This column appeared in
the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, March 1, 1998
By VINCENT J. FUMO, State
By VINCENT J. FUMO, State Senator
In 500 school districts across Pennsylvania, citizens engage in a basic right of democracy — they elect the leaders who decide how their tax money will be spent to educate their children.
Only one of the state’s 501 school districts denies voting privileges to its residents. That district’s public schools are among the worst in Pennsylvania. That district is 65 times the average size of Pennsylvania’s other school districts. That district’s working, tax-paying families reluctantly pack up and move to the suburbs (where they do elect school boards) or turn to non-public schools in search of a good education for their children, because they feel helpless to improve their public schools. That district, of course, is Philadelphia, and it has lost its constituency.
The other school districts in Pennsylvania are not perfect, but their residents at least can exert some influence over the quality of schools in their own community. Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, and the people should think of their schools -- not just the buildings but also the essence of what goes on inside -- as part of their neighborhoods.
Parents, students and teachers must feel they have an honest stake in local education. So, too, must the 80 percent of Philadelphians who do not have children in the public schools but pay taxes to support them. These taxpayers who currently have no faith in public education are also important stakeholders in the process.
As long as the school system is run by an impersonal, remote bureaucracy, most citizens will not believe that the school district is capable of responding to the needs of students.
I want to give people in the neighborhoods a real sense of involvement in the education of the community’s children. The cluster concept introduced by the current school superintendent is a step in the right direction, but we must go beyond that to give people a meaningful say in how their schools are managed.
By creating 22 separate school districts with elected school boards, we would restore a connection between the general population and the education system. We could divide the vast problems facing education into manageable size and conquer them on the local level.
If we follow the urban Legislative Commission’s recommendation and create 22 separate districts, each would have an average student population of just under 10,000. It is mind boggling to consider that each of these districts would still be among the largest in the state. The other 500 districts in Pennsylvania serve an average of 3,200 students. Philadelphia has 215,000.
Other districts are not corrupt just because they are smaller and elect their leaders. They are not patronage havens. Is Philadelphia’s education establishment so elitist as to believe that the basic tenets of democracy are immoral and unwise? If so, should we change the way we choose all of our leaders? Should a committee pick the governor? Should the governor pick the mayor?
In the restructured school district, we would retain the advantages offered by a citywide system. We would have the citywide intermediate unit offer those services which lend themselves to economies of scale, such as special education, transportation, or purchasing and procurement. We would still distribute city school tax money to ensure that none of the new districts is harmed financially.
The state funding sources would be distributed by formula, which when triggered on the 22 districts would mean that the city’s poorer districts would receive an even larger portion of state funds. In general, I agree that the state ought to provide more resources, but money alone is not the answer.
We have tried a large central bureaucracy and it has failed dramatically. Let’s give people in each part of town a chance to improve their own schools. Let’s allow schools to be run by the method our founding fathers fought to hand down to us -- democratically.
Copyright 2000 Sen. Vincent J. Fumo