Did Philly voters send a clear message on education Tuesday?

Charles Mostoller

The city’s education system has consistently ranked as voters’ top concerns. So what do the results of Tuesday’s election say about what residents want?

Consider this: the mayoral candidate most identified with support for charter schools — Tony Williams — lost in a landslide.

Meanwhile, Helen Gym, who rallied public school parents and made public education a centerpiece of her campaign, came in fifth among a slate of 12 candidates for city council in a race that dislodged two incumbents. That was enough to win an at-large council seat, but her margin over the sixth-place candidate, who will not be going to council, amounted to 0.2 percent of the vote.

But observers of the race say it’s unclear that any coherent narrative can emerge from voting patterns. That’s because many candidates did not emphasize education policy as part of their campaigns.

“I think that while education was not a deciding factor, I do believe that education remains a top priority for voters,” said Lawrence Jones, board president of Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools and CEO of Richard Allen Prep Charter School.

In general, areas where Williams did his best also saw disproportionately large share of people casting a symbolic vote to abolish the School Reform Commission. That could be a reaction to the SRC’s decision in February not to approve five new charter schools, far less than advocates hoped for. But many observers cautioned against reading too much into that data point, because while in some districts support for the ballot measure hit 85 percent, it took 75 percent across the city.

The mayor and the council have little direct control over the School Reform Commission, which is, essentially, the city’s school board. The mayor appoints two members to the commission, the governor appoints three. But the commission has no independent ability to levy taxes. For revenue, it must turn to city council and state government.

Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters PA, says Gym’s seat on council in the face of advantages held by incumbents is a strong indicator that education policy did matter to voters.

She said that when it comes time to set the district’s next budget, voters will be watching.

“They’re going to want the current city council to make sure they are putting stuff on the table to make sure schools are supported and secured,” Gobreski said.

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