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Press Coverage: Mock funeral draws attention to school financial woes

By Wilford Shamlin III

Philadelphia Tribune

May 11, 2014

Local clergy delivered eulogies outside an office building housing the governor’s regional office on Friday, over a mock coffin symbolizing death for Pennsylvania’s future without adequately funded public schools.

“We are talking about the death of Pennsylvania’s future if we don’t fund our public schools,” Bishop Dwayne Royster said as parents, students, community activists and other educational advocates gathered in the City Hall courtyard. “We can’t expect them to go on and do great things.”

Royster is founding pastor of Living Water United Church of Christ and executive director of Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild, which organized the mock funeral procession. The umbrella group represents more than 40 houses of worship across the city.

The procession made its way from City Hall to The Hyatt at Bellevue shortly after 4 p.m. Uniformed police on bikes stopped traffic from turning south on Broad Street from South Penn Square.

Children and parents wore black, grieving over public schools being systematically starved of critical funding needed to provide essential school programs. Students held signs with pointed messages: “R.I.P. Philly schools,” “R.I.P. music,” and “R.I.P. art,” a reference to instructional programs eliminated or scaled back as a result of budget cuts last year. The crowd repeatedly chanted, “More funding now.”

Two men smoking cigarettes said they were unconcerned by the procession or the purpose. However, a woman waiting at Broad and Chestnut streets said she would have joined the demonstration if she had known its purpose earlier.

Alexis McIntosh, 23, whose six-year-old son attends a Philadelphia public school, said she couldn’t understand the chants clearly from across the street, but she supported the agenda for the rally. “They should fund public schools,” the North Philadelphia woman said.

Students say school conditions have deteriorated in the last year, and school leaders indicate the financial crisis could worsen without additional funding.

Local clergy tied Pennsylvania’s future to public education funding during a mock funeral that ended at the steps of The Hyatt at the Bellevue, which houses Gov. Tom Corbett’s regional office.

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle-Herrmann of Kol Tzedek, a synagogue in West Philadelphia, said, “Education is a right, not a privilege.” More than 150 people stood at the Broad Street entrance to the Hyatt at the Bellevue as uniformed police officers stationed themselves on the perimeter of the crowd.

Sharron Snyder, 19, of North Philadelphia, plans to pursue a degree in psychology starting in September. The senior at Benjamin Franklin High School noticed school conditions worsened, especially in the last year. She said class sizes increased and there was more tensions between students who transferred from other schools that were shuttered.

“You’ve got to be on the honor roll to get a locker,” she said with resignation in her voice.

Corbett has taken heat for abandoning a public school funding formula after taking office, but his staff has said education spending was increased to record levels during his administration.

Public schools in Philadelphia and across the state have struggled to maintain programs and services in the wake of funding cuts. Last week, students, parents, clergy, community activists and educational advocates pushed for increased funding for public schools in the street and in the corridors of City Hall.

Earlier on Friday, Mayor Michael Nutter attended a graduation cap toss ceremony for graduating seniors on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While the nation’s high school graduation rate hit the 80 percent mark for the first time in history, Philadelphia’s high school graduation rate hovers at 64 percent, up from 57 percent in 2007.

According to the Nation’s Report Card, there are 14 Philadelphia public high schools with a graduation rate below 60 percent.

School Superintendent William Hite, Jr. has presented a bleak financial picture for the upcoming school year. To adopt a balanced budget for the next fiscal year, Hite said the school district needs $120 million in revenue anticipated from an extension on the city sales tax extension and an additional $96.2 million dollars.

Failure to raise the minimum amount would likely mean larger class sizes of 37 to 41 students, layoffs for up to 1,000 school employees and cutbacks in special education, nurses, school police, alternative education and administrative support.

Local educational advocates want a weighted formula that provides incremental increases in funding for school districts that educate higher numbers of students who live in low-income households, speak languages other than English or require special education, because additional services beyond basic education push operating costs higher.

Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, predicted Philadelphia public schools would become a top-rated district statewide if it received the full $440 million Hite requested in the tentative budget. Lower Merion School District spends twice the amount for each student than the School District of Philadelphia.

“If it costs that much for Lower Merion students to reach proficiency, most of whom have parents with a college education, it’s simply not reasonable to expect our district to do much better than it is with less than half the funds. In fact, none of the successful school districts in this state are talking about how to find the funds for nurses, or counselors, or school administrators or teachers. These staff are a given in districts like Lower Merion,” Cooper told the city council’s Committee of the Whole during a hearing Wednesday.

At a rally held outside City Hall on Thursday, educational advocates, including elected officials, union leaders, school staff and parents and students rallied in support of a one percent sales tax that would be dedicated to schools.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union President Jerry Jordan said, “It is very important that our children attend high quality schools and have materials they need in order to be educated. This city will not move forward if we do not have an educated workforce. It’s time to end the cutting of programs that are so important to the education of our children.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, added, “We not only want kids to bring their dreams, but to achieve them.”

She likened education to the highway of economic and educational opportunity for all. Access to quality education should be standard for all students.

“These are our values. That’s what’s why unions fight,” Weingarten said. “That’s our community’s value.”

She criticized state government for reducing tax liability for businesses by millions of dollars and reductions in school aid that translated into the loss of 20,000 jobs in the education sector since 2010.

“These are actions that could be changed – actions that, if we had a fair funding formula, wouldn’t happen,” said Weingarten, who advocated for funding sufficient in order to provide students with access to fundamentals such as advanced placement courses, and guidance counselors. “We’re not looking for a pot of gold.”

Hiram Rivera, executive director of Philadelphia Student Union, said funding cuts amount to human rights abuses.

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