Pennsylvania legislators in Harrisburg received a special visit on Tuesday morning from Philadelphia elementary students petitioning for fair school funding.
Seventy students from Greenberg and Cassidy Elementary Schools arrived in two charter buses around 9 a.m., armed with presentations for senators and representatives, hoping to persuade them to fix the state’s wide funding disparities among districts.
The trip was organized through Young Heroes, the National Liberty Museum’s outreach program, which teaches students about leadership, civic engagement, and social justice.
The students were split up into eight groups, and each was assigned at least one legislator to whom they’d present their case. During the meeting, they took notes and asked questions about whether the legislator would vote for fair funding and whether he or she would have a public hearing about the racial disparities in education.
“If we don’t get enough money, we won’t be able to get the stuff we need to get an education,” said Lintzlee Innocent, a 4th-grade student from Cassidy Elementary.
Lintzlee and her 4th-grade classmates from Cassidy made up the bulk of the students, with a total of 48. For them, the issue of fair funding hits close to home, because a facilities assessment found that their building was in the worst condition in the District.
According to the District’s report, repairing the 93-year-old building would cost $25 million, but for $5 million more, it could be replaced. Students and faculty complain of filthy bathrooms with leaky pipes and overflowing toilets, oversized classrooms holding more than 50 students, and a classroom converted into a cafeteria. They have an asphalt lot for a playground.
In a published letter to State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Phila.), Chelsea Mungo, a Cassidy 4th grader, wrote that the school feels like “a prison or a junkyard,” and “it is always dirty everywhere.”
“Students see the conditions that they’re coming to school in,” said Tara Tyler, school counselor at Cassidy. “There are issues in the building. The students are very aware of that, because these are their learning conditions.”
One of the teams, Team One, consisting of four Cassidy students, met with State Rep. Rosemary Brown, a Republican representing Monroe and Pike Counties, and Sen. John H. Eichelberger, a Republican from Blair, Fulton, and parts of Hunterdon, Cumberland, and Franklin Counties. They were also scheduled to meet with Democrat James R. Brewster, who represents parts of Allegheny and Westmoreland Counties, but he canceled.
Brown was scheduled for the first meeting for the day. Like Philadelphia, her district suffers from severe underfunding. According to an analysis by David Mosenkis, an independent data analyst, Brown’s district is underfunded by $28 million.
“I feel we should have more money so we can be equal with the other kids, and I want all of the schools to be [equal],” said Samadje Lloyd, 10, while reading his statement to Brown.
“When we go into our bathrooms, our toilets are messed up, we don’t have hand sanitizer, no toilet paper,” Samadje said.
The students also showed Brown a graph from Mosenkis’ report, showing that most of the schools that are majority black are underfunded, while majority white schools are overfunded.
“It’s like people don’t care about us,” Samadje said.
Although her district’s funding deficit is less than 10 percent of Philadelphia’s, Brown recognized that students in her district are in the same boat and said that she was an ally in the fight for fair funding.
“I think it is important that legislators are constantly reminded of an issue that has been plaguing the state funding for education for a long time,” she said. “Although it wasn’t like that in the past, we have to do everything we can to correct it and to make it as fair as possible.”
After the meeting, Reese Davis, 10, a student from the group, said he was pleased with her response and felt optimistic about the group’s upcoming meeting with Eichelberger.
“We did good for the first meeting,” Reese said. “Hopefully this can make a complete difference in the Pennsylvania school districts. If we can get her approval, we can get the next one.”
Eichelberger, whose district is overfunded by $60 million, wasn’t as receptive to their arguments as Reese may have liked. He told the students that their local district is responsible for financial problems in schools, and he said that the School Reform Commission should open more charters to give students more options.
“If they allow more charter schools to come, you might be able to go to one of those schools that would be a nicer, better environment for you,” he told the students.
Samadje agreed with Eichelberger. He later said he’d prefer to go to a charter. He said the best thing about the school is his teacher, Sharon Bryant, but overall he didn’t like Cassidy.
The school is “messed up,” Samadje said, and he wants to go to a better school where he can “have a better learning experience.”
Other groups’ meetings were similar: Some legislators were more receptive to the students than others.
Kathy Volin, a teacher at Greenberg, said she was offended when one legislator said the students should look into “prevailing wage,” a set wage paid to employees in a specific area, and “ghost teachers,” teachers who work full-time for a union while receiving a salary from teaching and their union.
“I found that very offensive that she would say that when it is obvious,” said Volin. “And she talked about the differences in money [between districts] — but she’d say, ‘You need to spend less.’”
After their meetings, the eight groups reconvened for a tour of the state Capitol building and watched a Senate hearing, where the students were acknowledged by the committee, and Chelsea Mungo was honored on the floor by Hughes for her letter.
Before the trip, Cassidy students wrote letters advocating for fair funding to Hughes as a part of their fair funding project for Young Heroes. Mungo’s letter was published online at philly.com.
Mungo said she was shy at first, but she loved being honored. She said she’ll continue to advocate for fair funding, because “every child needs to learn” and “we need more money.”
After taking a group portrait with the students on the lieutenant governor’s portico, Hughes said that when it comes to fair funding, the legislature in Harrisburg has been a failure for a long time. But perhaps seeing the students that it impacts will bring change.
“It is great to have them up here,” he said. "Because maybe this will be the way to communicate the message to my colleagues that we've got to do something and we’ve got to do something now.”
Since Cassidy students came all the way to Harrisburg to visit Hughes and his fellow legislators, he was scheduled to return the favor and visit the school on Thursday to unveil new legislation for fair state funding.
Sharon Bryant, a 4th-grade teacher at Cassidy, said the sequence of events — the letters, the trip, and then a visit from Hughes — would help motivate students to continue the fight. She said the plan now is to get parents involved in communicating to officials to keep the momentum going through the summer.
“Now, we want to expand the communication campaign,” Bryant said.
“We were just writing letters. We need some more people to write letters. We need some more people to start tweeting and emailing,” she said. “I think we have provided him with a frontline window into what is really going on.”