In an unusual move, AFT President Randi Weingarten and Diane Ravitch have written a letter appealing to Arne Duncan to intervene in the ongoing effort to de-fund Philadephia schools to build a prison.
July 1, 2013

While we've been paying attention to Texas and Ohio budgetary efforts to ban abortions, the Pennsylvania state budget is blowing up over the de-funding of public schools. There's a hunger strike taking place over draconian cuts to school budgets across the state, but most especially in Philadelphia.

AFT President Randi Weingarten and Diane Ravitch have taken the unusual step of appealing to the federal government to stop the ongoing gutting of the Philly school system. For those who have not been following along, Philadelphia schools have a $304 million budget deficit which could have been covered in the state budget. Parents, students, teachers, and workers have been on a hunger strike to protest the draconian cuts which will go into effect if this budget is passed as it is currently written.

From the Weingarten/Ravitch letter:

Due to draconian budget cuts, the public schools of Philadelphia are being starved to the point where they can no longer function for the city's children. Philadelphia is in a state of crisis. We believe your direct and public intervention is required to ensure the existence of educational opportunity in that city.

The cuts imposed on the schools by the School Reform Commission and the state have led to layoffs of nearly 4,000 educators and school employees. This will have a permanent, crippling impact on a generation of children.

Philadelphia’s children will lose art, music, physical education, libraries and the rich learning environments they need and deserve. Everything that helps inspire and engage students will be gone. The schools will lose social workers, school nurses, counselors, paraprofessionals and teachers. Classrooms will be more crowded, denying children the attention they need. Sports and extracurricular activities will be gutted as well as after-school programs that help keep kids safe and engaged. And children will be denied the social, emotional and health services they need. All of these cuts, on top of the mass school closings, have a disproportionate effect on African-American students, English language learners and students from low-income families.

In Governor Tom Corbett's world, there's always money to build prisons. He managed to find $400 million in the budget for a new prison but can't seem to scrape up the money to fund schools. What's wrong with that picture?

Weingarten and Ravitch's appeals are unprecedented. I couldn't find another instance where a direct appeal of this sort has been made to the Secretary of Education for direct intervention. Will Duncan respond? He should, if he cares at all about educating children regardless of class or race.

Here is what they would like Duncan to do:

On behalf of the students, educators and families of Philadelphia, we ask you to publicly intervene. Reach out to Gov. Corbett and the state Legislature to seek additional funding for Philadelphia’s schools. Do not let them die. The children of Philadelphia need your help. Do not let them down.

Why is the budget in such a crisis? Partly because Republicans rejected the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which would have freed millions of dollars to cover the needs in public schools, and partly because the legislature and governor, with ALEC's full blessing, have prioritized prisons over public schools.

Education should not play second fiddle to prisons. Imagine what might happen if we actually switched that priority. Maybe we'd need less prisons?

You can sign the letter and stand with Philly schools here. Please do, and share with others.

Update: The budget is even worse than I had originally thought:

The budget Corbett signed last night continues the past two years' hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to public schools, universities, environmental protection, and programs that care for the poor, homeless, recovering addicts, and victims of domestic violence.

House Republicans are moving to block Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, which could cover 600,000 Pennsylvanians, which was included in the welfare code passed by the Senate.

There is, once again, more money for prisons.

Not so much for Philly schools and their doomsday budget, which has prompted the lay off of 3,859 teachers, aides, administrators and other staff.

And there's more.

Last month, City Paper revealed that self-described reform group PennCAN is secretly lobbying the governor to exploit the city schools crisis as an opportunity to attack the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers for political gain.

Notably, the state has controlled Philadelphia's School Reform Commission, which bargained the current contract with the PFT, for more than a decade. But in Harrisburg, the reflex is to blame Philadelphia and teachers.

And so the Harrisburg budget fiasco has once again drawn back the curtain on a political establishment profoundly hostile to the public good.

The Philadelphia Schools Partnership, which has a close working relationship with the Nutter Administration, isbacking PennCAN's campaign to fight the union.

Bankrupting schools in the name of union-busting? Teachers aren't the problem here. Politicians are.

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