This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
On May 19, Philadelphians will hit the polls to winnow the field of City Council at-large candidates. Out of 28 declared candidates, only seven will be elected in November (including at least two from a minority party). Each party can run five candidates in the general election. The Notebook reached out to the candidates, asking their opinions on the election’s most gripping issue: education.
Where do candidates stand on the School Reform Commission’s decision to approve five new charter school applications? Whose job is it to find more money for public schools, the city’s or the District’s? Absent an agreement with the teachers’ union, do they think the SRC is right to pursue concessions through the courts? And finally, what ideas do they have for how the District can fix its financial problems?
We are posting statements from City Council candidates responding to these prompts in the order we received them. Today’s statement comes from Democrat Sherrie Cohen, an attorney with the Tenant Union Representative Network. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.
Responses were edited for length and clarity.
Four days after Valentine’s Day, on Feb. 18, the School Reform Commission showed no love to our city’s children and families.
It was an outrage that the SRC chose to approve five new charter schools at a cost of millions of dollars per year, when our school district already has a projected $80 million deficit and our schools lack adequate teachers, nurses, librarians, counselors, support staff, libraries, books, supplies, paper and building repairs.
Our schools are still reeling from former Gov. Tom Corbett’s slashing of over $1 billion to schools throughout the state, the elimination of the charter school reimbursement, mass school closures, mass layoffs, and the School District’s woefully limited oversight of charters, which has led to fraud and mismanagement of millions of dollars. Given all that, the SRC’s decision was fiscally reckless and morally negligent.
Until legislation is passed to grant taxing authority to the School Reform Commission, the city and state must equitably fund our school district. Starving our schools of needed resources is unconscionable and an act of violence against our children.
Eighty-six percent of our schoolchildren are children of color. More than 80 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, almost twice the state average of 43 percent. Pennsylvania has the nation’s starkest spending gap between rich and poor school districts, with poor districts like Philadelphia spending 33 percent less per student than wealthy districts.
Would our school district be starved of resources if our student population were 86 percent White and 80 percent didn’t live in poverty? Our high concentration of poverty is a cry for more resources, not less.
The SRC’s unilateral cancellation of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract and pursuit of contract concessions through the court system was a declaration of war on public school teachers and a throwback to the lawlessness of the pre-collective bargaining era. Imposing health-care benefit terms was effectively a wage cut for teachers who already pay out of pocket for school supplies, make less than their suburban counterparts, and saw the elimination of step increases in salary last year.
Teachers are the only buffers our students have against the devastating budget cuts and to penalize them is morally repugnant. Teachers are being made the scapegoat, while corporations and mega-nonprofits, which benefit from loopholes and subsidies, have not paid their fair share. The SRC’s attempt to break the union was an epic fail, as students, parents, and community allies rallied with our teachers in a massive show of solidarity.
The starvation of our schools by the political and corporate leadership of our state and city is an injustice of harrowing proportions. The devastating consequences can be seen in our school-to-prison pipeline and our city’s status as the poorest big city in the nation.
Having an elected school board with taxing authority is one solution. Another is a full and fair state funding formula for our schools, which takes into consideration students’ levels of poverty, special needs and English language learning, apportions funds in accordance with the need, and is paid for by scaling back corporate tax breaks and subsidies.
A popular slogan among student activists is “No education, no life.” We must provide a quality education to all of our children, so that they and our society as a whole may live and prosper.