Cherelle Parker can restore hope for Philadelphians with real educational reforms | Opinion

The following commentary was written by APPS co-founder Lisa Haver and published in Billy Penn on May 25, 2023

Students at McCall School in Center City in 2022. (Nathan Morris for Billy Penn)

What does Cherelle Parker’s nomination for mayor, and likely election in November, mean for the future of public education in Philadelphia? At this point, it’s hard to say.  

During the many quick-fire forums and debates leading up to the primary,  Parker’s responses on public school questions were similar to other candidates, with promises to fill the Board of Education with people who share her vision. 

As the details of her vision come into focus between now and the general election, Parker should make clear her commitment to hearing from the public — in particular, district stakeholders.   

Parker could decide to replace some or all members of the board, since the Home Rule Charter gives the mayor sole power to appoint members. Her first move should be to break from the current administration’s practice of shutting the public out of the selection process, by opening up all meetings of her appointed nominating panel, which reviews all applications to the board, interviews candidates, and makes recommendations to the mayor. 

Her first directive to the new board should be to rescind the speaker suppression policies.

Let students, parents, educators, and community members tell their new mayor who they want to represent them on a governmental body that oversees a $3.9 billion budget and makes decisions that affect the health, safety and future of our children and our communities. Of course, her first directive to the new board should be to rescind the speaker suppression policies and lift the speaker caps at all meetings. 

Parker campaigned on a plan to lengthen the school day and keep schools open all year, a plan that presents financial and logistical hurdles.

In the hurried mayoral forums, few questions were asked about how this might be funded or how the children would benefit. City kids, like all kids, need and deserve to be out playing in the fresh air, not stuck in school buildings with no air conditioning. Summer vacation gives some a chance to enjoy nature or visit extended family in other parts of the country, to go to camp or to the shore, or to swim in the city’s pools. High school students work summer jobs to support their families and save for college. 

Teachers and staff, meanwhile, work under 10-month contracts in a state-mandated 180-day school year. Many attend summer courses to enrich their professional knowledge and advance their careers. Several live outside the city and would be on a different schedule from their own children. The district, already struggling to recruit and retain teachers, might have to hire a separate temporary workforce to staff schools throughout the summer. 

Creating and funding an enriching educational program throughout the year makes a lot of sense. Kids and families would certainly benefit from having a place to go to hear and write music, to see and create art, to participate in sports and outdoor activities, to travel to the mountains and the shore. To have fun.

True leadership means challenging the status quo and enacting effective educational reforms.

Year-round school also seems a misplaced priority at a time when parents, students and educators have been testifying at Board of Education and City Council meetings about many other important issues — removal of lead and asbestos, recruitment of classroom aides and support staff, accountability from charter operators, establishment of safe corridors, and the reopening of more public pools.

Parker’s election can restore hope for Philadelphians deprived of real leadership in recent years. 

True leadership means challenging the status quo and enacting effective educational reforms. To that end, Parker has promised to “ensure that every district school has a certified librarian.” As a state representative, she supported a moratorium on charter expansion; as mayor she can direct the Board of Education to hold public charter renewal hearings. The district, under Parker’s direction, can institute proven reforms: lessening class size, providing needed mental health supports, and restoring support staff and classroom aides.  

Education remains one of the most critical and challenging issues for Philadelphia. Parker must govern as a defender of public education against the forces of privatization and division. Her first move must be to open all of the lines of communication and give parents, students, educators and community members a real say in the direction of our schools.