Better Said Than Ed

(February 2015)

We are told again and again that education will be THE issue of the 2015 mayoral campaign, but I would much rather hear candidates talk about something they can do something about.  Frankly, if education is what mayoral candidates are going to talk about, they might as well offer their Philadelphia weather platform.  Much as the joke goes about how people love to talk about the weather, but never do much about it, all of the candidates can talk all they want about education, but as mayor, they will have so very little to do to make change.

The mayor is not in charge of the schools and neither chooses the School Superintendent nor sets educational policy.  The mayor may wield influence, but leveraging a few extra dollars here or advocating for a few changes there only affects our children's education at the margins.  Every mayor in my lifetime has talked about his commitment to children or claimed the mantle of "education mayor," but our schools have stumbled from crisis to crisis and remain in need of so much improvement.  Worst of all, there is simply not a model for success that any Philadelphia mayor could copy in terms of achieving satisfying excellence for all students in any large urban school district in America.

So here is the deal I would love us to collectively strike.  Let us all -- candidates, media, and citizens -- agree that all mayoral candidates care deeply about Philadelphia children and that all will do whatever they can (given their very limited power with regard to schools) to improve educational outcomes.  Then, let's focus the attention in this important race on how the candidates will make the changes that provide the conditions under which children, families, and communities can have the city we deserve. 

What can a mayor do?  Philadelphia's strong mayor has tremendous power when it comes to running the agencies of the government.  The mayor decides how trash is collected, how police are deployed, and how health services are delivered.  Subject to the approval of city council, the mayor determines how the city taxes its residents and businesses and how the city spends its money.  Perhaps most significantly, as the most prominent political figure in the city, the mayor can use that bully pulpit to marshal government resources and power to accomplish grand projects.

Let's hear mayoral candidates talk about running city government better.  

We deserve a cleaner city -- none of our neighbors deserves to live in "Philthydelphia."  How will we make our neighborhoods cleaner?  

We deserve a safe city.  How will we prevent citizens from becoming victims of crime; address the evolving roles of fire and EMS personnel to meet emergency needs of our citizenry; reconfigure licensing and inspections to ensure that buildings across the city are stable and maintained; and protect pedestrians and cyclists from vehicular traffic?

We deserve quality public infrastructure and amenities and our urban environment can be improved in every neighborhood.  How will we improve library, park, and recreational facilities; develop our river fronts; improve our roads and bridges; and rationally plan and maintain our physical infrastructure for the future?

Let's hear mayoral candidates talk about taxing and spending.

We deserve a tax structure that works -- too many firms and families still choose to live and grow elsewhere.  How will we create a 21st Century tax structure to grow jobs and neighbors?  

We deserve a budget that funds excellent city services.  Our budget is always stressed, but the city's unfunded pension liability continues to grow and now more than $400 million -- about 10 percent of the entire city budget is spent filling that hole instead of on services that citizens consume.  How can we be fair to pensioners, city workers, and citizens to address this issue, which continues to drive up taxes as it drives down city services?  How can we improve the neighborhood services that attract and retain residents, fund arts and cultural programs that ennoble city living; and address the crushing concentration of poverty that threatens too many communities?  And, how can we make that budget transparent so that we can demand accountability to make sure the spending of our dollars makes sense?

Let's hear mayoral candidates talk about big plans we can accomplish together.

We deserve to accomplish great undertakings like the creation of Fairmount Park, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and the Commuter-Rail Tunnel which have benefited generations of Philadelphians.  How can we work together to remake our city in a lasting way?  Can we connect the Broad Street line to the Navy Yard?  Expand rapid mass-transit along the Roosevelt Boulevard?  Cap I-95 through Center City?  To which huge-scale effort will the next mayor commit to focus us on to create a legacy for the future?

We all care about education, but we all should all understand how little any mayor can do about it.  Instead, let's focus the rhetoric of the campaign, the coverage of the media, and our questions on areas where we can demand, and achieve, positive change.  Then, let's elect a mayor who we believe will work with us to make Philadelphia a preferred place to live, work, and visit -- and help us create the city we deserve.