Today’s general assembly primaries will pit 27-year incumbent state representative Jim Roebuck (D-Phila.) against Fatimah Muhammad, a 2006 College graduate, who is running for the first time to represent the 188th district, which includes Penn’s campus.
Muhammad, former associate director of the Greenfield Intercultural Center, has supporters at Penn but is viewed as a newcomer by some members of the West Philadelphia community.
College sophomore Chris Noble met her when she was an advisor in the United Minorities Council. She is a “household name” among certain groups on campus, he said, adding that his close acquaintance with her convinced him she will be a good candidate. “She’s not just talking,” he said.
However, local resident Sam Falkoff thinks she is new to the district and lacks experience. “She’s not from West Philadelphia, [and] Roebuck’s been in office since she was a teenager.” He added that “people in her campaign aren’t from the neighborhood either.”
But Muhammad calls that “the advantage of being young.”
The main issue of debate in the race is the school voucher system, which would provide money to low-income families to use toward tuition in schools of their choice.
Muhammad is backed by a couple of pro-voucher groups, including one that has donated $25,000 to her campaign. Public Education Excellence, a group that has donated to Muhammad’s campaign, has distributed negative flyers attacking Roebuck, saying he “blocked kids from attending the schools of their choice.”
Roebuck said he has never been subject to these “blatant and distorted kind of attacks.”
He added Muhammad’s campaign is “unlike any campaign that most people in my area are familiar with.” He added, however, that “it’s somewhat ironic that these kind of attacks [have] helped me in making my constituency realize how unfair the attacks are.”
Muhammad has not decided whether or not to support school vouchers. “I’m leaving all the possibilities on the table,” she said.
Roebuck on the other hand strongly opposes school vouchers. “My position is clear,” he said. He argued that voucher systems do not necessarily open up opportunities.
He said in the Philadelphia area, the more elite and prestigious private schools charge around $25,000 a year, whereas voucher proposals generally suggest a grant of about $8,000.
On the other side of the debate, proponents of the voucher system argue that it gives parents a say in their children’s educations. Moreover, the money usually goes to poor families who live in districts with badly performing schools.
Graduate School of Education professor James Lytle said “most voucher legislation has an income cutoff.” But at the same time, parents would be sending children to private schools that don’t have the same accountability requirements as public schools. For instance, some schools are not required to report student achievement.
Falkoff said Roebuck has worked to improve the public school system, and in particular has been instrumental in helping build the Penn Alexander School, a local public K-8 school that receives contributions from Penn.
“He is being targeted because he has a great amount of influence to passing a pro-voucher bill,” Falkoff said, referring to Roebuck’s position as minority chair of the Education Committee in the General Assembly.
Muhammad’s plans for the West Philadelphia school system are not clear yet.
But she said she had learned through personal experience that “education is key.” She was homeless by the time she was 8 years old and was told she was too poor to receive a college education.
Nevertheless, the two candidates can agree on one thing: they want Penn students to vote today.
“This election is like too many others, there seem to be less interest in the political process,” Roebuck said, adding that people are more interested in the national elections.
This article has been revised to indicate that Penn Alexander is a K-8 school, not K-12.