Kileeo Wideman testifies on behalf of Deep Roots Charter School before the School Reform Commission, which considered three new charter applications on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Appointed or Elected School Boards: Which Will Serve Black and Brown Kids Better?

As members of Philadelphia’s business, academic, labor, and advocacy communities, we are regularly reminded that our city’s success is dependent upon the success of our public schools. Troublingly, the School District of Philadelphia will face an almost $1 billion deficit over the next five years, due to factors largely outside its control.

We cannot allow our children to be thrust into another cycle of budget crises just as the district is starting to show progress. Philadelphians must step up to meet this funding shortage, and in return they should receive accelerated academic progress and greater accountability. Both goals can only be achieved through local control.

The form of local control that will bring the best results and the greatest accountability to Philadelphians is a board appointed by the mayor. Studies from Pew and others, as well as the experience of numerous large school districts, demonstrate clearly that the most successful governance models have central accountability.

While some argue that an elected school board would bring greater accountability, we believe that building such a political silo independent of the city government would be truly unwise.  The city and the district have seen good results through closer collaboration in recent years — there is no reason to reverse that progress. Additionally, as long as the appointed school board terms run coterminous with the mayor’s, mayors can be held accountable by the people for the results, funding, and stewardship of our schools.

We also believe that local control will improve academic outcomes through closer coordination between the district and the city. In the last several years, through the direct assistance of city departments, the district has been able to institute new behavioral health supports, create 12 new community schools, improve out-of-school time programming, increase early literacy, better prepare children for kindergarten, bring critical infrastructure repair, and end the teachers’ contract stalemate. We are also hopeful that the district will be able, over time, to realize administrative and operational efficiencies through closer alignment with the city.

While some may argue that the city has already stepped up its obligation to the district and it is now the state’s turn to provide financial resources, the practical reality is that, given current structural budget issues, the state will not deliver new revenue for the school district any time soon. As result, the people, businesses, and institutions of Philadelphia should come together to ensure that all public schools and families do not have to endure another period of financial crisis and draconian cuts that undercut the hard-won gains and positive momentum. We do not want to go back to the days when our children lacked nurses or counselors, when some classrooms had teacher positions vacant for months, and when some schools were classified as “persistently dangerous.”

We must build on the positive results we saw in this year’s test scores and create a school environment that will prepare our children for the 21st century. Only then can we hope to retain the population gains Philadelphia has seen in recent years and bring more jobs to our city.

We do not wish to suggest that tackling the district’s deficit will be painless or that a return to local control will be a panacea. But doing nothing is not an option if Philadelphia is to continue to grow and thrive. Our children and our families deserve accelerated academic progress and greater accountability for their public schools, and we can achieve both through local control.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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