Democratic senate candidate Brian Gralnick. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

Democratic senate candidate Brian Gralnick. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Education was a hot topic at a 4th Senatorial District candidates’ forum hosted by Mt. Airy-Nippon-Bryan-Cheshire Town Watch on Thursday, May 1. More than a dozen residents crowded into the living room of 114 Nippon St., hoping to listen to incumbent LeAnna Washington and contenders Brian Gralnick and Art Haywood present their platforms.

Although each candidate had promised to attend, Brian Gralnick was the only candidate who spoke at the forum.

While Senator LeAnna Washington, who faces charges that she used her legislative offices for campaign purposes, did attend the meeting briefly, she had to leave unexpectedly due to “a campaign emergency.” Derek Green, a representative for Washington, did speak on her behalf. Also in attendance was Maisha Jackson, campaign manager for Art Haywood, who apologized for Haywood’s absence.

The event was moderated by Steve Stroiman, one of the founders of the Town Watch. It was not a debate, but simply an opportunity to discuss the candidates’ positions on education, gun violence and other issues.

Mary Greenway, of West Mt. Airy, said legislators at the state and local level have “abandoned … one of the biggest civil rights issues – public education.”

“It’s awful,” Greenway said. “It’s horrible. It’s close to child abuse. The fact that we have just abandoned public education.”

Contender Brian Gralnick, of Elkins Park, agreed.

“We have students in public schools that are literally barely surviving at a time when young people ought to be thriving,” Gralnick said. “Not only are the governor’s cuts to education outrageous, I think it’s a bad investment for the commonwealth. It only means we will be putting more money into the social safety net, into our prison system, which we already spend too much money on.”

Gralnick said public education needs to the top priority of every elected official in Harrisburg.

“It was when the incumbent voted for vouchers that I decided to take a hard look at getting into this campaign,” Gralnick said. “We shouldn’t be doing drives for book bags and school books like people who are living in a food pantry that’s no way to treat our public school students.”

Gralnick said the state needs to “take a close look at whether or not we are fulfilling our constitutional mandate for an adequate, sufficient education.”

“It’s absolutely urgent that we get a state funding formula that takes into account poverty-levels in a school district, the number of students with special needs, the number of students who speak english as a second language, and the resources that the school district can bring – the amount of taxable property that the district has.”

Gralnick said he was committed to making lives better by strengthening the middle class.

Bobbi Horowitz, 7200 block of Bryan Street, said most people would agree that the public schools are in horrific financial shape.

“What I am seeking is leadership that takes into account the sensitivity of the constituents but also leads,” Horowitz said. “At some point you either back public education and believe it is fundamental to what we are about or you say we what we need to do is back a charter school.”

Maisha Jackson, campaign manager for Art Haywood, agreed that charter schools are an important part of discussion.

Jackson said Haywood, moved from Germantown to Cheltenham because of “Philadelphia’s educational deficit.”

“Haywood is committed to making public education work by keeping an eye on the big picture,” Jackson said. “What is the quality of education that most of the children of this city? Kids in Philadelphia receive a poor education.

“If a child needs to learn how to read now, and if the public education system isn’t doing that it’s unfair to force parents to be in the position that they are in – where – it’s take it or leave it.”

“As bad as the overall school district is for the general population, it is worse for the Latino students,” Jackson said. “One of the projects Art helped build with Esperanza is a charter school that was culturally sensitive and allowed these young people to grow by decades – literally in their educational achievement.”

Jackson said as a senator Haywood would fight to restore Corbett’s cuts to education.

“Kids aren’t learning – not because they don’t have quality teachers or because they are dumb,” Jackson said. “It’s because Philadelphia doesn’t have a tax-base that adequately supports our schools within the current funding scheme.”

“For many parents this is not a five-years-down-the-road issue, or a year down the road, this is a today issue,” Jackson said. “If children aren’t reading by 3rd grade, it’s very difficult for them to catch up.”

Jackson said Haywood will take steps to address the lack of transparency and oversight of charter schools.

“Charter schools have evolved as a counter measure and they are not being as managed as well as they should be, and it’s not surprising because if we are not managing the big house, we are not going to manage the smaller houses.”

Gralnick agreed that more oversight is needed for charter schools, especially cyber charter schools.

“Cyber charter schools have gone from a cause, to an institution to a racket – it’s so easy for entities to just start a charter school.” Gralnick said.

When Gralnick was asked about the difference between his views and Haywood’s on charter school, he said he believed that Haywood is a little more pro charter.

“I think there are a number of charter schools that ought to be closed down, and there should be proper oversight,” Gralnick said. “I would support a limited number of charter schools. I think there are a few models in which we can test for public education.”

Attendee Mary Greenway said she didn’t think Sen. Washington has been standing up for Philadelphia schools in Harrisburg. She added that in the past, Washington was very vocal about supporting vouchers.

“She has been disingenuous, and the elephant in the room is ‘how effective is she going to be when she is fighting being indicted?’” Greenway said. “I think that is also something that needs to be addressed. I am sorry she’s not here because I would ask her that question.”

Washington’s representative Green said Washington will continue to fight this issue [referring to the recent charges against her].

Green added that “she like everyone else will have their day in court to address these issues.”

Green added that Washington ultimately decided not vote for vouchers after getting more information. He said there are a number of issues in the education system that need to be address, including the funding formula.

“As a parent of a Houston Elementary student, I asked her about that issue, and her statement to me was that she wanted to be part of the conversation,” Green said.

He added that Washington decided to support vouchers initially “after talking to a number of constituents, who felt like the school district was not addressing the needs of their children.”

“People said this may be an option,” Green said. “And Washington wanted to be part of the conversation [concerning vouchers].”

Green said while they may occasionally disagree on different issues, He thinks “in her heart, she is doing everything she can to support the 4th Senatorial District, and through her years of service she has brought resources back to a number of institutions throughout the 4th District, including Arcadia University, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and Chestnut Hill College.

“I think the senator is trying to do the best she can for all the constituents in this district,” Green said. “I think we need to have someone in Harrisburg who’s not going to be afraid to speak their mind and because she has a track record of having to be a fighter and find her voice as a victim of domestic violence, she will continue to fight and advocate not only in Philadelphia County and Montgomery County but also in Harrisburg.”

The primary election is May 20.

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