Ask the mayoral candidates: How would you solve Philadelphia’s kindergarten conundrum?

 Philadelphia public high-school students march down Broad Street from City Hall to school district headquarters during a budget-cuts protest. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

Philadelphia public high-school students march down Broad Street from City Hall to school district headquarters during a budget-cuts protest. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

As part of a regular series leading up to Philadelphia’s May 19 mayoral primaries, NewsWorks will pose a question of the declared candidates. Do you have a question? Email it to bhickey@whyy.org.

The inaugural question comes from me…

Kindergarten concerns

Q: My wife and I are currently in the process of determining where our four-year-old son will go to kindergarten next school year.

Our catchment-zone school does not meet our expectations. We have entered several public- (charter) school lotteries, but whether he will attend any of those is up to luck and chance.

Our other options are paying $13,000 a year for a private school or staying at his current private school for kindergarten, thus negating most any chance of getting a slot in the first grade.

If it comes down to that, we’re faced with the unenviable position of choosing between expensive private school or moving out of the city, taking our tax dollars with us.

How would you try to get this scenario to change if elected Mayor of Philadelphia? What would you advise us to do in this situation?

The candidates respond

Lynne Abraham: “Education is the most pressing issue facing Philadelphia. Current practices are not working. There are no easy solutions.

“I am committed to developing a vibrant plan with bold, fresh, innovative ideas to address the problems of our schools. We need bold, fresh, positive ideas and solutions from people who know what works.

“We are now in the process of reaching out to — and collaborating with — the best and brightest minds in education. We are gathering information and ideas from people who are experienced in education from different perspectives in order to fashion a thoughtful and thorough approach to the many challenges to our schools.

“Public schools, parochial schools, private schools and charter schools must all be part of the solution. To begin with, we need fair funding of public education throughout the Commonwealth. While money is not the only issue, City school kids should not be penalized because they happen to live in a financially challenged school district. Pre-K education, including early childhood literacy, is essential, especially for children in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“Finally, means and methods must be upgraded to offer education that stimulates young minds and is sustained throughout the school years to produce responsible citizens and to transform students into leaders who are ready for jobs in the new economy, especially, science, technology, engineering, art and math.

“Success begins with quality education. A first-class city requires a first-rate school system. I am passionate about our City and its schools and fully committed to overcoming obstacles that stand in the way of our success.”

Nelson Diaz: Several attempts to get a response from Diaz were unsuccessful. However, he touched on public education extensively during his Jan. 15 campaign launch. There, he said, “I want to see a well-funded, public [slams hand on podium] education system. That is the first step on the ladder into the middle class. … I’m going to fix the school system, no matter what. I will die fixing the school system.”

Doug Oliver: “Unfortunately, you are not alone. Countless parents find themselves in the exact same predicament as you are in as their children grow closer to school-age. Ultimately, despite their desire to live, learn and play in Philadelphia, they ultimately decide to leave to ensure that their children get the education they will need to live productive and fruitful lives.

“It’s nice to brag about the fact that, in only the last seven years, we have 50,000 new Philadelphians under the age of 35. But unless we begin to game-plan for them by ensuring that they have schools when their children come of school age, then Philadelphia will have squandered the opportunity that this youthful vibrancy represents.

“If I were Mayor, my primary focus would be to fix the public education system to ensure that there is a quality public school in every neighborhood across the City.

“This requires a partnership between City and State (for funding) and between parents and teachers (for learning). We already know the recipe for successful schools: strong principals and teachers, solid core curriculum and parental involvement.

“The challenge is to bring that formula to scale so that every school is operating under the same philosophy and that every school has the resources necessary to implement that philosophy.

“I believe it should be the role of the School Reform Commission (SRC) to regulate every school in Philadelphia and to ensure that every neighborhood public school is meeting these standards. Also, with the election of Governor Tom Wolf, I believe the City has a partner in Harrisburg who is focused on fixing public schools across the State – including here in Philadelphia.

“Together we can ensure that parents, like you, aren’t forced to choose between the City you love, and the child(ren) you love more.

“Here’s what I’d advise you to do.

“First, don’t leave the City. Help is coming!

“In the meantime, continue to apply to whichever schools meet your child’s needs. Don’t assume that your child won’t get accepted via lottery.

“Secondly, look for grants and scholarships that may reduce the cost of private school should you ultimately decide that you have to go that route for the time being.

“Lastly, get involved by partnering with parents in your neighborhood to create the change that you want to see in your local public school. Schools that do well have very active parent communities. Don’t underestimate your collective power to create the school you want.”

Milton Street: “As sad as it is to say, if you don’t have political clout, you can’t get him in without winning the lottery. We should have quality education for everybody, but there is not a quick fix.

“There are two things we have to do. We need to change the conversation in Harrisburg, where people said they’re hoodlums who don’t want to learn. Philadelphia is serious about education, and they need to know that.

“We need to transfer control from the School Reform Commission to the City of Philadelphia. We need to find an independent funding source; the state has to give us legislation to be able to raise our own funding.

“This is just the reality for those who can’t afford to move. My daughter called Masterman about my granddaughter, told me she was told she can’t get in. But if you pick up the phone and make a political call, you can get in. That’s just not fair.

“People who can do that don’t have the urge to do anything since their kid’s in, so it’s fine. That’s selfish. But that’s the reality we have here in Philadelphia. I intend to tackle this issue.”

Anthony Hardy Williams: “Your situation is not unique, and is shared by other families across the city regardless of socioeconomic status. This is why I believe that your zip code — or catchment area — should not determine the quality of your son’s education, and it should not be left to chance.

“In the short term, we need to increase state funding for schools and monitor that the money is spent wisely, while re-establishing our neighborhood schools as community anchors.

“To that end, it is critical that teachers get the tools, and resources necessary to provide your son the quality education he deserves. The ultimate goal is to create a school district in which every neighborhood provides a quality education from cradle to career.

What would you advise us to do in this situation?

“First I would I say, don’t give up on us, don’t give up on Philadelphia.

“Secondly, there are scholarship funds available for families in your situation — to give parents an option when they are in catchment zones with underperforming schools.

“Thirdly, systemic change will come from engaged parents like you and your wife who care deeply about the future of your community, so encourage other families to join you in helping your neighborhood schools improve. We are all in this together and it’s going to take collective effort to get it right.

“Finally, you are doing an important service with this article. There are thousands of parents contemplating this question right now and many of them will read this. As mayor, I pledge to you, and those families, that I will work every day to improve our public education system so families like yours happily stay in Philadelphia.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.