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Themes from TAG community budget forum

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Last night, along with 150 other people, I attended the budget forum organized by the Teacher Action Group and cosponsored by Education Not Incarceration-Delaware Valley and ACTION United.

A few themes emerged from the give and take between the audience and a panel consisting of City Controller Alan Butkovitz; longtime District administrator James "Torch" Lytle; Sarah Morris and Victor Saez from Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project; Jaileah Gibson, Philadelphia Student Union member and a senior at Sayre; Arlene Kempin from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers; Brett Schaeffer from Education Law Center; and State Rep. James Roebuck, minority chair of the House Education Committee.

Here, in no particular order, are some key points:

  • The underlying assumption of the Corbett budget – “we’re broke” – is false. Panelists and audience participants made the point that we do not have a severance tax on Marcellus Shale, potentially a major source of revenue. Participants also described how skewed priorities like increased spending on prisons rob revenue from schools.
  • The Corbett budget, by rejecting the more equitable funding formula adopted during the Rendell years, targets the poorest, most vulnerable communities, not only Philadelphia, but poor, rural areas and smaller cities throughout the state.
  • Based on the discussion, this audience seemed to favor rolling back Renaissance Schools, scripted curriculum, and spending on security infrastructure, while preserving lower class size and core instruction.
  • Several people mentioned the disconnect between the devastating size of the cuts and the absence of a mass outpouring of outrage. Rep. Roebuck pointed to the failure of the business community to speak out. The need to get the word out to parents and the broader community was discussed.
  • Some expressed a lack of confidence in the current District administration to lead a fight-back movement, but others also pointed to the need for uniting with the District in confronting Harrisburg. There was interest in joining upcoming actions like the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools March 30 action and various lobbying efforts in Harrisburg.

The budget public engagement meeting organized by the District that I attended on Saturday left me feeling angry and demoralized. It felt like the District was just going through the motions and had given little thought to how to give people a voice in shaping a response to this crisis. By way of contrast the TAG forum, while it did not resolve many questions, provided a forum for an honest and constructive exchange and laid the groundwork for a more united, focused effort. That’s a big step forward.