The Mayor of Philadelphia, Mr. Jim Kenney, this week identified three pressing issues facing the city related to political power: consistent low voter turnout, police-community relations and education. It’s the latter item that Mayor Kenney, in an exclusive interview, told me that he wants to be remembered for. More specifically, the highlight of his mayorship will be delivering community schools, rehabilitating parks and recreational centers, and making accessible to city residents quality pre-kindergarten.
Mr. Rodney Muhammad, who leads the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP, worked with Mr. Kenney on his quality Pre-K initiative; he stood by the Mayor’s side when he signed into the law the soda tax, which will pay for the bold education agenda; and yet on Thursday afternoon Mr. Muhammad’s feet were planted on a side opposite that of the Mayor’s.
Mr. Muhammad had joined activists, teachers and parents, like Ms. Tonya Bah – who said the Mayor can’t obtain a solid legacy on education without fully supporting local control of Philadelphia schools – to call for the abolition of a system of state governance which isn’t accountable or responsive to city residents.
“I didn’t fight for Universal Pre-K” to have kids come out of it and be turned over to the state, Mr. Muhammad, who asserted that what’s needed for Philadelphia schools Harrisburg can’t provide, shouted at the anti-School Reform Commission rally held on the steps of the School District of Philadelphia, where for years scenes similar to Thursday’s have played out.
Ahead of the rally, the Mayor released a statement saying that while he does want local control for the School District, the timing for that to happen within the next year “is not practical.”
The statement went on to say:
“If we are going to change the governance of the School District, we must ensure that we are putting in place a structure that will be accountable to the constituents it serves. We must determine the best organizational, operational and functional duties and responsibilities for the governing body, and for the School District as a whole.”
Absent from the Mayor’s statement was the point of school funding, which he’s cited before, even as a Mayoral candidate, as the reason for his hesitance. Mr. Kenney is concerned that if the City pulls the school away from the grips of the state, they will, in turn, fail to honor its constitutional duty to fund Philadelphia schools adequately.
Mr. Muhammad on Thursday mentioned the aforementioned reasoning and called it a “fiscal hostage.”
“I refuse to live like a hostage to Harrisburg in this city,” proclaimed Mr. Muhammad, who said now, more than ever before, is the time to pack up the SRC and send them on their way.
Thursday’s SRC meeting was the last time two of the five Commissioners will preside. The departures present an opportunity, activists said, for the Mayor and the Governor to select appointees who share the sentiment of the vocal majority and will use their first vote to abolish the governing body – %75 of Philadelphians in May of 2015 voted in favor of local control, though the ballot referendum was non-binding.
Mr. Muhammad, who favors an elected school board – members of City Council, including the President, favor an appointed board – which gives officials a say over curriculum, said the community is up for the job and should be given the chance to govern.
“I don’t know that we need to be waiting another year,” Mr. Muhammad told Techbook Online. “We need to rise to the occasion now and start running our own school district.”
Mr. Chris Rabb, Democratic nominee for State Representative of the 200th (House) District, said he sees no reason why the City should wait, particularly because there’s no history of the current governing body of schools supporting equity for all children.
“We need to continue the movement to de-colonize the leadership of our schools,” Mr. Rabb stated.
Ms. Bah, who characterized the current governing body as a pay-to-play entity that favors charter schools, said that if the Mayor doesn’t ensure that his appointment uses their first vote to abolish the SRC, than she and her allies will use their votes to abolish him.
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Photos courtesy of the author.