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Jim Kenney cares a lot about the children of Philadelphia. Has he done enough for its schools?

Keeping the ship on course

Kenney wants the city to be involved in what he calls “the entire continuum of our kids having structure in their lives.”

Part of that structure is, of course, the traditional K-12 education system.

In late 2017, on Kenney’s urging, the state-controlled School Reform Commission disbanded. It was a banner moment for Kenney and education advocates who pushed for the commission’s dissolution almost as soon as it emerged in 2001.

The move gave Kenney the kind of control over the city’s school system his predecessors lacked. He chose all nine members of the school board that replaced the SRC. He could have used the moment to introduce major reforms or replace Superintendent William Hite.

He didn’t.

“I didn’t want to blow up the ship because I like Dr. Hite,” said Kenney. “I think he’s doing a great job. If he had the resources he has now, five years ago, we’d be much farther ahead than we are.”

So where are we?

Test scores and graduation rates have increased under the current leadership, but growth has been slow and city schools still lag way behind state averages.

The number of Philadelphia third-graders reading at grade level, according to state testing, has improved as the district invested more in early literacy. But even with those improvements, about two-thirds of third-graders aren’t considered proficient.

Previous Mayor Michael Nutter set an ambitious goal around graduation rates — giving the city a concrete standard on which to judge his performance. Kenney has not done the same. There have been no promises of specific, quantifiable outcomes for initiatives such as pre-K and community schools.

Kenney says he knows community schools are working because of “the number of people participating from the community.”

Kenney referenced a recent event at Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School in North Philadelphia, where he said about 300 adults came out to learn about financial literacy and job training.

“To me, it’s clearly visual,” he said. “It’s energized the community.”

Many traditional public school advocates agree, describing Kenney as a champion of working teachers, a rebuke to President Donald Trump’s education secretary.

“Instead of looking the Betsy DeVos-style education reform efforts of charterization and privatization, the mayor listened to educators and he listened to us when we said this is the investment agenda we’re looking for in our schools,” said Linardopoulos, with the PFT.

Kenney hopes new energy around Philadelphia schools will reverse decades of discord.

And even some who’ve sparred with union advocates over the years think he’s on to a winning formula.

“Stability is huge,” said Farah Jimenez, a frequent charter school supporter who was on the School Reform Commission through an especially tumultuous period for city schools.

That era included a record number of school closures, budget crises, standoffs with leaders in Harrisburg, highly polarized charter school decisions, and years of labor unrest. Disbanding the SRC removed a political distraction, Jimenez said and has allowed the district to gain a sense of relative normalcy.

“It sounds like a low bar,” said Jimenez, who now runs the Philadelphia Education Fund. “But given where we’ve been before, it’s actually not a very low bar in Philadelphia.”

A charter skeptic?

The mayor sees his approach to the school district — one focused on consistency and investment — as a long-term play.

“The problem is that people expect short-term solutions to long-term problems,” said Kenney. “It’s a big ocean liner. It takes a long time to turn.”

David Hardy, a former charter school leader who now advocates for more school choice as part of the group Excellent Schools PA, thinks the mayor’s approach lacks the necessary urgency.

“If your child is in second grade today, they need a second grade that’s going to work for them,” Hardy said.

Hardy says the mayor has been too cautious, given that there are still many low-performing schools. Hardy wants more charter options and worries that the Kenney-chosen school board has an adversarial stance on the publicly financed, privately run schools that educate about a third of Philadelphia’s public school students.

“I think what he’s trying to do is figure out a way to save the school district,” Hardy said. “Saving the school school district should not be the mayor’s goal. Having good education for the children should be the mayor’s goal.”

Kenney is against more charter schools, at least for the moment.

He doesn’t support further charter expansion, he said, until the state revives a funding stream that acknowledged the added costs that districts incur because of charters.

Again, Kenney’s argument comes back to resources.

“We can’t afford two separate systems where one system pays for it,” Kenney said.

Charters could, conceivably, be a wedge issue between Kenney and one his Democratic challengers, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams.

Williams ran against Kenney in 2015 and has traditionally supported school choice. He also wants to raise new money for schools without raising property taxes. Williams says this could be accomplished through taxing marijuana — if it’s legalized — and by forcing the state to cover the cost of operating the local court system.

Kenney’s other opponent, Alan Butkovitz, also paints himself as a fiscal whiz. The former controller believes he could do a better job identifying waste in the school district and fighting for dollars in Harrisburg, where he once was a state representative.

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