Students and families outside Julia de Burgos Elementary School in Kensington. (Brian Mengini for Thetelegraphfield)

If the people of Philadelphia had the right to vote for our school board representatives, there’s a good chance a majority would vote for Reginald Streater, who recently became Board of Education president.

With the absence of any public vetting process around the makeup of the board — the only one in Pennsylvania whose members are appointed instead of elected — the best we can do is ask President Streater to tell the public what he intends to do as one of the city’s most important leaders.

The critical question: Will Streater have the strength to buck the status quo and move the district toward real reform?

Streater himself is a graduate of the city’s public schools. He sends his kids to a neighborhood public school. He has expressed dedication to all the city’s children and promises they will be his first consideration in all official decisions. He has been truly open to differing opinions and challenges to his positions.

That’s a lucky thing. In a truly democratic system — one that holds government officials accountable to the people they represent — it wouldn’t be left to chance. Philly voters would examine school board candidates’ records, consider their positions on education issues, assess their characters, then elect the best to do the job, which entails overseeing a $4 billion annual budget and making decisions that affect the present and future of families and communities citywide.

But Streater and the eight other Philadelphia school board members were chosen by the mayor at the culmination of a process closed to the public.

Streater’s 13-minute acceptance speech after taking over as board president in December was heartfelt — but offered few specifics on how he intends to improve education for the district’s children.

To his credit, Streater has provided more detail in several recent interviews. But there remain too many unanswered questions about how he will govern.

More than once, Streater has told reporters he wants to “de-politicize education.” What does that mean? When most of the school district budget comes from the city and the state, de-politicizing could equate to not fighting for fair funding. Philadelphia needs parents, students, educators, and community members demanding their elected officials fund and support public schools — so they can send their children to be educated safely in non-toxic buildings. The well-funded and politically connected forces behind privatization are not going to recall their lobbyists from the halls of power anytime soon.

Streater’s wish for de-politicization makes even less sense in light of his statement that “advocacy” must be one of the board’s main activities.

Advocacy means challenging the status quo. The much-touted return of local control to Philadelphia (which actually translated as mayoral control) has not brought any real reform. The board’s spending priorities largely mirror those of the now-dissolved and much-maligned School Reform Commission, with too many dollars going to outsourcing and consultants and too little spending on resources for struggling schools.

Streater, like leaders before him, promises more public engagement. His first step should be to rescind the board’s speaker suppression policies that capped the number of commenters at public meetings and cut their time from three minutes to two.

Parents should not be silenced when they try to ask the board why their children’s schools are not healthy or safe; community members must be able to ask the board why it approved a massive contract with an outside consultant to accompany the new superintendent. Students and educators should not be kept from speaking about any of the issues they face in their schools. Streater should end the board’s move toward governance by invitation. True public engagement means hearing from all people — including those who are critical.

President Streater should lead the board in funding proven reforms including restoring fully resourced and staffed school libraries; hiring more support staff, classroom aides and counselors; and lowering class size.

After years of promises, the students and families of the district deserve no less.


Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher and co-founder and coordinator of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools: @APPSphilly .

Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher. She is co-founder and coordinator of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, a grassroots advocacy organization.