Just weeks after the death of a Philadelphia schoolgirl and amid mounting pressure from school advocates and civil rights groups, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett announced on Wednesday that he would release $45 million in funding that he’d been withholding from the beleaguered Philadelphia School District.
For months Republican Gov. Corbett said that he would not release the funds, a one-time federal grant, without $100 million in contract concessions from the teachers union and various reforms by the city and school district. A month and a half into the school year, the city’s teachers are still working under an expired contract. City leaders and state Democrats have argued that reforms are being made and have demanded the release of the money, as deep budget cuts have left the school district already hobbled. Facing a $304 million budget shortfall, the district shuttered 23 public schools and laid off nearly 4,000 employees.
Charles Zogby, Corbett’s budget secretary, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that district Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has detailed in a letter a number of “operational, financial and managerial reforms” that illustrate satisfactory progress made by the district.
"There's been a lot of movement in the area of reform that has improved the financial health and performance of the district," Zogby said, adding that another key element to the release of the funds were changes in teacher work rules, including the adjustment of work rules regarding seniority placements.
"Let me be clear: There should never have been a delay in the release of these funds,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “But thanks to the united voices of thousands of parents, students, teachers and community activists from Philadelphia and across the country, Gov. Corbett has finally done the right thing.”
Last week, a group of civil rights groups including the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights wrote a letter to Corbett urging him to release the school funding. The group said that “Philadelphia 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." And that by withholding the funds, "the state is knowingly jeopardizing” students’ futures."
In response to Corbett's announcement on Wednesday, Wade Henderson, the president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the governor has taken an important step in the right direction.
"Depriving students of access to teachers, nurses, librarians, and guidance counselors should never be used as a bargaining chip in school funding negotiations," Wade said. "Governor Corbett should be commended for today’s action; however, his earlier brinkmanship might still embolden governors of other states with school funding inequities to take a page from his political playbook. That’s why this is not just a local issue – but a national one. Governor Corbett must now move forward to fix the dysfunctional way in which the state unfairly funds schools to meet the educational needs of students, families, and communities.”
The school closings and layoffs over the summer have had a dramatic impact on Philadelphia public school students. Many schools don’t have full-time nurses or counselors. Extracurricular activities, arts and enrichment programs have been cut. Class sizes have swelled. In all, 9,000 students have been transferred from shuttered schools to new ones, often outside of their neighborhood. The vast majority of the affected students are African-American and poor. Just days before the start of the school year last month, the city had to borrow $50 million just to ensure that school doors would open on time.
"The school district must immediately begin the process of restoring all of our school counselors, secretaries, and non-instructional personnel, increase the number of school nurses and eliminate split grades in our schools," Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said in a statement.
Corbett has cut nearly a $1 billion from state education funding, and parents and opponents of the cuts and closures in Philadelphia have long argued that the economic starvation of the schools is creating an unsafe and dangerous school environment. Late last month, Laporshia Massey, a 12-year-old fell ill at her elementary school and later died of an asthma attack. Her school has a single nurse on duty only twice a week. The nurse was not on duty the day that she died.
In the wake of the girl’s death, student advocacy and civil rights groups have stepped up pressure on Corbett to release the $45 million and for state legislators to develop a school funding formula that better serves the city’s schools and high-needs student population.
“Of course it’s good that Gov. Corbett is releasing the funding, however, the circumstances leading to the release of the funds are not,” said Quanisha Smith, the co-executive director of Action United, a group that advocates on behalf of low-income residents. “We had a young girl who died because she didn’t have a school nurse. Possibly that situation could have been avoided if she had a nurse in the building.”
Helen Gym, founder of Parents United, called the soon-to-be released funds “a drop in the bucket.” The school district says it needs atleast $180 million to operate the school adequetly.
“For more than six weeks students and families in the school district have suffered under this purposeful defunding of public education in Philadelphia,” Gym said. “It has not only resulted in students being denied basic services, but a child died. There wasn’t a parent in the city of Philadelphia that didn’t read that story and think that could have been their child.”
The $45 million is a start, she said, but “it came with a lot of struggle.”