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Philadelphia Council member Helen Gym among those arrested in Harrisburg fair funding protest

City councilwoman Helen Gym arrested at the state capitol building in Harrisburg
City councilwoman Helen Gym arrested at the state capitol building in Harrisburg on Wednesday. Gym joined others in protesting fair education funding for Philadelphia schools.
Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat

HARRISBURG — Philadelphia City Council member Helen Gym was among 15 people arrested in the state Capitol Wednesday during a protest of Pennsylvania’s education funding priorities in a planned act of civil disobedience that took place as Gov. Tom Wolf and the General Assembly work on finalizing next year’s state budget.

A group of about 50 people, most affiliated with the faith-based advocacy group POWER, participated in a rally on the capitol steps and then walked through the building singing, chanting and praying, many of the clergy garbed in their full liturgical robes. POWER Executive Director Rev. Dwayne Royster, who was among those arrested, carried his bishop’s crozier, or staff.

Their message was that Pennsylvania must increase its spending on education and distribute state dollars more fairly. The legislature adopted a fair funding formula in 2014 but has since only applied it to new school aid dollars, not all education funding. The group would like to see the formula applied to all funding, which would redirect more money to Philadelphia and other districts that serve mostly low-income students of color. Legislators limited use of the formula because some districts, primarily those with shrinking enrollment, would have lost significant revenue.

Now, the group said, the Commonwealth has the among widest spending gaps between rich and poor districts. At 33%, it also ranks near the bottom in the percentage of education aid that comes from the state compared to local dollars. And they also say the American Rescue Plan funds and the state makes it possible to stave off any losses districts might incur.

With $7 billion in federal aid through President Biden’s American Rescue Plan and a $3 billion state surplus, this is a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to increase education aid and distribute it more fairly, speakers said at the rally.

Rev. Dwayne Royster leads a rally on fair education funding at the state capitol building last month.
Rev. Dwayne Royster leads a rally on fair education funding at the state capitol building in Harrisburg on Wednesday.
Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat

“For the first time ever, we actually have the money on the table to do the priorities to make sure our children across the Commonwealth are able to go to schools that, I’ll say the bad words, are fairly funded,” said state Rep. Joanna McClinton of West Philadelphia, the House Democratic leader. “Why should your zip codes determine your future, determine your opportunities?”

Other speakers at the rally, which was organized by We the People, a statewide coalition of advocacy groups, called the persistence of education funding gaps in the state unconscionable and immoral. They carried signs demanding “tax the rich” and “love and teach all our children.” Gym, who assumed office in 2016, started her public career as an education activist.

Philadelphia Democratic Sen. Vincent Hughes said with the federal funds, “there are no more excuses” for not making Pennsylvania’s education funding more equitable and adequate to all districts’ needs. He led the assemblage, which organizers said included a few dozen Democratic legislators, in a chant of “spend the money, spend the money.”

On Monday, POWER held demonstrations around the state under the banner “still separate, still unequal,” and traveled from rich to poor districts to demonstrate the stark differences. In Philadelphia, they walked the two miles from Gompers Elementary in Overbrook, which is mostly low income and Black, to Merion Elementary across City Line Avenue, where the enrollment is mostly white and very few students are low-income.

“The actions on the budget and the actions to make it harder for people to vote are really tightly connected,” said Marc Stier, director of the liberal Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. He said that polls show that the public, “including a substantial portion of Republicans,” supports spending the American Rescue Plan funds on education, housing and health care. “They want to reduce inequity,” Stier said. The House on Tuesday approved a bill to change voting rules, and the Senate moved it out of committee. Gov. Wolf has said he will veto it.

Royster said that the group has “come to exorcise the demon of white supremacy, we have come to exorcise the demon of oligarchy, we have come to exorcise the demon of oppression from the Pennsylvania Capitol.”

Rabbi Mordecai Liebling protests at the state capitol in Harrisburg
Rabbi Mordecai Liebling protests at the state capitol in Harrisburg on Wednesday over fair education funding for schools in Philadelphia.
Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat

At first the group was told that the Senate was not in session and the gallery was empty. Then a person exited the gallery, surveyed the scene and said, “I’m not even from Pennsylvania and they let me in,” said Greg Windle, an aide to Gym. At that, the group demanded entrance and resumed chanting and banging against the door. After about 10 minutes Capitol Police warned the demonstrators that they were in danger of arrest, and shortly after started handcuffing those who continued to sit in front of the doors. They said that Senate leaders feared the group would continue to chant and disrupt the Senate’s proceedings.

Wolf, a Democrat, has proposed significantly increasing education aid and running all the money through the fair funding formula. Stier said that he believes the Republicans are afraid to use the federal funds to do this because “when the money runs out” in three years, they will have to raise state taxes to continue spending “that has widespread public support.”

The state is required to adopt a final budget by July 1.

The arrested protesters were charged with criminal trespassing and released after about two hours. Fines and fees will amount to about $200 each.

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