Ten high-profile civil rights leaders are pressuring Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) to intervene in the sorry state of school funding in Philadelphia.
The national and local leaders -- including the NAACP's Ben Jealous and the Leadership Conference's Wade Henderson -- are asking Corbett to "take immediate action to address the budget crisis in the School District of Philadelphia," according to a letter the group sent to Corbett this week and provided to The Huffington Post. "The crisis has become an embarrassment to the entire nation," they wrote, accusing the state of "knowingly jeopardizing" students' futures.
The civil rights leaders warn that Philadelphia's school system has become "a cautionary tale for the rest of the country, illustrating the harm that occurs when political posturing and irresponsible budget decisions trump the educational needs of students, families, and communities."
The group is also asking the governor for a meeting.
Henderson, the Leadership Conference president, said in an interview that the letter is just the beginning of a campaign to pressure Corbett and like-minded governors into fully funding education.
"When students, mostly students of color, in the wealthiest nation in the world are being starved of qualified teachers and nurses and guidance counselors, even desks, it depends on and hardens a psychology of abandonment and consigns students to a netherworld of inequality," Henderson said. "Pennsylvania has become a national model of dysfunction in education. If civil rights groups don't act now, the brinksmanship of Governor Corbett is likely to become commonplace."
Public schools in Philadelphia opened their doors last month with much diminished staffs and a $304 million deficit. The district had previously shuttered 24 schools and laid off 3,783 employees, and then recalled fewer than half of those employees. Corbett is withholding $45 million in federal grant money, pending the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers signing a new contract in which the union would make $104 million in concessions, including taking a massive pay cut.
The year has been even tougher on the city's students. The school district is the eighth largest in America with 137,000 students, 82 percent of whom are low-income and 85 percent of whom are of color. They're dealing with crowded classrooms, missing guidance counselors, fewer school nurses and a dearth of arts classes.
Sometimes the budget cuts are a matter of life and death. Last month, Laporshia Massey, a sixth-grader, died after an asthma attack. Her father told the Philadelphia City Paper that she had felt sick earlier that day at Bryant Elementary School, but there was no nurse to help her. “If she had problems throughout the day, why ... didn’t [the school] call me sooner?” Daniel Burch, the girl's father, asked the paper.
The national groups are getting involved because they are concerned that the cuts to Philadelphia's school funding could set a precedent for governors around the country. "The nation looks to you for your leadership to address immediately this moral, economic, and legal imperative," they wrote.
In a statement to The Huffington Post, Corbett spokesman Timothy Eller took issue with the groups' characterization of the funding situation. He said that rather than cutting education funds, Corbett "has increased state support of public schools by $1.17 billion." Pennsylvania taxpayers, Eller asserted, will contribute "more than $1.3 billion" to Philadelphia schools for the current school year.
Rhonda Brownstein of the Education Law Center -- Pennsylvania, who also signed the group letter, called Eller's analysis "smoke and mirrors," noting that the increases were legally mandated pension obligations.
The civil rights leaders are urging Corbett to release the $45 million in grant money without conditions. But Eller said that would be impossible. "Contrary to what is stated in the letter, state law requires the district to implement fiscal, education and operational reforms before the $45 million in state funding is released," he said.
The national groups also want Corbett to negotiate with the legislature an appropriations bill that would allow Philadelphia to restore its laid-off librarians, teachers, counselors and more. In the longer term, they are calling for broad reform to the state's school-funding formula.
"What is happening in Philadelphia is a tragedy for our children. We risk losing yet another generation of children to the consequences of an inadequate education," the letter concludes. "By taking the steps outlined above, with your leadership, we can begin the process of restoring excellence to the Philadelphia public schools."
But Eller said the governor sees the solution in a new union contract. The groups' request for a meeting, he added, "is under review."