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Break Every Yoke: $45 Million for Philly Schools Helps but is a Far Cry from Justice

By October 17, 2013January 15th, 2016No Comments

As reported yesterday, Governor Corbett released $45 million dollars originally promised for the School District of Philadelphia’s 2013-2014 budget.  This $45 million was not state money but rather funds available from a debt forgiven by the federal government.  The state still has not reached into its pockets to fill the gaps remaining in the original $180 million requested by the School Reform Commission in order to guarantee that schools start on time, safe and with quality programming.

Following the course that these unfulfilled promises laid, our schools may have started on time but they did not start safely or with adequate supports.  Without a fair funding formula, our schools and students’ fates have been decided based on the whim of political agendas, not student needs, and they have suffered for it daily.

Since day one of the school year, students and dramatically trimmed school staff have suffered fromchaotic circumstances that Superintendent Hite admits is “detrimental” to students, which deny the thorough, expedient education that our state constitution promises and which are light-years away from the richness of resources that would allow them to flourish.  Many students have been in split-grade classes, some with 40 or more students.  Many students entitled to one-on-one special education aides haven’t had them.  Without a sufficient number of assistant principals, counselors, nurses, and administrative staff, our children have been forced into the precarious position in which minimal, overtaxed staff can serve as the only first responders to any and all crises that may arise.

Perhaps with this picture, we should not have been stunned when on September 25th, a 12-year old girl died because of an asthma attack that likely would not have been fatal had she had proper medical attention sooner at her elementary school.  Perhaps we should not have been surprised.  But we are crushed nonetheless.  And we know that God is weeping too.

We may never know whether the death of Laporshia Massey could have been prevented were a nurse present at her school. But regardless of the answer, and regardless of which year’s budget cuts are responsible for short staffing of nurses, a situation in which nurses are only present two days a week remains a crime. Schools in which students are denied opportunities for extra-curriculars, for attention in small classes, and for appropriate guidance in navigating personal issues and the college application process, would never be accepted by suburban districts that too are suffering from state education cuts but that can alleviate gaps through increasing their tax base.  We may never know if Laporshia could have been saved by a school nurse, but we do know that since the beginning of the year, our children are attending schools in which they are lucky to be surviving, let alone thriving.

POWER celebrates that the funds released yesterday will enable the District to hire back crucial staff.  But we mourn that $45 million is a barely a start, let alone sufficient for our children as a supplement to this year’s “doomsday” budget.  We mourn that our children have been made the victims of unequal schooling for far too long, and that this year’s funding for Philadelphia schools is still crumbs from the table.  We mourn that what we are facing this year and in years past of funding crises is a tragedy that has devastating consequences for our families, and we know the  structural violence of poverty perpetuated by a long history of insufficient funding.  We know the dreams deferred, opportunities missed, and unfulfilled potential of our children who deserve the same resources committed to their education as any other students in this state.

In the Jewish scriptures and in the Christian Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah echoes God’s question of the work that God requires of us.  “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice, and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” God asks in Isaiah 58:6-12.

Hearing this call, we ask all candidates who will run in the upcoming governor’s race to answer a basic question.  Will our children’s education continue to be held hostage every year to political whims? Will our children, many of whom are some of the most vulnerable, continue to be forced to accept scarcity instead of abundance, when we know that the story that Pennsylvania is broke is a myth? Must we accept funding packages, such as the $45 million released yesterday, directed to merely stop the hemorrhaging of our schools instead of talking about packages that will empower our children to become the artists, the entrepreneurs, the lawmakers, lawyers and change-makers that we know they can be when given the same opportunities as their more privileged counterparts?

It shouldn’t have taken the death of a little girl to underscore the tragedy of a crisis that has been years in the making.  It shouldn’t have taken a life lost to draw attention to a miscarriage of justice affecting our children that has long existed and that extends far beyond Philadelphia’s borders, with 475 other school districts in Pennsylvania underfunded since 2006, including suburban, rural, and other urban districts that are suffering to different extents from state cuts.

POWER will continue to demand a full, fair funding formula for Pennsylvania that will guarantee Philadelphia’s children – and other poor children from working families and communities of color across the state – the funds for many years to come that will allow them to flourish.  We will work towards this goal until our students, teachers, parents, and neighbors have justice, until we are promised the fair funding we need in order to create a city of opportunity that works for all.

Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild (POWER) is a faith-based community organizing effort comprised of 41 member congregations representing more than 25,000 people. POWER organizes people of faith and works with allies to lift up a prophetic voice for justice in Philadelphia.  POWER is nonpartisan and is not aligned explicitly or implicitly with any candidate or party. We do not endorse or support candidates for office.

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