Parents, not the mayor, must ensure high-quality education for Philly students

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, left, shakes hands with members of City Council after speaking at City Hall in Philadelphia. Kenney on Thursday called for the panel that governs the city's schools to be dissolved and replaced by mayor-appointed board.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, left, shakes hands with members of City Council after speaking at City Hall in Philadelphia. Kenney on Nov. 2 called for the panel that governs the city's schools to be dissolved and replaced by a mayor-appointed board. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

In June 2018, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney will take over our city’s schools by appointing a nine-member school board to replace the state-controlled School Reform Commission.

In doing so, the mayor will become directly accountable for a $2.9 billion school system that has underserved Philadelphia’s children for decades. And while I laud the mayor for his willingness to take this on, I have a message for Philadelphia’s parents.

The ongoing battle over education in Philadelphia is not the mayor’s to fight. It’s ours.

That’s why School District parents like me must go into this new era with a clear understanding of this indisputable fact: When a politician gains control of a $2.9 billion budget, his friends and campaign contributors will line up for their share of the bounty. As parents, as Philadelphians, as the taxpayers whose dollars fund the system, we must make sure that our interests come before theirs.

That means parents, and not the mayor, are accountable for making sure that the lion’s share of the $2.9 billion goes toward funding our children’s educations, and not toward enriching suburban contractors who don’t employ Philadelphians of color.

Why does race matter? It matters because 86 percent of the district’s students are children of color. It matters because the majority of Philadelphia’s inhabitants are people of color. It matters because systemic and ongoing discrimination has pushed black and brown children into inferior Philadelphia schools for decades.

Black students knew that in 1967, when 3,000 of them left city classrooms and marched to the Board of Education to demonstrate for equal education. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission knew it in the early 1970s, when it sued the district in an effort to force desegregation. Judge Doris Smith-Ribner knew it in 1992, when she found that the District was “failing or refusing to provide … a quality education to children attending racially isolated minority schools.”

It wasn’t until 2009 that the SRC committed to implementing a plan to improve achievement in Philadelphia’s racially isolated schools.

We’re still waiting for that plan to work.

That’s why it’s imperative for every School District parent to understand the importance of this moment.

This is the moment when we must demand justice for our children, and this is the moment when we must demand justice for ourselves.

That means parents must make sure that a fair share of district-funded contracts go to Philadelphians of color. It means that in a district where the majority of children are classified as economically disadvantaged, district parents should receive more jobs and job training from the tax dollars we provide to the district. It means we must demand an annual audit of the money that is supposed to be educating our children.

It means, quite frankly, that parents must be the ultimate authority when it comes to our children’s education.

The federal government is not coming to rescue Philadelphia’s black and brown children. That was evident in June, when President Trump’s Department of Education stopped requiring its civil rights investigators to identify systemic issues in schools and school districts.

The state is not a reliable partner in educating our children, either. In fact, thanks to our state’s unfair funding formula, Pennsylvania boasts the biggest funding gap between rich and poor districts of any state in the country.

So while we hope that the mayor will improve district outcomes by appointing a school board, we must firmly grasp the reality that hope has never educated a child. But qualified teachers, committed parents, and fully funded schools have done miracles.

Like all parents of color, I look forward to the mayor’s proposed changes in the School District of Philadelphia. But parents can no longer wait for politicians to make things better for our children.

That’s our job. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get it done.

Listen to Solomon Jones weekdays from 10 a.m. to noon on Praise 107.9 FM.

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