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#PHLed and #PHL2015: How education could shape the mayoral primary

When you poll most Philadelphians, the issue they’re roundly concerned about is the education of the city’s children. And at a time when schools are deep in debt in the mayor is crowdsourcing which ones don’t have toilet paper, candidates for City Hall are capitalizing on the passion.

So education is pretty much THE issue that could get the next mayor of Philadelphia elected, whether it’s because of a candidate’s polarizing views on the topic, or because they gained a coveted endorsement from the powerful Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and saw educators rally for them.

“Education will be one of the biggest issues, if not the most important issue, that will be discussed in the mayor’s race,” Randall M. Miller, a history professor at St. Joseph’s University, told the Inquirer. “If you can line up labor, if you can line up the teachers, in a multi-candidate field where you only have to line up a plurality, that could be all you need.”

Whatever the case, there’s still an argument to be made for whether or not mayoral candidates should be putting as much emphasis as they are onto education. The question was asked before by former City Controller candidate Brett Mandel: How much can the mayor really do for education?

The mayor cannot single-handedly shut down the School Reform Commission. The mayor cannot force Harrisburg to pass a budget that sends more money to the ailing Philadelphia schools. And the mayor cannot return Philadelphia to an education governance system of local control.

But that doesn’t mean the city’s chief executive’s hands are tied. Where the mayor can have major influence is on money and how the city’s tax structure operates. They can either propose to increase property taxes — like current Mayor Nutter just did — or they can advocate for moving money around from already-existing taxes to send more to the ailing school district.

They can also influence city agencies to come together for education, as pointed out by Megan Rosenbach in a column for Technically Philly. The Water Department can work to be sure students have clean drinking water at school and can help improve green initiatives in the existing structures. Other offices can turn their attention to nutrition in school lunches, or the incorporation of the arts in our classrooms.

But at the end of the day, mayoral candidates’ stances on things they can’t control could win them an election. Teachers are mobilizing, and a PFT endorsement could mean big for the candidate that gets it.

Which is why six of the Democratic mayoral candidates (not including Milton Street) made their pitches to 300 union members last month. The meeting was closed to reporters, but candidates said after that most of them talked about working to develop a fair funding formula for city schools. Click here for an in-depth look from the PFT about what each candidate said.

It’s hard to say who will get that endorsement. Anthony Williams has made his record on education blatantly clear, and his pro-charter stance pretty much makes it impossible for him to get the PFT’s endorsement. Philly Mag reported that “political insiders” say Jim Kenney, the former city councilman, has the best chance. Additionally, Judge Nelson Diaz’s firm stance against the SRC could fare well for him, even though (in a strange, kinda weird way) the only group that can disband the SRC is the SRC itself.

Here’s a look at each candidate, their stances on major education issues, and the platforms they’ve unveiled so far:

Lynne Abraham

SRC

Abraham believes that the School Reform Commission — the Philadelphia school governance committee made up of three people appointed by the governor and two by the mayor — should remain intact until stakeholders decide on a fair funding formula for Pennsylvania and Philadelphia education. (For more information on what a Fair Funding Formula means, click here.) While returning the schools to local control might be what everyone wants, Abraham says, it’s possible the legislature could tie additional funding the continuation of the SRC, which would need to be considered.

New charters

This candidate said last month, prior to the SRC’s vote to approve five new charter schools, that she wants a moratorium on adding new charters.

“The SRC should not bow to pressure from outside interests to approve new charter schools,” Abraham said in a statement. “The apparent haste to approve new charter schools is unwarranted, and will virtually break the back of the school budget already under considerable stress.”

This stance proves interesting, as Abraham serves as the president of the Board of Directors for I-Lead, an organization that operates a charter school in Reading.

Vouchers

Abraham opposes the use of vouchers, or government-subsidized programs that send low-income students to private schools.

PSP money

This candidate opposes accepting a $35 million donation proposed by the Philadelphia School Partnership to fund new charters that would enroll up to 15,000 new students.

“The proposal of the Philadelphia School Partnership to provide $35 million dollars to the Philadelphia public school district may be no gift at all,” Abraham said. “It may be another way to give more money to the charter schools at the expense of Philadelphia’s public schools.”

Highlights of candidate’s plan

Abraham hopes to overhaul the city’s tax system in favor of increasing a use and occupancy tax for businesses, which would go directly to the school system. While she has at times said that new charter schools should be judged on an individual basis, she called for a moratorium on new charter schools because of the district’s financial state.

Lynne Abraham does not list an education policy plan on her website.

Nelson Diaz

SRC

In many cases, Nelson Diaz has come down hard on the SRC, claiming in nearly every public appearance that the SRC should be dissolved. (Too bad that as mayor he couldn’t actually do that.) But he has solidified himself as the truly progressive candidate in this space, and that’ll appeal to some teachers and union leadership.

New charters

Diaz opposes opening new charter schools, and supports a moratorium on the consideration of adding more charter schools to Philadelphia.

Vouchers

This candidate opposes the use of vouchers to send low-income students to private schools.

PSP money

Diaz vehemently opposes accepting the Philadelphia School Partnership money, claiming that it is a “loaded, ‘take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum.'” According to Philly Mag, Diaz wrote a letter to the PSP urging them to reconsider the donation, and instead of tying it to new charters, tying it to after-school activities and extracurriculars for students.

Highlights of candidate’s plan

Diaz has called for tax reform and a shift to corporate property taxes in order to bring in more income to the school district. Also advocates for mayoral control of the district and its funds and opposes adding new charter schools.

Nelson Diaz does not list a full education policy on his website, but does mention his commitment to public education in his bio.

Jim Kenney

SRC

Kenney’s feelings about the SRC align most closely with Abraham’s. He believes that government officials should work to disband the SRC, but only once a funding formula is fully worked out.

New charters

This candidate called for the SRC to institute a moratorium on approving new charter schools.

“In order for Philadelphia’s school system to provide opportunity for every child, we have to stop pitting charters against traditional public schools,” he said. “But that battle will not end until building a new charter does not divert critical funding from our public schools.”

Vouchers

Kenney used to support vouchers, but has since changed his mind and says he opposes them as they work to privatize the school system. He says, “while even I was hopeful that programs like vouchers could aid the city’s education crisis in the 1990s, time and research have proved that the only way for all of our children to have access to the high-quality education they deserve is to sufficiently fund our public school system.”

PSP money

Kenney opposes accepting the PSP’s offer, saying 1. It wouldn’t nearly begin to cover the amount of funds need to enroll that many more students, and 2. The donations came from “unnamed millionaires” who already have political influence.

“These millionaires are far more concerned with the financial stake they have to gain from public dollars flowing into pro-voucher programs and privately run charters than they are with ‘school choice,'” he said.

Highlights of candidate’s plan

Kenney is the only candidate who lists his three legislative priorities as directly related to education. According to his PFT questionnaire, those priorities include supporting the adoption of the community schools and a more aligned approach to delivering education and support to children, expanding pre-K and early education, and increasing public school funding from Harrisburg through a fair funding formula.

Find Jim Kenney’s education policy stances on his website.

Doug Oliver

SRC

Oliver does not support the dissolution of the SRC, but says he would advocate for a shift in its makeup to three mayoral appointees and three gubernatorial appointees. He said this would provide for a shift to more local control, “but would keep Harrisburg at the table.”

New charters

Oliver has said that the is for opening new charter schools if they have a good track record of educating students and are being put in neighborhoods that don’t have quality educational opportunities for students.

Vouchers

Doug Oliver opposes the use of vouchers, which he says are often seen as a way of privatizing the school system.

PSP money

Oliver hasn’t taken a hard stance either way on this issue. According to Philly Mag, he said that he’s still looking into why there’s a discrepancy between what the district claims it loses when a student jumps to a charter, and what the charters claim they take. Still, he said that when $35 million is offered to an ailing school district, “it warrants full discussion.”

Highlights of candidate’s plan

This candidate advocates for the closure of poorly-constructed and under-performing schools, and said that enabling legislation that would provide for a full and fair funding formula is his No. 1 legislative priority.

Find Doug Oliver’s full education policy stances on his website here.

Anthony Williams

SRC

Anthony Williams supports returning the district to local control, but wants to first secure more funding for the district before the School Reform Commission is dissolved.

Opening new charters

This candidate is an advocate for more charter schools, and has come under fire for his support of them — mostly because he’s received campaign donations from charter school leaders.

Vouchers

Williams supports the use of vouchers to send low-income students to private schools.

PSP money

No surprise here, Anthony Williams supports the PSP’s offer of $35 million to the school district, as he is a staunch charter school supporter. In his education plan, he’s actually proposed that PSP donate more to the district.

Highlights of candidate’s plan

Last week, Williams unveiled his way of bringing in an additional $200 million to the school system in a year by supporting a bill that would increase the city’s property tax allocation, without further increasing property taxes. He also proposed that the PSP should donate $50 million to the district — half to be used for new charter schools and half to go toward supporting traditional education.

Find Anthony Williams’ education policy stances on his website here.

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