On June 10th, POWER leaders mourned the pain felt due to education cuts at a prayer service at the State Capital with parents and clergy from across Pennsylvania.
The service was motivated by grief that Philadelphia parents feel after two Philadelphia school children died this year in schools without full-time nurses. Laporshia Massey, a 12-year-old at Bryant Elementary School, passed away after an asthma attack that started at school in September. Sebastian Gerena, a first grader, died from a heart defect at the Jackson School in May.
While it will never be certain that these children’s deaths could have been prevented by a nurse on site, parents and communities are reeling from the pain of that the fact that they even need to ask that question.
“I feel the deaths in Philadelphia in a personal way,” said Rev. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel A.M.E., whose two daughters are in Philadelphia public schools. “When I think abotu the lack of nursing could have led to the injury of my own child, or one of my children could have been in the room.”
The faith leaders, which inluded Rabb Carl Choper of Harrisburg, also prayed for other consequences of education budget cuts which have left Philadelphia schools and districts across the state needing to cut essential services like guidance counselors.
“It is not ok to say to the 8th grader looking at high schools, or the 11th grader interested in college, or the 5th grader who is hurt, scared, or alone, that the counselor only comes on Tuesday, or to a sick child that the nurse is only here on Monday,” said Jamie Kudera, a Philadelphia School District parent.
Because of huge one-time cuts to education funding in 2011-12 and the lack of a full, fair funding formula, the school spending gap between wealthy, mostly white districts, and poor, mostly minority districts, has reached crisis levels. Severe cuts in school funding have led to massive teacher and staff lay-offs (5,000 in Philadelphia alone).
The problem is a Pennsylvania problem, not just an urban problem: 94% of the state’s 500 school districts do not have adequate funding to fully educate their children.
“PA is one of three states that does not have a fair funding formula,” said Rev. Maritza Dollich, pastor of St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in Allentown. “It means there’s craziness at the end of the school season just before spring about how are we going to pay for teachers. That is not a way of doing education. If we don’t have a fair funding formula, the kids just get the crumbs.”
Rev. Dollich and Rabbi Choper are member of Congregations United for Neighborhood Action (CUNA), a sister organization of POWER’s in central Pennsylvania.
School funding is now a top priority of Pennsylvania citizens, surpassing job creation, and has pushed its way to the forefront of this year’s gubernatorial and legislative races. The state legislature has commissioned a study to investigate factors for resource allocation in a funding formula – but not funding levels. Following the prayer service, POWER leaders visited state legislators jointly with Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) to demand increased funding for next year and their commitments to a full, fair funding formula.
A formula that allocates resources according to student needs like poverty, as well as mandates increased funding levels so that school distrcts are resourced at an adequate level, is a priority of POWER’s campaign for great schools in the Philadelphia region. POWER is working with faith organizations like CUNA, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network and advocacy groups like PCCY to make a full, fair funding formula a priority of the state legislature and next Governor.
“We’ve come to stay stop taking from children and giving to the powerful,” said Rev. Tyler. “Stop robbing the poor, stop oppressing the afflicted, stop taking advantage of the most vulnerable. We’ve come here to say that money was stolen from the school districts – we’re here to get it back.”