On September 25th, Laporshia Massey, a sixth-grader at Bryant Elementary in Southwest Philadelphia began having asthma issues at school. Because of massive budget cuts to our public schools, Bryant can only afford to staff a nurse two days a week. There was no nurse at school that day – no one trained to recognize the severity of the symptoms. A school staff member drove Laporshia home at the end of the school day because she felt weak. She collapsed in her father’s car on the way to the hospital, and she died from asthma-related complications later that night.
In 2011, 289 school nurses worked in Philadelphia. Now only 179 nurses work in the district.
There are many forces responsible for the gross underfunding of our public schools, but few of them have had as major an impact as Governor Tom Corbett. He has decreased education funding by $1 billion, when one third of that money was supposed to go to the School District of Philadelphia. No other school district in the state has suffered as severe budget cuts per student as Philadelphia since Corbett took office. And over 80% of school closures have occurred in African-American neighborhoods. Civil rights leaders have called the conditions in Philadelphia’s public schools unconstitutional, saying that Pennsylvania’s education funding so underserves low-income communities of color that it’s illegally discriminatory. No wonder that when the Point Breeze Organizing Committee announced our platform at an event on June 29th, “Get Corbett Out of Office!” got the loudest response.
We are told that budget cuts are necessary to close the budget gap. In other words, that the money’s not out there. But the governor has passed other policies that keep us from being able to fund public education – and not only public education, but other public goods that we value and rely on: parks, libraries, youth programs, rec centers, transportation.
The state legislature under Corbett has passed tax breaks for corporations to the tune of $600 – $800 million per year. He refuses to tax the big drilling companies that are drilling for natural gas in rural Pennsylvania, which would raise significant funds. He’s allowed poor-performing Charter schools to suck millions of tax dollars into private Charter companies with no accountability. He even withheld, until recently in the wake of the tragedy of Laporshia’s death, $45 million in Federal funding for Philadelphia schools, demanding that our teachers’ union weaken its contract in exchange for the money – bargaining away students’ futures just to bust unions.
In Point Breeze, longterm residents – including seniors on fixed incomes – are told that we have to put up with skyrocketing property taxes to fund our public schools, all while our public schools are defunded and closed down. The result is that we have all been paying more – supposedly for public education – and getting less. We are also told, in Point Breeze, that the 10-year tax abatement for new development is necessary to attract wealthier people to our area, and that once they’re here, we’ll be able to fund the schools by taxing them. One wonders if we’ll have many public schools left by then – and in the meantime, as documented by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), the abatement is a public subsidy for private developers while our schools are starving. Corbett’s regressive solutions to economic challenges at the state level create the context for similar approaches locally.
There are other ways to fund public education, and many of them could be implemented by a Governor who was willing to tax major corporations their fair share and hold Charter schools accountable. As it is, we are scrambling to come up with school funding in our city, when we rely on the state for almost half of our education dollars.
Meanwhile, Republicans in the state house plan to continue pushing their privatization agenda in part by passing Voter ID laws that disproportionately suppress the democratic voice of the elderly, African Americans, immigrants, and poor people who are most affected by their economic policies.
Governor Corbett’s policies embody the worst combination of anti-democratic and profits-over-people agendas. They come down hard on our neighborhood of Point Breeze. We’ve set out to fight for a people-first development, for our right to a neighborhood and a city where African-American communities and all working-class people can have both the economic necessities for a good life, and the political power to decide our futures. We’ve fought the bullying and silencing tactics of OCF Realty, which we’ve documented, and their profits-over-people development model.
We also recognize that their push to use money and intimidation to have disproportionate influence over Point Breeze happens in the context of a bigger picture – statewide policies that inhibit our ability to have healthy and stable lives, organize, and have a voice in what is supposed to be our democracy. Corbett’s policies, from education and taxation to mass prison expansion and voter suppression, are shaping our neighborhood from the state level. They constitute a major attack on our ability to build the political power we need.
Not only will we be limited in what we can achieve locally if we allow this governor’s race to pass us by – we could miss out on a major opportunity. This is a moment when we can do more than just throw up our hands and say, “Anybody but Corbett!” It is not enough to know what we are against – what are we for?
Much of Philadelphia can be united around the need to elect a governor who will restore full funding to our public schools, hold Charter schools accountable, stop prison expansion and the racially-biased criminalization of young people, and tax large corporations to fund job training centers and other public programs. Going in to the Democratic primaries in May, we can take a close look at the candidates to determine who is mostly likely to implement exactly those policies. We have an opportunity to fight for our interests across all of our issues, and as part of a broad motion in Philadelphia for a progressive, people-over-profit vision of our neighborhood, city and state – with the public education imperative at the center.
For all of these reasons, the Point Breeze Organizing Committee is looking seriously at focusing our work on this governor’s race in the next period. We look forward to working with those who share a commitment to economic justice and political power for working-class and African American communities, and an interest in a well-funded, thriving public sector and a truly democratic city and state.