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Fight for a Better Future for Public School Students

Wednesday, October 23, 2013
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A sign from a press conference that P.O.W.E.R., an interfaith social justice group, held earlier this fall. Photo from powerphiladelphia.org

By: Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

Imagine applying for college or navigating financial aid without a guidance counselor to help you. What would it have been like to attend a school with no music, no art, no theater, no sports teams, no nurses, no librarians, no special education services? How might you have fared in a school with increasingly large classroom sizes and overextended staff?

This is reality for the 200,000 students in the Philadelphia public school district, which opened this fall despite a massive fiscal crisis and crippling lay-offs.

Faced with a $304 million budget shortfall in the spring, the district shuttered nearly two dozen public schools and handed out upwards of 3,800 pink slips to counselors, assistant principals and support staff.

While $50 million borrowed from the city and $45 million just released by the governor last week allowed the district to rehire some of those employees, this is still only a fraction of what our schools need to function properly. And one-time cash infusions won't stop funding deficiencies from coming up again.

The only way out of this cycle is for Pennsylvania to establish a full funding formula that takes into account poverty rates as well as the numbers of English-as-a-second-language and special needs students per district. An equitable funding formula distributes money to districts based on data and not on political whim. This is about giving all children, whether rich or poor, black, white or Latino, access to good schools. Until this happens, the education crisis will remain one of the biggest threats to the future prosperity of our city.

No matter our station in life or whether this issue affects us “directly," as Jews who care about justice, we must take action.

Judaism is a spiritual tradition in love with learning and with utmost respect for students and teachers. Resh Lakish, a rabbinic sage, said: “One may not neglect schoolchildren even in order to build the Holy Temple." We must never abandon our children — even for the most holy activity – because our future depends on them.

Valuing our children means investing in their education. Since taking office in 2011, Gov. Tom Corbett has cut $1.2 billion from education. Meanwhile, he allocated $400 million toward building a new prison in Montgomery County. There is great irony in the fact that this prison will have a librarian, while many of our schools will not. Studies have shown that money invested in early education saves the state by reducing costs related to crime and drug use — the very things that later land young adults in jail.   

Jewish tradition also teaches us to help the poor and fight inequality. “If there is among you a needy person…you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother; but you shall surely open your hand to him," the book of Deuteronomy states. While all Pennsylvania schools were affected by funding cuts, some districts can cover the deficits with property taxes. Philadelphia cannot. These cuts disproportionately affect low-income and minority children. This is not just an issue of education, but an issue of economic and racial justice.

The repercussions of this kind of inequality are profound.  With substandard education and increasing lack of access, fewer low-income children will have the opportunity to go to college or graduate with the skills to enter the workforce.  It will be harder and harder to escape poverty.  This translates to probable increases in crime, joblessness and hopelessness.

Before we assume this issue is too difficult to solve, imagine what it would be like to look back in a couple of years and see real change. We can move things in the right direction by making phone calls, writing letters and supporting teachers, parents and students who are organizing actions.  Learn more about how to get involved at a forum this Friday, Oct. 25, with members of P.O.W.E.R., an interfaith social justice group, who are on the front lines in battling the funding crisis.

Our prayers and petitions are not enough; we need to be engaged in righteousness. If we work strategically and thoughtfully, if each of us does a small part, our collective efforts can help even out the scales of justice so that everyone has access to an excellent education.

Kol Tzedek will host a Shabbat potluck dinner and discussion with activists working to reverse the school funding crisis on Oct. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Calvary Center on the corner of 48th Street and Baltimore Avenue. The congregation is a member of P.O.W.E.R., Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild.

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann is the leader of Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist congregation in West Philadelphia. Parts of this post originally appeared in a sermon

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