Stepping into voting booths across southeastern Pennsylvania on Nov. 7, voters encountered ballots chock full of aspirants and incumbents in a host of municipal races, from statewide and county judgeships all the way down to elections supervisors.
But while townships in the four counties ringing Philadelphia — Delaware, Chester, Montgomery and Bucks — fielded contests for public school board representatives, the city at the heart of it all did not.
That’s because in the City of Brotherly Love, local control of schools is little more than a fantasy, operations of the city’s public and charter schools long ago outsourced to a body known as the School Reform Commission in a takeover by the state government. Mayor Jim Kenney wants to change that, and while his solution would not place school board seats on the ballot, it would have the board nominated by the mayor and approved by the City Council.
Kenney’s plan isn’t exactly democracy in action, but it would at least hold elected officials responsible for the workings of a massive institution whose deficit is projected to exceed the $1 billion mark in just a few years. The biggest objection to ending the state-controlled SRC relates to financing: How will the city pay for it? Answers are slim at the moment, but it’s not as if legislators in Harrisburg have made funding schools in Philadelphia a top priority. They can barely fund the rest of the programs under their mandate.
But as much as Kenney’s proposal — which was met with fanfare at its unveiling last week at City Hall — has to do with responding to legislative inertia, I believe it also reflects an acknowledgment of a crucial reality: If Philadelphia, which has made great strides in the last few years — after hosting the Democratic National Convention and the NFL Draft, our hometown football team winning the Super Bowl is now a real prospect — is to soar to even greater heights (Amazon HQ2, maybe?), it will only be able to do so with a top-notch educational system.
What exists now, as we all know, is a seriously underfunded bureaucracy that, despite a handful of stellar schools of the magnet variety, does little to instill confidence — let alone pride — among parents, neighborhoods and communities. Kenney’s plan isn’t a magic bullet, but making those responsible for the School District of Philadelphia accountable in some way to the voters and taxpayers would be a giant leap in the right direction.
The central importance of education in the civic and economic life of a community doesn’t just apply to Philadelphia. The power, results and expectations of a school district are tangible issues.
Just look to Lower Merion, where an influential local taxpayer is leading a legal fight against tax increases he says are unfair and unconstitutional. Everybody benefits from education, but that doesn’t mean a taxing entity should get a blank check underwritten by the citizenry.
Here in the Jewish community, I worry that not enough of us care about what transpires at our local Jewish day schools. They are producing great results — many of which you’ve read about here in the Exponent — but they are also suffering from cramped quarters and underfunding.
The community has rallied to the cause of helping needy families with day school tuition, but as any school administrator will tell you, it’s not enough. Those with means, whether or not they have children in these schools, have also stepped up to the plate. But again, more must be done.
Study after study identifies a day school education as one of several predictors of continued Jewish involvement well into adulthood. And our tradition places a premium on Jewish education, identifying the obligation of parents to educate their child as one of the first mitzvahs.
Were all of us to devote as much attention to our Jewish schools as we do to the other schools in our midst, we would be guaranteeing not only the present greatness of the Philadelphia Jewish community, we would be ensuring its future greatness as well.
Philadelphia deserves it. The Jewish community does, too.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.