As deadline for Rendell's education budget draws near, students and District make last efforts to persuade PA legislators
by Beandrea Davis
For student groups and School District officials in Philadelphia alike, a lot is riding on the passage of Governor Rendell's education spending plan for the state.
For the members of the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), a youth-run non-profit which focuses on progressive education reform, the Governor's proposed education budget is so vital that members have pledged to walk all the way to Harrisburg from Philadelphia in a last-ditch effort to convince Pennsylvania legislators to pass the Governor's plan by the June 30 deadline.
After holding a rain-soaked press conference on the morning of June 20, fifteen PSU members departed from 69th and Market Streets on what they called "110 Miles for Educational Justice." The students said that this action is an appropriate symbol that demonstrates their willingness to sacrifice for better public schools.
"I am making this sacrifice in hopes of ensuring quality education for generations to come," said PSU member and Chester High School student Ashley Smith at the press conference.
PSU sees its efforts as part of a larger movement for social justice. "Equal and adequate funding," said Jacob Winterstein, PSU member and Masterman senior, "is today's civil rights issue."
Rendell budget proposes new funds, has uncertain future
According to the Rendell administration's website, the proposed education budget would increase per student spending by about $1,500 in the School District of Philadelphia next year, an increase that would significantly close the gap between Philadelphia and its wealthier suburbs.
Although the plan would bring an influx of new state dollars into the School District, it would not fundamentally change the way that Pennsylvania's school districts are funded. While including an infusion of funding to high-poverty school districts by adding line item changes to the budget for programs including preschool, full-day kindergarten, and reduced class size, Rendell's plan does not put in place a funding formula to reflect school districts' varied needs.
The plan would, however, increase the state's portion of education spending by 15 percent, an important step given that Pennsylvania ranks 45th nationally in state spending on education, according to a recently released report by Standard & Poor's.
Stopping in West Chester, Honeybrook, Ephrata, Cornwall, and Hershey, the PSU students are holding teach-ins in these towns about equitable school funding and Rendell's education plan. The march will culminate on June 26 in Harrisburg when PSU members will participate in a "Rally for Educational Justice" which hundreds of Philadelphians will also be attending.
Whether or not the legislature will pass any or all of the Governor's proposal is uncertain at best.
"Nobody knows what he's going to get," said Timothy Potts, director of the Pennsylvania School Reform Network, a nonprofit that advocates for public education reform in the state. Potts doubts that a majority of legislators would support a personal income tax increase. One proposed revenue enhancement he does believe legislators will support is legalized slot machines.
Plan would bring more resources to Philadelphia
Nevertheless, if there is a new influx of state dollars to the District, District CEO Paul Vallas anticipates that it will enable the administration to expand its initiatives for the upcoming school year.
This expansion would include additional resources for early education programs, would lower class size to 17 in grades K-3, and expand extended day and afterschool programs. Vallas said these new funds would also enable the District to double the amount of professional development time available to teachers from 40 hours to 80 hours and would relieve reading and math coaches in elementary schools from additional teaching duties.
But the cuts already made to many of the state's key social services, which passed when Rendell signed the budget minus the education line in late March, could make the passage of the Governor's education plan bittersweet. Vallas admitted that any cuts to state social services will "affect state and city agencies' ability to provide family supports" in a high poverty district where the majority of students are from low-income families who often have the greatest need for such services.
However, it is possible that the Governor will reinstate some of the social service cuts with the first $450 million installment of $900 million in one-time federal funding the state will receive over the next two years from President Bush's recent tax package.
Potts noted that the legislature can reinstate human services spending at any point throughout the year and speculated that if the economy improves legislators may be inclined to act. Nevertheless, even if this occurs, the District is still likely to feel the effects of decreased social supports for Philadelphia families.
"There will be an indirect impact," said Vallas.
Ultimately, both students and District officials agree that passage of the Governor's education plan would be an important step towards winning the fight for funding equity in Pennsylvania's schools. Now both groups are focusing their efforts on rallying legislative support in Harrisburg before the June 30 state budget deadline.
For more details about how you can show your support for Governor Rendell's Education Plan or for more information about the June 26 rally in Harrisburg, contact Good Schools Pennsylvania at 215-332-2700 or on the web at www.goodschoolspa.org.
For more information about the Philadelphia Student Union, call 215-546-3290 or visit www.phillystudentunion.org.