Monday, May 18, 2015

To fight for education, vote for Helen Gym

To fight for education, vote for Helen Gym:

To fight for education, vote for Helen Gym

TOMORROW we will head to the polls to vote in an election in which, for the first time in recent memory, education is seen as the most important issue in the city. Because of the growing importance of public education, over the course of the election season almost every candidate has laid out a vision for the future of our schools.

What must not be overlooked, however, is why education is in the stump speech of every candidate running for office right now. The truth is that education is at the top of voters' concerns and on the tip of politicians' lips due to the tireless work of advocates in this city who have fought to change the narrative about our city's schools and demand a public-education system that works for all of our children. Leading that charge for the last 20 years is City Council at-large candidate Helen Gym.

Helen has been at the forefront of the battle for fair funding for our schools for years. When the patronage-dense Philadelphia Parking Authority was cooking its books to show zero profits every year - profits that were mandated to go into our schools - Helen Gym organized parents and didn't back down. Today, the PPA pays millions of dollars into our schools every year.

When the School Reform Commission threatened to close Steel Elementary, the last public school in the Nicetown neighborhood, and convert it to a more expensive charter school, it was parents, and advocates like Helen Gym, who organized to stop them.

These are only a couple of examples of the work Helen has done for our communities over the years, and she'd be the first to tell you that she hasn't accomplished anything on her own, but with the support and teamwork of parents and activists from every neighborhood throughout our city. Helen was one of many Philadelphians who helped co-found the advocacy organization Parents United for Public Education, as well as the Public School Notebook, an independent newspaper that has reported on the conditions of our public schools for the last 20 years.

Tomorrow is a big day for the future of education in our city.


The Challengers: Helen Gym’s Aim — To Make Council Holds Schools Accountable

A series of Citified Q&As with the top Democratic challengers in the at-large City Council race.

Helen Gym | Photo by Alex Hogan

All week, Citified is featuring Q&As with leading at-large City Council Democratic challengers on topics of their choosing. The prompt was simple: if elected, what’s a problem you would you prioritize, and how would you address it? To keep the conversation substantive and on-point, we asked the candidates to focus on a relatively narrow question (i.e., not “schools,” or “crime.”)

Longtime schools activist Helen Gym is running an at-large campaign powered by an enthusiastic grassroots network of supporters, the backing of teacher unions and her own indomitable personality. Her presence on Council would surely shakeup a a legislative body that is, plainly, sick and tired of talking about the city’s struggling schools and the questions of how to fund them.

Gym would make schools her central focus if she is elected to Council. In particular, Gym wants to dramatically change Council's approach to schools oversight, and that's the subject she chose to discuss with Citified.

Citified: You want to talk about oversight. Not just City Council’s oversight of the School District, but of the mayor, and the mayor’s role vis-à-vis the School District. Is that right?

Gym: I want us to be really thoughtful about the city's engagement with the district. One of the things I’ve done — when we helped start the Notebook, we were very focused on the school budget and looking at data and research over time. And we're looking at budgets not just in terms of how numbers line up on a spreadsheet, but their impact on classrooms and teaching and learning and our ability to achieve the things we say we want to accomplish.

Because of that, I think I'm better prepared than anybody else currently sitting on City Council to really take a look and understand the district’s budget and hold the district accountable for what it’s saying.

Citified: So what does that look like? How do you actually do that?

Gym: Well, one is the district has a statement that every eight-year-old will be on reading level. I would want to know what our reading specialists look like. I’d want to do know how many kindergarteners had access to a functional school library. I'd want to know what class size looked like in K-2, and how that had changed over time. I’d definitely want to know about special needs students and how they’re being supported, and what our language access looks like for K-2. I don't see anybody in City Council looking at that in a very serious way.

Citified: So what’s the mechanism for that? City Council members will complain privately that the district doesn’t respect Council — that they ask for information and it’s not forthcoming. What’s the mechanism you would use to get the district to take Council seriously and respect its oversight role?

Gym: If council is serious about accountability it should hold hearings and conduct reports. It has subpoena power. It has the ability to compel testimony. It certainly has the right to access any and all data — they just have to know what data to ask for. That’s where I see the problem.

Council schedules all of one day of testimony in budget hearings for the district, and it’s the third largest budget in the state of Pennsylvania. I don’t think you're going to get good data in one day of hearings. And often it's not even one full day. It's just a couple of hours of prepared testimony. There’s very little data provided other than the district’s budget. There's very little research done ahead of time, and there's hardly any follow up that happens afterward.