Will Mayor Nutter lead a movement to save our schools?
Michael Nutter talked a great deal about education during his reelection campaign. His inaugural speech focused on education. He said he wanted to take on responsibility for the schools.
But today the SRC announced that the School District in Philadelphia is going to be drastically downsized. Many schools will be closed. More students will attend charter schools. In a school system that has already suffered devastating cutbacks, even if some of these changes make for a more efficient use of resources, the overall consequences for our kids cannot be good. None of the suggested administrative changes deal with the fundamental problem–we don’t have the resources to provide our kids with the minimal requirements of a decent education. We don’t have money for enough quality teachers, teacher training, school books, and counselors.
And the financial problem we face comes from Harrisburg and Governor Corbett’s relentless attack on school funding. That has me wondering if Michael Nutter has forgotten his top priority or is simply unwilling to do what it takes to address the funding problem schools face at its source, that is, in Harrisburg.
How they do it in New York
And I’ve been struck one more time about how different politics in this city and state is from that which I grew up with in the Catskills, about 90 miles Northwest of the New York City. Because we were liberals, lived in a resort area that catered to folks from the city, and got New York City TV, we tended to look at the state politics from the city’s point of view.
And pretty much every year, in late February or early March, we were treated to a political extravaganza, when the Mayor of New York bitterly attacked the State Legislature for being insufficiently generous to the city. (New York State must pass a budget by April 30, so budget season is compressed.) The issue changed from year to year. Sometimes the dispute was over aid to public schools. Sometimes it was over funding for the transit system, the MTA. Sometimes it was over aid to that extraordinary institution at which I’m proud to say I once taught, the City University. Sometimes it was over an increase in the City’s commuter tax or the state’s share of pensions. Sometimes it was on a number of these issues at once.
Sometimes the Mayor traveled up the river to Albany, flanked by other state and city politicians, civic leaders, labor leaders and others. Sometimes the Mayor launched his campaign from City Hall. Much of the time he was flanked by political leaders from other jurisdictions which also were seeking more state aid from Albany.
It didn’t matter whether which party controlled held the office of Mayor or Governor. Democratic Mayor Robert Wagner and Republican Mayor John Lindsay both took on Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Democratic Mayor Abe Beame took on Democratic Governor Hugh Carey while Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani complained bitterly about Republican Governor George Pataki.
And much of the time, the city successfully used public pressure to get much more money out of the state.
Can’t we do it here?
Someone who grew up looking at this history, can’t help but wondering why Mayor Nutter is not leading a statewide charge against Governor Corbett’s horrendous budgets, which have cut state funding for our schools by an enormous amount, as well as cutting health care and social services.
Of course, Philadelphia does not carry the weight in Pennsylvania that New York City does in the State of New York. But Governor Corbett’s budget cuts are not just hurting us in Philadelphia. Cities and towns all over the state are suffering. Many of those cities are governed by Democrats, and every County with a commissioner form of government has at least one Democratic member. And, in Pennsylvania, like New York, state support for local government, and especially for schools, is not necessarily a partisan matter. Republicans as well as Democratic school districts care about quality education and are reluctant to raise taxes to deal with budget shortfalls. Don’t forget, too, that Mayor Nutter is extremely popular in the Philadelphia suburbs among Republicans as well as Democrats.
There are some really strong advocacy groups for the school. And there are the teachers unions. They are extremely active on the issue and could play an important role in an even more vigorous campaign. But they don’t have the capacity to gain the attention of the media or to bring along elected officials that Mayor Nutter does. Nor do they have his capacity to raise enough money to support a major grassroots effort.
With the Mayor taking the lead, however, we could quickly build a powerful campaign for blocking the Corbett school funding cuts and perhaps even to use some of the state budget surplus to restore last year’s drastic reductions.
I know, I know what the Mayor’s advisors will say to this suggestion. “That’s not how we do things in Pennsylvania.” “The Mayor can’t afford to piss off the Governor and General Assembly because he needs them to support his property tax homestead exemption or some other legislation.” “Mayor Street tried this on gun control and got nowhere.” “If we lobby quietly, we’ll get more out of the General Assembly.” “The Republicans are so far to the right they won’t ever vote for new state support for schools.”
Those are valid points. And they might be right. But, folks, the schools in this city are on life support. Playing by the inside rules is not likely to get them out of intensive care especially since we don’t have powerful insiders like Vince Fumo or Dwight Evans in a position to do inside deals. If there was ever a time to try to the outside game it is when we are bound to be clobbered in the inside game.
And the fact is that school funding is something for which there is bi-partisan support in parts of the state. It is something that is especially important to Republicans in Southeast PA. And we do have a massive Democratic voter advantage in our state. If there is an issue on which Tom Corbett and his radical right wing supporters can be stopped, it is on education funding.
There is no alternative to the Mayor’s leadership.
So the issue, I believe, is not whether this strategy makes sense. What the school district told us today is that we really don’t have a choice.
The question is whether Michael Nutter is willing to be the kind of politician who puts himself on the line for something he purports to care deeply about. The Nutter administration has done a lot of good. And it has punted on a lot of tough issues. The question everyone in politics in this city keeps asking is whether the Mayor cares deeply enough about anything to take a real risk and put his weight behind it.
It’s time for the Mayor to show us the answer. He can be the Mayor who led a statewide effort to stand up against a right wing movement that aims to destroy public education. Or he can go down in history as the Mayor who presided over that destruction.