In Governor Wolf’s inaugural address, he said, "We’ve gone from a Commonwealth at a crossroads to a Commonwealth on a comeback.”
The governor is correct. I was reminded of this recently as I read the Philadelphia House delegation’s plan for the city. I was struck by how much is at stake and by how much is possible. The work ahead of us is monumental — but as Philadelphia Delegation Chair Jason Dawkins stated, it is about our priorities. It’s encouraging to know the delegation is committed to putting everyday people at the forefront of our path.
The current state of our school facilities is untenable. Every day, the PFT seeks input from our members about what they’re experiencing. We’re sounding the alarm, providing scientific analysis of hazards, and working with our environmental scientist to develop protocols to identify and remediate them. Through the Philadelphia Healthy Schools Initiative, we are building a broad-based coalition of partners who share our commitment to this pivotal work. But it is not nearly enough. Addressing the basic human rights of our schoolchildren and educators who teach them is a collective societal responsibility.
Make no mistake: More investment in school facilities is not something that would be “nice to have.” It is a human rights issue. As the chair of the American Federation of Teachers’ Human Rights Committee, I can’t help but think about how much our society still neglects the basic human rights of the most vulnerable among us. From flaking lead paint, asbestos exposure, persistent rodent issues, the presence of mold, and even the lack of heat on bitterly cold days, educators and children in Philadelphia are learning and working in environmentally toxic facilities every day.
This is also an equity issue. It’s no coincidence that these conditions largely impact children living in communities particularly affected by poverty, and it’s an issue that largely affects children of color. If we truly want our children to know that their lives matter and have value, our investment in their basic human rights must be unequivocal.
Ultimately, the question is very simple: Is there any elected official in Pennsylvania who believes that any child in Pennsylvania should walk into a school that could poison them? If the answer is “no,” then our choice is clear.
Our elected leaders, including an enthusiastic and principled freshman class, are demonstrating a renewed sense of urgency around this issue. The bipartisan Pennsylvania Senate PLANCON committee spent two years studying the needs of school facilities. Their findings are no surprise to the educators and students who enter our buildings each and every day. Today, it appears that more legislators are prioritizing the funding of PLANCON. From City Council legislation on lead remediation requirements to state Sen. Vincent Hughes’ laser focus on securing funds for school repairs, I believe that collectively, we are moving in the right direction.
This place of hope was not borne out of thin air. It’s the result of years of organizing, talking to our neighbors; fighting back against school privatization; fighting for school counselors and nurses. It stems from years of outlining a vision for our Commonwealth that implements policies that empower those who have been disenfranchised by people in positions of power.
As a lifelong Philadelphia resident and a graduate of its public schools, an educator of color, a union leader, and quite simply as a human being, I can think of no worthier investment than in the safety and health of our youth.
Jerry Jordan is president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.