by Pete Mazzaccaro

In two months, Democratic voters will pick a mayoral candidate to run in November. A new poll from Pew Charitable Trusts this week reinforces what many observing the election have already figured out — the top issue for the city is education.

Pew’s survey was conducted between Jan. 28 and Feb. 19 and included responses from 1,608 residents 18 and older.

From the survey: “When asked to name the most important issue facing the city and the next mayor, 32 percent of respondents said education. Twenty-three percent chose public safety, and 22 percent selected jobs and the economy. The question was open-ended, meaning that those polled could give any answer they wished and were not required to choose from a list of suggested responses.”

Looking further into the Pew data shows taxes, poverty and neighborhood revitalization low on the list, with no more than seven percent of voters thinking they’re top issues.

The survey reveals as well that attitudes about the city’s public schools have declined considerably, even in the last six years. In 2009, 30 percent of survey respondents described the city’s schools as “good” or “excellent.” In 2015, only 19 percent described them as such.

City residents also seem to have fairly strong opinions on how to fix schools.

The School Reform Commission, the appointed board that administers the Philadelphia School District, is not terribly popular. Only 11 percent of survey respondents said they would keep it. Forty eight percent said they would disband it, while 41 percent had no opinion whatsoever.

To replace it, survey respondents were even more definite: 64 percent would like to see an elected school board. Such a body would be a big change from the SRC, which has been no stranger to political appointments and intrigue.

The good news for Philadelphia is that the tide seems to be turning in the direction the city favors. Last week in this space, I discussed newly elected Governor Tom Wolf’s plan to dramatically increase state funding for public school districts. If his plan passes as proposed, it would mean $140 million for city schools and easily close the projected $80 million deficit school district officials expect if nothing changes.

That new funding should prove to be popular in Philadelphia, where 55 percent of those answering Pew’s survey said they favored just that approach to fixing schools. Only 35 percent of respondents felt that more choice – e.g. charter schools – was the best way to fix city schools.

Side note: Charter schools were just a bit less popular in 2015 than they were in 2013. Fifty-eight percent of voters thought they “improve education and keep middle class families in the city,” a six-point decline from 2013. Thirty-three percent now said they believe charters take valuable resources away from public schools, a seven-point increase from two years ago.

The takeaway is that political action finally seems to be moving in concert with public opinion. There are still plenty of hurdles between today and the solutions offered by Wolf’s budget, but if Pew’s survey results are accurate, and a representative number of city residents choose the next mayor, it just might be that positive change is around the corner.

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