Mayoral candidates questioned on education, other issues

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

Philadelphia’s mayoral and City Council at-large candidates gathered in March for the Pennsylvania Working Families forum to discuss education, jobs, affordable housing, restorative justice, and corporate accountability – an exchange about community concerns leading up to the May 19 primary election.

Out of the six declared mayoral candidates, Doug Oliver, Nelson Diaz, Jim Kenney, and Anthony Hardy Williams participated, addressing education advocates and members of several organizations: Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), POWER, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and ACTION United. PCAPS and co-sponsored the forum, held at the Arch Street Methodist Church.

PCAPS has developed a five-point platform on education issues. Ron Whitehorne, the group’s coordinator, said, “I was really encouraged by the number of candidates in support of the platform and who are really staking out for neighborhood public schools and community schools.”

On education, Bishop Dwayne Royster, executive director of POWER, asked for the candidates’ perspectives on various issues, including schools being returned to local control, strategic partnerships, universal pre-K, implementation of community schools, regulation of charter schools, and tax reform to fund schools.

“We are at a decisive moment for the future of Philadelphia,” said Royster, senior pastor and founder of Living Water United Church of Christ in Philadelphia. “If we want transformation in this city, every child must have access to a good public education.”

Diaz said he wanted to return schools to local control and get rid of the School Reform Commission. Having close ties to the District through his children and grandchildren, Diaz said he would focus on workforce development through the Community College of Philadelphia to generate more tax dollars for schools.

Oliver said he was in favor of giving the mayor three SRC appointees, rather than two. He said increasing the number would increase local control. If the SRC remains in place, it should act as a regulator of schools and not as an operator, he said.

The problem facing schools is not the fault of educators, said Kenney, but rather a “conspiracy in the nation, city and state” to add charter schools that look like the solution, but instead drain public school resources. Kenney expressed his support of universal pre-K and said schools need to be the “center of communities.”

Also endorsing the community school model, as well as “mom and pop” pre-K, Williams said that no one else in the race has brought in more public school funding than he has. “Since 2010 I’ve helped deliver more than $250 million to Philadelphia schools,” said Williams, pointing to his initiatives supporting the cigarette tax and other funding bills.

City Council at-large candidates Isaiah Thomas, Sherry Cohen, Helen Gym and Tom Wyatt, along with incumbents W. Wilson Goode Jr. and Blondell Reynolds-Brown, also spoke about education. Most expressed shared support for local control of schools, universal pre-K, and community schools.

There are 28 candidates running for City Council at-large.