Was school choice on the ballot in Philadelphia Tuesday?

 Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym is demanding an investigation of the School Reform Commission. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym is demanding an investigation of the School Reform Commission. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Three billionaires gave more than $6 million to support a candidate in favor of school choice, namely state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, in this year’s Democratic primary for Philadelphia mayor.

But at the polls Tuesday night, voters pushed more buttons for public education stalwarts like Helen Gym instead.

While the mayoral candidates resisted being painted with a broad brush — traditional public vs. charter — in the days leading up to the election, endorsements seemed to paint a different picture. PACs backing Williams funded by pro-school choice billionaires put out ads while the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers stumped for former City Councilman Jim Kenney, who won the nomination.

NewsWorks reached out to some educators and advocates and asked if the results constitute a reckoning for charter schools.

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Similarities of candidates

As WHYY’s Dave Davies wrote in his election recap, education was talked about a great deal in the lead-up to the primary, but not actually that much of a deciding factor.

Supporters of Williams, including former City Councilman George Burrell, agreed. He said education wasn’t that divisive during the race because sides never crystallized.

“I think that the charter debate never became a real issue in the debate … all the candidates said they were for good schools, whether they’re public schools, charter schools, or parochial schools,” said Burrell, now the chief operating officer of Universal Companies, which runs some charter schools.

Other members of the charter school community also resisted stark categorization of the candidates.

Principal of charter school KIPP Elementary, Ben Speicher, tweeted about his choices: Williams AND Gym, who has championed accountability in the school district and more funding for public schools.

.@JoinTeamTony gets my vote for his support of high quality education for all kids in Philly.

— Ben Speicher (@benspeicher) May 19, 2015

Disagree w/lots of details re: education w/ @HelenGym2015 but we need more people w/her commitment to Philly in office. She got my vote.

— Ben Speicher (@benspeicher) May 19, 2015

Whither the charter school voting bloc?

With more than 60,000 children in charter schools in Philadelphia, and thousands more on waitlists, charter schools would seem to have a lot of voters to mobilize. No one had a definitive answer on where these votes went, but some shared their theories.

But low voter turnout makes it too difficult to extract mandates from the primary, said Laurence Jones, board president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charters.

“The voter impact, the voter turnout, was more of a referendum on the entire city,” said Jones. “I don’t think it was necessarily a referendum on school choice or public education.”

Only about one in four Philadelphians eligible to vote in the primary did so.

Burrell, who supported Williams, said the outcome shows voters are more comfortable with “the devil they know.”

“They have become accustomed to labor unions being aggressively involved,” said Burrell. “They have not been accustomed to three very wealthy suburbanites [from the Susquehanna International Group] investing the kind of money in the campaign that they invested.”

There is no disputing that the race invigorated the teachers union’s involvement in getting out the vote among its members and supporters of public schools. But the inverse lack of a coherent charter voting bloc is not to say that some didn’t try to mobilize their troops.

CEO of Boys’ Latin Charter, David Hardy, caused a stir Tuesday when teacher and writer Andrew Saltz shared a letter from the CEO on Twitter, telling staff repeatedly not to vote for Gym — and to vote for Williams.

Because it’s about my kids, and my kids only. #phled #PHL2015 #NextMayorPHL pic.twitter.com/Ak2M2b2x3L

— Andrew Saltz (@mr_saltz) May 19, 2015

In response to queries and media coverage, Hardy called the letter “tongue-in-cheek” and “a joke.”

‘Terms of election set before race began’

The winners see things a bit differently. An education activist who dislodged an City Council incumbent in the race for an at-large seat, Gym said her campaign responded to existing desires for more attention to public education.

“The terms of this municipal election were set before the race even began,” said Gym. “It was defined by an education community that has tried to prioritize education, resources in school, and a narrative that moves away from the kind of dialogue that looks at our schools and talks about them as failures.”

She said a lot of voters could get behind her education plans should she be elected to City Council, which include funding, accountability for the school district, more resources in schools and acknowledging the link between schools and their surrounding neighborhoods.

Gym, who helped found the Folk Arts and Cultural Treasures charter school, said she’s not against charters. Her view, she said, is “charter schools are a supplement, not a replacement for public schools.” She said she stands for charter schools in a role that doesn’t involve hurting traditional public schools.

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