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Can God save Philly schools?

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Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania House Education Committee voted to advance House Bill 1728 – the National Motto Display Act – requiring “In God We Trust” to be prominently displayed in classrooms and other areas of public school buildings. At first, this seems to be an issue of church-and-state separation – after all, public schools may not promote a deity. But could this proposed legislation foreshadow the next step in the Commonwealth’s apparent plan to further defund public education?

One doesn’t have to have children in a Philadelphia public school to know that the District’s financial situation is dire. And it’s not just here. All across the state, in areas urban and rural, public school districts are buckling under Gov. Corbett’s education cuts.

Given these circumstances, one would reasonably expect that the House Education Committee would be tirelessly working toward enforcing the Pennsylvania constitution’s requirement to provide “for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.” One might reasonably expect that committee members would be proposing an equitable, transparent funding formula for students across the state -- or even just adequate funding. 

Sadly, that is not the case. Instead, the committee is spending precious time and resources advocating for the installation of a motto of questionable constitutional legitimacy. 

Introduced by Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny, the man who rallied the Pennsylvania legislature to decree 2012 to be the Year of the Bible, the bill upholds “In God We Trust” as our national motto. In supporting this, Saccone refers to the 150th anniversary of 19th-century Pennsylvania Gov. James Pollock’s placement of the words on a two-cent coin and noted in a statement that “our youth need to hear the story of our heritage and learn from positive role models in a time of decaying values.” May I suggest that our current students might find it valuable to be able to look up to our 21st-century legislators for championing their right to a good education and, as a result, a better life now and in the future?

Even more incomprehensible is that requiring installation of this motto is an unfunded mandate. Does this mean that it’s OK for our schools to go without counselors, nurses, security, even paper and textbooks, but still use their severely limited funds and resources to install suitable plaques?

If I believed in conspiracy theories, I would say that this legislation is a brilliant move to further allow the commonwealth to abdicate its responsibility to fund public education. Rather than placing trust in their legislative leadership, the burden is on our ability to trust in God. In the Jerry Falwell tradition of blaming everything from AIDS to 9/11 on the wrath of God, Pennsylvania legislators can now attribute failing schools to a failing obligation to God. Your students’ test results weren’t high enough and your school didn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress? Don’t blame poverty or lack of adequate funding;  blame yourself because you just didn’t trust in God enough. Legislators like Saccone can point to the plaques and say: If you had truly trusted in God, your school would have done much better.

“In God We Trust” is best known for appearing on the back of United States currency. Personally, I’d like to see much more of this motto in our schools, but only when it is found on actual dollars. So, please, send our schools as many “In God We Trust"s as possible – preferably in large denominations. A billion of them should do.

Christine Carlson is a public school parent and the founder of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition. 


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Christine Carlson

Christine Carlson is a public school parent and the founder of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition.