HARRISBURG, Pa. - They came from every corner of Pennsylvania yesterday, and some from New Jersey and New York. They were students, parents, education workers, and interested citizens. As organizer Ron Whitehorne told the crowd on the Capitol steps, they represented places "from the Mon Valley to the Delaware Valley, Eagles fans and Steelers fans and everywhere in between. We need a statewide movement to win this fight!"
The fight is to stop looming cuts to public education in a majority of Pennsylvania's school districts. These cuts would come on the heels of reductions made previously as Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has sliced some one billion dollars from the state's education budget over the past three years.
The most serious cuts would occur in Philadelphia, the state's largest school district with close to 200,000 students in public schools. The "doomsday budget" passed by the city's School Reform Commission would leave schools with no counselor, librarians, or secretaries, and only minimal cafeteria and food service staff. School superintendent Robert Hite has admitted that the proposed budget does not provide for any kind of decent educational program.
The activists spent the morning urging legislators to increase funding for public education, and in the case of Philadelphia, offering concrete solutions to stave off the debilitating program and staff reductions threatened for this September.
The solutions offered by the citizen lobbyists included increases in local Philadelphia taxes such as the business Use and Occupancy Tax (U and O) with exemptions for small businesses. They also urged increased state funding with the money to be raised by taxing natural gas drilling in the Marcellus shale regions and moving funds from the state's ambitious prison construction program to public education.
Before exiting the building they had a chance to greet the hunger strikers from Philadelphia who traveled to the Capitol and set up their table in the main Rotunda. Today marked day nine of their "Fast for Safe Schools."
In the afternoon, they gathered on the steps of the Capitol to hear an array of speakers call for increased support for public schools.
Kia Hinton, an activist with Action United and a parent of four children in Philadelphia schools told the crowd, "Corbett's war on education hurts students all across Pennsylvania; it's not just a Philadelphia problem. This crisis is not an accident but a result of the governor's willful neglect of public education." She also criticized the Corbett's failure, until now, to accept the federal Medicaid funds, "even when the federal government is knocking on our door to offer money for health care."
Some state legislators who addressed the gathering blasted Corbett's attempt to privatize the state's liquor sales as a giveaway to special interests. Pennsylvania's publicly owned liquor stores ("wine and spirit shoppes") consistently make money for the state, but the governor claims that selling them off would reap a one-time windfall, some of which might go to the schools. Rep. Ed Gainey of Allegheny County blasted this as a "booze for books" scheme and urged every one to "get to the polls and vote for education, transportation, and the people."
Anissa Weinraub, a Philadelphia teachers' union member and activist with the rank-and-file Teacher's Action Group, said that when she got her layoff notice she was sad, then "I got angry. Is this crisis the best our leader can do for us? This crisis was created by our so-called leaders. Today is the day we start to wrestle back control of our schools from politicians who have made CEOs richer and packed more young people into jail!"
Speakers also included Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, state Sen.Vincent Hughes, Noah Ahmed of the Phildelphia Student Union, and Ted Kirsch, president of the Pennsylvania AFT.
At the rally's end, the demonstrators formed a human chain completely surrounding the Capitol building and joined hands as chants of "Whose Schools? Our Schools!" and "No Education? No Life!" resonated around the building.
Photo: Ben Sears/PW