Kenney and Gym change the education conversation

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

[2nd paragraph updated]

With the election of Democrats Jim Kenney as mayor and Helen Gym to City Council on Tuesday, there is a new dynamic at City Hall regarding education policy.

Kenney has promised to work toward universal preschool, which was also a focus of the Nutter administration. But the mayor-elect has thrown his support behind community schools as the primary reform strategy for the District. That is a departure from Mayor Nutter’s approach. Throughout his administration, Nutter supported the strategy that relied heavily on closing low-performing schools and expanding charters, with the goal of having "a great school" in every neighborhood.

Gym rode to Council on the strength of her education activism, in which she has been severely critical of the dominant District and city policy of closing schools, growing charter enrollment, and primarily using test scores to decide which schools are candidates for turnaround and privatization.

Kenney captured about 85 percent of the mayoral vote, handily defeating Republican Melissa Murray Bailey. Gym was the leading vote-getter among Council at-large candidates with nearly all of the vote counted.

Apparent winners of the other six at-large Council seats on Tuesday were Democrats Derek Green, Allan Domb, Blondell Reynolds Brown, William Greenlee, and Republicans Al Taubenberger and David Oh.

In claiming victory Tuesday night, Gym thanked her family and supporters. Citing the origins of her campaign in the period when former Gov. Tom Corbett was cutting spending not just on education but on other social services, she said she ran because she wanted her children "to remember when times were the worst, people were never silent."

Uniting with teachers

Both Kenney and Gym received robust and unequivocal support from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which is currently at war with the District administration. Teachers have not had a new contract or a raise in three years, and in the face of stalemated talks, the School Reform Commission has sought to nullify the contract entirely. The matter is now in court.

At a rally earlier Tuesday, where she and Kenney appeared with PFT leaders, Gym called schools "places of transformation and possibility." She said that they should be defined not by test scores but by a "narrative of dignity of love."

Gym has reiterated over her campaign that the "great schools" strategy is misguided in that it promotes the creation of "islands of greatness in oceans of inequity." For the hardest-to-serve young people – immigrants, those with disabilities, adjudicated youth, the homeless – needs are marginalized, she said.

"It is impossible for them to do well unless we radically change how we look at education for those students," she said.

While rejecting the reliance on privatization as a reform strategy, Gym helped found FACTS charter in Chinatown, which was started to serve an immigrant population and has become one of the most diverse and high-performing charters in the city. Kenney has also served on a charter school board.

Gym said that on Council she will demand more accountability and transparency from the District, perhaps even using subpoena power to get more information year-round instead of just at budget time.

"It’s the only body the SRC has to show up before and account to," she said. The SRC relies on Council and Harrisburg for all its funds; it has no taxing power of its own.

At the same time, she would like Council to "act more like a partner of the School District and not a standoff, not seeing the District as a drain but as a partnership" in building a great city.

The School District is now in dire straits financially, a situation exacerbated by the failure of Harrisburg to pass a budget. On Monday, the SRC borrowed another $250 million just to keep the doors open. Its troubles this year have also deepened due to what has turned out to be a disastrous decision to outsource substitute teacher services.

The company hired, Source4Teachers, promised near universal coverage of teacher absences – 90 percent by January, a vast improvement on what the District was able to do itself last year at 55 to 65 percent. But the firm has been unable to hire and process enough people to cover classes; its best daily "fill rates" have been in the 20 percent range.

How exactly a Kenney administration will approach implementing its vision of education reform is unclear. Both universal pre-K and community schools – which reinvent schools as hubs that provide neighborhoods with social services, recreational opportunities, medical care and adult education – cost money. Community schools would also require far more cooperation among city agencies than has historically existed in Philadelphia.

Kenney has said he would put more money into the School District and into pre-K without raising local property taxes, the largest source of local revenue available to education.

Supporters express optimism

Otis Hackney, principal of South Philadelphia High School, which has been one of the city’s most beleaguered, was among well more than 100 people celebrating Gym’s election at a party at Fergie’s Pub in Center City on Tuesday night.

He is optimistic. Both Kenney and Gym "are such strong advocates for public schools who will add a voice and a vote to make sure the schools get the resources they need," he said.

"We had the best candidate conceivable," said attorney Irv Ackelsberg, a longtime activist and Gym’s campaign treasurer. He noted that the campaign was able to buck the party machine and mobilize the grass roots.

"I really believe this is the beginning of a new Philadelphia," he said. "For parents, children and teachers of Philadelphia, this is a new day."

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten joined Gym at the celebration. "There was no other place in the United States of America that I wanted to be tonight," she said, than with a candidate "who has busted up the charter narrative and created a narrative that says public schools can work for all kids if you give it a chance."

Gym said her campaign was built around "heart and passion and real values talked about every single day around kitchen tables and especially in the streets of this city. … You carried me to victory, and I am going to carry all of you into City Hall in January, and we’re going to show them that this is what democracy looks like."

Editors’ note: Helen Gym is a former editor of the Notebook, from 1997 to 1999, and served on the Notebook leadership board until 2013.