Philadelphia should use multiple school districts

Posted: August 14, 2011

Joseph M. McColgan

is a Republican candidate for City Council at large

In Pennsylvania, 66 of the state's 67 counties have an openly elected school board. If the lone holdout in this system of parental and community involvement was a success story, I am certain the whole country would know about it. Unfortunately, the holdout is Philadelphia, and we are known for quite the opposite of success.

It is clear to me and many other Philadelphia parents that our school district is in desperate need of reform. This is why I have been calling for City Council to spearhead the planning for a freely elected regional school board system across the city. Before Harrisburg will consider ending its control of the district through the "temporary" School Reform Commission (SRC), the city must have a new governance plan ready.

It is clear that the SRC has not brought the change and reform that our children need and deserve. The same goes for the school district's bureaucracy-heavy central administration.

You've heard of companies being "too big to fail." In Philadelphia, we have a school district that is "too big to succeed." We need to break down this calcified monstrosity and move to smaller and more manageable school districts that are controlled at the community level.

Just as different cities in Pennsylvania have varying strengths and weaknesses, so do different parts of our great city. Reforms that might make sense for a particular part of the Northeast may not work in South or West Philadelphia. We pride ourselves on the diversity and uniqueness of Philadelphia's communities, so why be surprised that the school district's "one size fits all" approach is failing?

How would a city with several school districts work? Look no further than neighboring Delaware County to answer that question. That county has one-third the population of Philadelphia, yet it has 15 school districts. Each one has a school board responsible to the voters, parents, and taxpayers who elect them, and who directly oversee their district superintendent.

In Philadelphia, we need to start emphasizing accountability and develop a three-step plan of action.

First, City Council and Mayor Nutter should begin lobbying Gov. Corbett and the state legislature to dissolve the SRC and return control of our schools back to Philadelphia.

Second, the mayor and the SRC should immediately terminate the contract of School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman on the grounds of gross mismanagement of the district.

Third, and most important, City Council and the mayor should move toward creating locally elected, regional school boards in the city, thus returning management of the schools to the people. This would empower parents, who will no longer feel caught up in the school district's calcified bureaucracy. Curriculums could be designed for the local schools rather than attempting to implement a single policy across neighborhoods. Taxing authority would remain in Council's hands, but each regional school board would select its own superintendent.

Wherever one stands on the contentious issues facing our school district and its superintendent, we agree on one thing: The current system is a failure. We desperately need to create a school system that addresses the opportunities and challenges our students will face in a globalized economy. Let's create an urban agenda focusing on education that becomes the model for other cities across the United States.

It's time for Philadelphia's parents and voters to take control. Our great city's future is at stake.

E-mail Joseph M. McColgan at

comments powered by Disqus