Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild (POWER), the coalition of religious congregations dedicated to fixing the problems of unemployment and education in Philadelphia, continues its campaign for full and fair funding of schools.
Last month I joined my synagogue, Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir (Reconstructionist), along with other POWER-member congregations, in a teach-in and demonstration on school funding in Harrisburg. Named a “Moral Takeover,” this event was part of an alliance between POWER and other faith-based activist groups in Pennsylvania to demand equitable funding of schools, and to protest cuts by the legislature in state funding for schools while corporations receive tax breaks.
We arrived in Harrisburg, in front of the state capitol, and the participants gathered for the prayer service and teach-in in Grace United Methodist Church, on State Street near the capitol.
The Reverend Vernal Sims, a special education teacher in the Harrisburg public schools, spoke of the problems he has had with the schools being underfunded and parents therefore not sending them there.
Darlene Sistrunk, associate minister at Grace Christian Fellowship in South-West Philadelphia, quoted the former South African president, Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” She also described the change of atmosphere in local schools in recent years:
Our beautiful children feel the pressure of underfunded schools. They’re reaping the pain of $355 million being taken out of the school budget in just 2011-2012 alone…
The hopeful chatter that used to fill our school halls has been replaced with questions about where the school nurses are, where the guidance counselors are, why is my principal drinking so much Pepto-Bismol, and why are there forty kids in my classroom.
Shelley Gombs-Faircloth, from Allentown, explained why she moved her daughter to a private school:
For three years, my daughter was a student in the Allentown school district. But statistics, like the one I’m about to share, are part of the reason why I moved her from this (school) district and placed her in a private school. These statistics are part and parcel of adequate funding and a failed funding formula have a devastating impact on our school district.
According to the Pittsburgh Times, the Allentown school district is ranked 486th, out of 500 Pennsylvania school districts, based on PSSA results, in reading, writing, mathematics, and science. Only 14 school systems ranked worse. Every day on average, three students are pushed out of the district prior to graduation. In fact, the Allentown school district has one of the highest dropout rates in the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And of the students that remain in the district and graduate from one of its two high schools, only 19% go on to a four-year college. In fact, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has identified 50% of the district’s 20 schools as persistently low-achieving schools…
There are students who dutifully attend classes and have no books to study from at home, because teachers must carry books from class to class. There are also classes where books are so old it’s certain much of the information within them have changed.
The Reverend Bishop Dwayne Royster, pastor of Living Water United Church of Christ and Executive Director of POWER, spoke on the “myth of scarcity” and how politicians say there is no money available from the state for schools: “We don’t have enough money for schools, but corporations in the state of Pennsylvania have gotten, over the last year, $3.9 billion dollars in tax cuts, grants, and other things.”
As an example, Royster spoke of the Comcast building in Center City Philadelphia, which “is not entirely full, but they are building a brand new building in Philadelphia that has $147 million in tax cuts from the city, and countless millions of dollars from the state, to build this brand new building.”
In the meantime, the School District of Philadelphia is short of the money that it needs to provide counselors, and teachers, and aides, and books, and toilet paper for the children that go to school there.
After the teach-in at Grace Church, participants moved to the open tent on the steps of the state capitol, where they laid their hands on people participating in a fast for fair and full school funding.