by Jay A. McCalla
“Promises are like pie crust, made to be broken” is a phrase widely misattributed. Some credit Vladimir Lenin and others may have first discovered the phrase in the writings of Jonathan Swift. A tiny bit of research reveals its first recorded use was on Aug.16, 1681, by one Heraclitus Ridens, a popular satirist of his time.
Like today’s Jon Stewart and John Oliver, Ridens was an astute political observer who — like any good satirist — could penetrate facades and present truth in an amusing, memorable way. But Ridens’ insight has unusually endured as a “gospel truth” about politicians, wherever they practice, and their intrinsic undependability.
This all comes to mind because in Philadelphia the rubber is coming to meet the road. That is, there now exists a window of opportunity to extinguish the School Reform Commission and resume local control of our public schools. All the politicians who provided generous “lip service” in opposition to the state-controlled body will now be called to make good on their copious verbiage.
Many will recall that Mayor John Street negotiated the state takeover in exchange for substantial financial assistance. The commission has five members with three appointed by the governor and two by the mayor. The difference between three and two may seem slight, but on the commission it is absolute and assures ironclad state control.
The relationship was fine until Governor Tom Corbett in 2011 reneged on the spirit of the relationship by cutting support to Philadelphia schools by more than $300 million, leaving us hollow and shell-shocked. Since then, we’ve struggled under state control but without real state help.
Last year, a poll established public support for the SRC at 11 percent, and politicians jumped on a bandwagon they hoped would never move. It’s easy to take a public position when the likelihood of accountability is slim. But, now education activists are calling the bluff of Governor Wolf, Council President Darrell Clarke and other members of City Council who are on record supporting the restoration of local control. Thus far, there has been silence.
Mayor Kenney has been a bit more cagey than those who verbally oppose the SRC without equivocating. The mayor equivocates. Somewhere in his many considerations, he sees enough upside to state control that he is not eager to support its dissolution. Hence, he is mum.
This is where political behavior becomes insufferably self-serving. Kenney, a 25-year veteran of City Council, certainly knows what he thinks about the SRC. He knows right now. If it were a popular opinion — in accordance with the 89 percent who oppose — he’d announce it. It seems reasonable that he is withholding his opinion because it will be unpopular.
Kenney seems deeply concerned with appearing to break a promise, and his office reminds us he never committed to a particular timeline for dissolution, dodging the question of whether or not he supports dissolution at all. Kenney broke his campaign pledge to end Stop and Frisk which still rankles some African American voters. While that broken promise may have been a learning experience, the response cannot be an utter lack of candor on something so major as school control.
If education activists are reading the law correctly, Aug.17 is the last day to initiate the dismantling. If Kenney’s staff is honestly and correctly reading the law, the deadline is December (by the time this column is published, part of the truth will be known).
Kenny’s dilemma expands because the further he delays a deeply unpopular decision, the more memorable this breach of faith will be as he gears up to run for a second term, sometime next year. African Americans may connect the dots between Stop and Frisk and the public schools on which their children rely and become indifferent towards the Mayor.
Mr. Ridens’ abiding truth warns us about political behavior, what to expect from public leaders and may explain why we make so little progress on so many fronts. He might advise Mayor Kenney to lay his cards on the table, end his cynical inscrutability and let the chips fall where they may. But, that would be very unpolitical.
Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.