We are told again and again that education will be the issue of the 2015 mayoral campaign. It shouldn’t be.
Frankly, if education is what mayoral candidates are going to talk about, they might as well offer their Philadelphia weather platform. Much as the joke goes about how people love to talk about the weather, but never do much about it, all of the candidates can talk all they want about education, but as mayor, they will have so very little to do to make change.
The mayor is not in charge of the schools and neither chooses the School Superintendent nor sets educational policy — look at the School Reform Commission for some of that. The mayor may wield influence, but leveraging a few extra dollars here or advocating for a few changes there only affects our children’s education at the margins.
We all care about education, but we all should all understand how little any mayor can do about it.
Every mayor in my lifetime has talked about his commitment to children or claimed the mantle of “education mayor,” but our schools have stumbled from crisis to crisis and remain in need of so much improvement. Worst of all, there is simply not a model for success that any Philadelphia mayor could copy in terms of achieving satisfying excellence for all students in any large urban school district in America.
So here is the deal I would love us to collectively strike: Let us all — candidates, media and citizens — agree that all mayoral candidates care deeply about Philadelphia children and that all will do whatever they can (given their very limited power with regard to schools) to improve educational outcomes. Then, let’s focus the attention in this important race on how the candidates will make the changes that provide the conditions under which children, families and communities can have the city we deserve.
What can a mayor do?
Philadelphia’s strong mayor has tremendous power when it comes to running the agencies of the government. The mayor decides how trash is collected, how police are deployed and how health services are delivered. Subject to the approval of City Council, the mayor determines how the city taxes its residents and businesses and how the city spends its money — and we need lots of tax help.
Perhaps most significantly, as the most prominent political figure in the city, the mayor can use that bully pulpit to marshal government resources and power to accomplish grand projects. Our city is safer than it has been, but can it be safer? Can we connect the Broad Street Line to the Navy Yard? What will we do about our unfunded pension liability?
We deserve a tax structure that works — too many firms and families still choose to live and grow elsewhere. We deserve a budget that funds excellent city services. And, we deserve to make that budget transparent so that we can demand accountability to make sure the spending of our dollars makes sense?
Let’s hear mayoral candidates talk about big plans we can accomplish together.
We all care about education, but we all should all understand how little any mayor can do about it. Instead, let’s focus the rhetoric of the campaign, the coverage of the media and our questions on areas where we can demand — and achieve — positive change. Then, let’s elect a mayor who we believe will work with us to make Philadelphia a preferred place to live, work and visit — and help us create the city we deserve.