HARRISBURG — A debate over Pennsylvania’s funding for public schools escalated Wednesday as authorities detained Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym and education activists after they staged a protest inside the state Capitol.
Gym and several members of the interfaith group POWER were handcuffed and led out of the Senate gallery by state Capitol police after an officer declared the assembly unlawful. They had been outside the chamber for about 15 minutes, banging on the doors and demanding they be let in. They were taken into custody, cited for trespassing, and released, said Troy A. Thompson, a Capitol police spokesperson.
Protest organizers and Gym made their intentions clear ahead of time: They said Tuesday that they would engage in “civil disobedience” and “disrupt business as usual in the General Assembly to make sure lawmakers in the Capitol hear this call for justice.”
“Shame on Pennsylvania, shame on the unjust funding of our school kids, shame on this legislature for not standing up for our children,” Gym said as she was handcuffed and led out of the gallery.
Gym, a progressive Democrat serving her second four-year term on Council, is widely seen as a potential contender for mayor in 2023. Before Gym was first elected in 2015, she was best known as a public school activist.
Nicolas O’Rourke, a pastor and Pennsylvania organizing director for the Working Families Party, was also handcuffed and removed Wednesday.
Gym’s appearance in Harrisburg is unlikely to move leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature, but the fight over education funding offers a platform to elevate a politically potent issue ahead of next week’s state budget deadline.
Gov. Tom Wolf, a second-term Democrat, has proposed more than $1 billion in new funding for public schools. Wolf wants to allocate all “Basic Education Funding” — the state’s biggest source of public school dollars — through a formula adopted in 2016 that is intended to ensure underserved districts receive adequate funding.
Currently, the formula only applies to new investments.
Pennsylvania Democrats have long chafed at the GOP’s approach to education funding, saying the legislature has too often neglected underserved districts like Philadelphia. Republicans say the state cannot spend beyond its means and have pushed to expand school choice.
The issue helped Wolf win the governor’s office in 2014, and since then he’s repeatedly tangled with GOP lawmakers over school funding.
But this year is a bit different, since Wolf has abandoned his original plan to pay for the school funding by raising taxes.
Revenue collections for the fiscal year that ends June 30 are projected to beat expectations by about $3 billion. Wolf wants to tap the surplus for increased education funding, which he says would make sure no district loses money funneled through the formula.
The state also received more than $7 billion in federal coronavirus relief aid.
Republicans have said the state should save much of the cash for future shortfalls. They also want to expand tax credits for private school scholarships.
However the budget plays out, the issue is headed to court. A Commonwealth Court judge ordered this week that a historic case challenging Pennsylvania’s school-funding system will go to trial Sept. 9.
An analysis by the plaintiffs calculated that the state’s public schools need an additional $4.6 billion to close educational gaps. Lawyers for Republican legislative leaders have said they will argue there is no connection between school spending and student performance.
The protest Wednesday came after dozens of progressive activists and Democratic lawmakers held a rally outside the Capitol urging Republicans to include the federal relief in next year’s budget.
“We’re not putting that money in some freezer that we can’t have access to when there are people that are still hurting in this pandemic,” State Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia), the Democratic minority leader, said on the Capitol steps.
Supporters chanted: “Spend the money! Spend the money!”
“We have come to exorcise the demon of white supremacy,” Bishop Dwayne Royster, executive director of POWER, told the crowd.
“Today we’re going in, and we’re calling out the demonic activity that has taken place in this Capitol,” he added. “And we’re saying we will not have it, and we will call down heaven until things change!”
A few dozen activists then marched through the Capitol, singing and praying as they made their way to Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman’s office and the gallery outside the Senate chamber.
“Let the people in!” they chanted, banging on the door to the chamber as two officers stood guard. “Let the people in!”
As Gym and activists blocked the chamber entrance, a Capitol police officer declared their assembly unlawful and ordered them to disperse. They refused, and about a dozen were handcuffed.
The Philadelphia School District is in better financial shape this year than in the past, thanks to $1.2 billion in federal aid. But that’s a onetime source of revenue, and the district still faces a long-term structural deficit.
Student needs have grown during the pandemic, and most in the 120,000-student district haven’t set foot inside a classroom since March 2020. Officials are planning for a return to full, in-person learning when the new academic year begins Aug. 31.
Staff writers Kristen A. Graham and Maddie Hanna contributed to this article.