An Open Letter to the Pennsylvania State Legislature from POWER
by Sheila Armstrong, Drick Boyd, and Margaret Ernst
Last week, several Philadelphia clergy members of the interfaith organization POWER witnessed a powerful movement for racial equality grow in Ferguson, MO.
Following the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, our clergy colleagues travelled to Missouri to call for justice and listen to a community in grief. They marched non-violently with thousands of black youth asking for fair treatment from law enforcement — and even more importantly, for a sign from their fellow Americans that their lives matter.
But as our clergy brothers and sisters returned home last week, they returned to a place where there is no dearth of racial injustice of its own.–
In our own backyards and on our watch, we witness a different kind of violence being done not just to one teenager but to hundreds of thousands of young people across Pennsylvania. As one of just three states in the union without a funding formula for public education, severe cuts within the last few years have led to a hemorrhaging of funds from school districts like Philadelphia that educate mostly African American and Latino students. The consequences of these cuts have already had deep impact on our children’s and communities’ lives and will be felt for generations.
Sheila Armstrong, a public school parent and POWER member from North Philadelphia, can testify to those consequences and the broken promises that have come with them. At community events in 2010, Sheila heard Governor Corbett and other legislators running for office promise that a new day had come for education in Pennsylvania. But after a $1 billion cut to education funding in 2011, her son’s elementary school closed down. In 2012, she wondered whether her son, who has asthma, would be OK on days that no nurse was on duty due to staffing cuts. This year, she will send him to schools with less cleaning services, security and transportation assistance.
Aside from having to worry about whether her children will get a good education, Sheila and thousands of Philadelphia parents like her will fear every day for their basic health and safety. While young people of color in Missouri and across the country have wondered whether they matter in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, we too are left to ask, do Sheila and her sons matter? How much?
With Harrisburg’s newly formed Basic Education Funding Commission beginning its work, now is the time for lawmakers to answer these questions. The Commission, which has met twice already and will make recommendations for a funding formula by the end of June, can and should prophetically re-imagine what it takes to fund education in our state. To do this well, we must be willing to have an open and honest conversation about race as Pennsylvanians.
Districts with the largest African American and Latino populations, including not just Philadelphia but York, Reading, and Lancaster, are almost all on the list of most inadequately funded districts in the state (Education Law Center). Unable to make up differences in state spending with local revenue, the disproportionate impact on these students is rooted not merely in recent spending cuts nor in education policy alone. It rests on, and perpetuates, a much longer history of disinvestment from communities of color that has created today’s dramatic racial wealth gap, and which will continue if left unaddressed.
Yet while cuts have had severe impact on Philadelphia and other predominantly non-white districts, dwindling state funds have also resulted in major cuts in poor, rural districts in predominantly white communities, and soaring property taxes in the suburbs. In the case of education spending in PA, a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
All of our children are worth more. In addition to being bold enough to talk about this severe “investment gap” in students of color and poor children in our state, the Commission must set goals for increasing education funding levels as a whole. We must not just fairly divide up a pie that we refuse to grow — we must grow the pie. As Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq testified in the Commission’s August meeting, “money matters” for children to achieve in school.
We cannot think of a better argument for increased education funding, and for a fair distribution of those funds that ensures we will not continue to replicate an education system that in spite of other civil rights gains, is woefully still separate and still unequal. It is the choice of the Basic Education Commission and all us Pennsylvanians whom it represents whether we will continue trends of economic and racial inequality or begin to reverse them.
The discussion about how much our children are worth to us, wherever they were born and whatever the color of their skin, is a sacred one. Let’s have it now, and let’s have it courageously.