxing authority - as they do elsewhere in the state - property owners would find themselves hit with a double whammy of tax bills sent separately by the city and the district.
Rather than listening to local elected officials or union leaders for advice on what type of governance structure Philadelphia needs, I suggest Wolf lock himself in a quiet room with a picture of his children and simply ask himself what kind of governance structure he would have wanted overlooking their education had they gone to school in Philadelphia. That would be the right time for him to act like he is running for Father of Pennsylvania, not its top politician.