By Rebecca Poyourow
Over the past four years, my children have attended their neighborhood school in Philadelphia. My husband and I were attracted to Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School in Roxborough because of its dedicated teaching staff, its vibrant parent community, and its academic strength and diversity. However, little did we imagine when we enrolled our oldest in kindergarten in 2009 that support for public education would be so severely cut in the following years, with the largest cuts falling on the poorest districts.
When Gov. Corbett's 2011-2012 budget cut $1 billion from public education across the state, $300 million of which came from Philadelphia, our kids felt it. According to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, Philadelphia has lost $1,258 per student in state funding - the largest per-child cut taken by any Pennsylvania school district.
Not only has the amount of funding dropped, but inequities have increased across the commonwealth. The Education Law Center found that Philadelphia now gets $78,000 less per classroom than surrounding districts. That translates into teacher layoffs, huge class sizes, unsafe schools, discarded commitments to teaching the arts and sciences, and the abrogation of responsibilities to special-education students.
Along with other parents, teachers, and staff, we have given in many ways to support our kids' school, which maintains its spirit and strength despite massive underfunding. When we did not have funds for arts instruction or other extracurricular opportunities, parents became volunteer leaders of after-school art, drama, biking, and Odyssey of the Mind clubs. When kindergarten class sizes ballooned, I organized parent volunteers to help mitigate a 30-1 child-teacher ratio. When there was no money to pay more than one lunchtime aide to supervise 500 students, we raised funds to hire an additional aide for the rest of the year.
Since our after-school tutoring program was cut, I and two other parents reached out to local universities to begin a partnership that now brings college-student volunteers to help children who are reading below grade level. Last year and this year, the school has run out of money for basic supplies such as paper, and parents sent their children with reams of paper for the school.
Parents have volunteered, fund-raised, written grants, and created community partnerships to try to plug the holes in our school's budget. Parents from across the city have also petitioned state legislators and City Council over the last two budget cycles - our school sent 200 people to Harrisburg for a day of lobbying for public education funding - and we are keeping the pressure up.
We are not a rich school community. Seventy-three percent of our students come from low-income families. We do this on top of our day jobs. We do this on top of our family responsibilities. We do this because it is the right thing to do.
But we do not do this without an understanding of the larger political context. We know that our actions, while laudable, will amount to very little if our schools are persistently and pervasively underfunded. We also know that our efforts to support our kids' schools are undermined every time the School District and the School Reform Commission make spending decisions that squander what resources Philadelphia does have on charter expansion ($139 million last year), a questionable new cyber charter venture ($15 million proposed), and new contracts with testing companies ($11 million), as well as other contracts and programs that add little benefit to our children's education.
Parents plan to hold the district accountable. And if the district wants parental support for increased funding, it must redo its budget for the coming year. The SRC and the School District cannot be allowed to make poor spending decisions while cutting staff and materials for schools to the point that our children are unsafe. They must be held accountable by City Council, and by Philadelphia as a whole.
The next budget cycle should absolutely see the restoration of funds to our city's schools - from both the state and the city - with a demand that funds received go directly to district-run schools for the education of our children.
We have already seen the damage cuts and poor spending decisions have wrought over the last two years in terms of the safety, instruction, and classroom environments of our children, and we cannot afford any more. What would the contemplated 25 percent cut mean for schools already in bare-bones-operation mode? How few people can you run a school with? If we lose our secretary, there will be no one watching the front door.