What is the best way to choose a school board?

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By Gloria C. Endres

By this time, almost every family with school-aged children is aware there has been a major change in the governance of Philadelphia’s public school system. On Nov. 16, the five-member School Reform Commission voted to abolish itself.

For the last 17 years, thanks to PA Act 46, the SRC has had almost unlimited power to close schools, permit or cancel charters, sign or not sign workers’ contracts, and generally exercise authoritarian control of the entire school system. They never had to answer to the citizens of Philadelphia for any decision. Citizens could attend meetings, demonstrate, make speeches and ask questions, but that was it. Unlike every other school district in Pennsylvania, the parents and citizens of this city were denied any decision making power over their own schools.

Act 46 was written with only Philadelphia in mind. It was a takeover by the state of a school district that lawmakers judged to be “in distress.” Anyone who paid attention during the first few years of the SRC witnessed unprecedented upheaval as they experimented with one governing model after another. They tried education management organizations, charter schools and other privatization models that split the district into numerous subsections with different rules, little to no oversight, and subject to arbitrary changes. William Hite is the third appointed superintendent, and his contract will extend beyond the SRC. All the while, school taxes were levied and funds spent with absolutely no accountability to the people who paid the bills.

All that is about to change. Mayor James Kenney just announced a panel of 13 city residents to nominate a list of 27 candidates from which the mayor will appoint a nine-member school board. The nominating panel includes: parents, educators, a union president, a pastor and one former SRC member. Once they arrive at a list of candidates, the mayor will, with input from City Council, make the final selections. The new school board will train for several months and then take over when the SRC departs in July.

Two questions: How can we make the new school board more democratic and work more efficiently? When the Education Clause was written into our state constitution, the legislature created a public system of education dependent on locally elected school boards. The very word “public” indicates management by a publicly elected board. With an appointed board, it raises the legal question of “equal protection” under our Constitution. Every other school district in the state has an elected school board. Under our city charter, so far, only the mayor has the power to make the final decision of who may sit on the board.

Democracy matters. An elected school board directly responsible to the public for managing the schools is more efficient than an appointed board. The issues of efficiency and competence are what led to the state takeover in the first place. So why would we return to that same failed model?

How do we make this change to a more democratic form of school governance? We need a charter change first of all. We need to set up a system where candidates can cross-register in both parties and make their qualifications public to be elected to an unpaid position. There would be no political involvement or influence. There would be set term limits. All school board meetings would be open to the public. There would be total transparency and direct accountability to the people for all decisions.

Regardless of who controls the Philadelphia schools, this does not take the state off the hook for properly funding the district. The U.S. Department of Education has reported Pennsylvania’s school funding system is the most unequal of all 50 states. The state must fix this unfair funding formula that discriminates against low-income children, especially in poor urban areas such as Philadelphia. A review of the charter school law and other back-door voucher laws that take money from public education is also needed.

The city must also take financial ownership of its school system. The mayor claims he is taking full responsibility for how our schools are managed. He must share that responsibility with City Council and the new School Board.

But none of this matters if we who live, work and send our children to school in Philadelphia do not demand accountability from our elected officials. We can and we must demand a charter change that puts Philadelphians in the driver’s seat. Our city; our schools; our voice.