BY: ETHEL GOLDBERG
About six years ago, Rabbi Eli Freedman of Congregation Rodeph Shalom wrote an article for our congregational bulletin, where he asked the question, “What issue or issues in Philadelphia keep you awake at night?” I found myself intrigued and curious and made an appointment to speak to him.
When we got together, I experienced my first one-on-one, a basic foundation in the relationship-building which is so important in POWER and other community organizations. I told him that aside from my worries about the performance of my beloved Philadelphia Phillies, I was deeply concerned about the state of the School District of Philadelphia, especially its long-running financial woes, which were only getting worse with the growth of charter schools, the seeming animosity of political leaders in Harrisburg, and the attempt to undermine public school systems both locally and nationally.
I am a Philadelphia native, a graduate of Philadelphia public schools. My late mother was a school nurse in the 50s and 60s. I began my employment with the School District in 1968 and retired in 1999. At the time of my retirement, I was the head of the office that brought in outside funding from government agencies and foundations; we wrote proposals for innovative programs and projects that supplemented the basics provided by the School District. Little did I think at that time, that today I would be looking back on those days as the “good old days.” Sure money was tight, BUT every school had the required number of counselors and nurses, and every school had a functioning school library or IMC (instructional media center); most schools had music, art and computer teachers or some combination thereof.
Today, while every school has at least one counselor and nurse (after a few years when that was not the case), there are only eight certified school librarians in Philadelphia public schools. This is unconscionable – especially considering that the law requires a functioning library and a librarian in private schools and in prisons! What few schools have functioning libraries usually are subsidized by outside contributions.
Each year at budget crunch time, principals have to make difficult choices – computer teacher or art teacher? Music teacher or PE teacher? Why? Music, art and PE are not frills; they are essential components of a quality education such as all children deserve, regardless of their zip code. There is ample research to support the fact that kids who are engaged in sports, the arts and other extracurricular activities do better in school; are more likely to attend regularly; and less likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors.
I have two grandchildren currently enrolled in Philly schools, and they are part of the reason I became involved in POWER and in the fight for full fair education funding that was equitable; that made sure that the neediest school districts were not short-changed by the lack of any funding formula which was the case in 2011 or by a funding formula which has consistently short-changed both urban and rural districts, especially if those districts have a high percentage of students of color.
My goal when I joined POWER was to do whatever I personally could do to change that scenario. The work has been tedious, and the progress slow. Goal #1, the adoption of a school funding formula was accomplished. The larger goal of having that formula apply to all funds coming from Harrisburg is still to be realized, and districts with high percentages of minority students continue to be short-changed.
The outstanding research conducted by POWER member, David Mosenkis, which conclusively proved the disparity between low income districts with more white students vs. low income districts with more students of color is incontrovertible.
While the Education Law Center is fighting this inequity in court, we in POWER along with allies all over the state are trying to persuade members of the State Legislature to equally value all students in the Commonwealth by giving every school district its fair share of state funding according to its own formula. And it turns out that if all state money is distributed using the formula, most legislators will see an increase in funding to the school districts they represent.
The discussion above pertains to the “fair” part of the “full fair funding” fight. POWER also wants to address the “full” issue. Pennsylvania provides only 34% of public school funding (many states provide 50% or more), which puts our state close to the bottom in terms of funding support for public education. Therefore school districts in PA rely heavily on local property taxes. So far members of the State Legislature have been reluctant to raise current taxes or impose any new taxes that would be dedicated to bringing the state share up. They have responded to lobbying efforts from the Marcellus Shale industry to prevent the so-called “fracking tax.” They have tied any efforts to provide more funding to public schools to the effort to reform the state pension system (a very knotty political issue) and have tried to blame teachers’ unions as obstructionists. We believe all children deserve a high quality education from the public school system where they live. We believe that taxpayer dollars dedicated to education should go to public school systems. And recent surveys have shown that most citizens regardless of political party affiliation are willing to pay more in taxes to accomplish these goals. I don’t know if it will happen in time for my grandchildren who are in 10thand 12th grade, but I hope it will happen soon.