Why Philly's mayoral candidates shouldn't prioritize education - Technical.ly Philly


Feb. 20, 2015 11:47 am

Why Philly’s mayoral candidates shouldn’t prioritize education

Brett Mandel, the former candidate for City Controller, says the mayoral candidates should focus on issues they can actually affect.

The headquarters of the School District of Philadelphia.

(Photo by Dan Marcel)

This is a guest post by tax reform advocate and former City Controller candidate Brett Mandel. It is adapted with permission from his newsletter.
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.

Brett Mandel

Brett Mandel was formerly the executive director of Philadelphia Forward, a citizens' organization promoting tax, government and ethics reform. Mandel also served as Director of Financial and Policy Analysis in the Philadelphia City Controller's Office where he was primary author of the book, Philadelphia: A New Urban Direction. Mandel grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, where he went to public school, and now lives in the Fitler Square neighborhood with his wife and three young children, who also go to public schools.

  • Your statement, “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.” is not correct. The mayor actually appoints 2 of the 5 board members of the School Reform Commission. I would say that is influence.

    Furthermore, the city provides almost half the budget for our dilapidated schools (and probably should kick in more).

    Saying that mayoral candidates shouldn’t prioritize education doesn’t recognize the value that strong public education can provide to our city. Let’s think bigger than what we have now. Education should be the #1 priority for any incoming mayor.

  • Chris Alfano

    You’ve also said “the mayor can use that bully pulpit to marshal government resources and power to accomplish grand projects” — doesn’t this also apply to working with Harrisburg to improve state support of Philly schools? Who, if not our mayor, is going to represent Philly’s interests to the state?

    • Presbyton

      The people who talk the loudest about education in this city are perhaps the least suited for that task, and quite frankly, we have over 30 state Senators and Legislators who are paid to do it.

      • Chris Alfano

        Our individual state senators/legislators don’t have any leverage via bully pulpit, they could be making great points and giving great speeches but no one’s going to listen, and even if they were all united they couldn’t override the rest of PA via voting.

        The mayor of the 5th largest city in the US on the other hand does have a bully pulpit from which they could steer discussion on possibly a national level and bring it outside the dimly lit chambers of the state house. We’re talking about qualities we need in a future mayor here, not the people currently talking loudest about education

        • Presbyton

          Many of our Senators and Reps are only concerned with personal gain, which is why they are so incredibly ineffective at getting anything done. If the people we elect to send to Harrisburg can’t form the type of relationships with western and central PA folks that we need to get a fair funding solution, if they can’t make the type of political deals we need to get it done, then they need to be replaced. Vince Fumo and John Perzel both ended up falling prey to their own ambitions, but they at least were capable of strong-arming the state into funding our city fairly.

          The Mayor does have a bully pulpit, but that also isn’t going to change votes in Harrisburg. A national conversation isn’t going to change votes either. Personal relationships, political deals, that’s what works in PA.


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