by Pete Mazzaccaro

In less than three months, Democratic voters in Philadelphia will vote in a primary that is very likely to decide who will be the next mayor of Philadelphia.

Democratic nominees in this overwhelmingly Democratic city are very difficult to beat. The Democratic nominee is nearly a lock to succeed Mayor Michael Nutter who will finish his 8th year in office this December.

The city under Michael Nutter is largely in better shape than when he took office, especially considering the fact that his first year, 2009, was the worst one of a global recession that posed serious difficulties to the city and region and challenged his brand-new administration.

But one facet of Philadelphia that is no better now than it was 8, 10 or even 20 years ago, is the Philadelphia public school system, which poses, perhaps, the greatest threat to the city’s stability.

Public education – how to fix and fund it – is quickly becoming the number one issue in the Democratic primary as candidates grapple with the big picture. Central to that debate is the way the city, through the state controlled School Reform Commission, controls charter schools.

The main point of contention over charter schools is funding. The question: Are charter schools worth the cost or is the money spent on charters better spent improving public schools?

It’s a question for which an absolute answer – a strict yes or no – is not easy.

In a perfect world, I think the answer would be simple. Yes, it would be better to take the hundreds of millions of dollars due charter schools and apply them to the public system. It would shore up the expected $80 million shortfall in the public school budget, a budget in which funds for essentials like school librarians, nurses, counselors and textbooks are always under constant threat.

Some charters are very successful, though others make headlines for breaking recruitment rules or just simply running scams to use charter school contracts to steal public money. Further restricting charters and tightening regulation seems like a prudent thing to do.

But the charters right now have an imperfect world in their favor.

Philadelphia’s public schools are struggling with sagging budgets in tough neighborhoods that demand a level of service suburban counterparts don’t have to deal with (though it’s fair to say Philadelphia is hardly the only Pennsylvania public school district with money and performance issues).

Because public schools scare a lot of parents who can’t afford private schools, charters remain very much in demand.

According to a recent accounting by the Philadelphia Daily News, more than 62,000 students – roughly one-third of the Philadelphia School District’s total population – are enrolled in a charter school. Waiting lists for charter schools are thousands of students long as parents in neighborhoods with poorly performing schools are quite literally desperate for a public choice – an option.

It’s not enough to argue against charter schools simply on a money-available basis. Voters aren’t particularly convinced that money alone can improve public schools. Charters will remain in demand until a comprehensive reform of public schools can go from talk to action.