Teachers and students encircle Pennsylvania Capitol protesting cuts to education

Harrisburg, Pa. —  Days before state legislators completed the 2013-2014 Pennsylvania budget, over 1,200 teachers, parents, students and community members from across the state converged at the state Capitol in Harrisburg on June 25 to demand money for education and an end to the austerity policies of Gov. Tom Corbett.

After hours of lobbying every state senator and representative, they converged on the steps of the Capitol to send a clear message on three demands: replace the $1 billion cut from public education since the 2011-2012 budget, stop giving $1 billion in tax cuts to the state’s biggest corporations, and stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new prisons, including a new, $400-million prison just outside Philadelphia.

Groups leading the charge for public education included hundreds of teachers from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, parents and community people mobilized by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) and the Greater Pittsburgh Schools Coalition, students from the Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change, and many activists and parents from smaller districts across the state. Also very prominent was UNITE HERE Local 634, representing Philadelphia school safety and cafeteria workers who have been on a hunger strike since June 17 against cuts to Philadelphia schools.

Philadelphia is focus of state cuts

The school district of Philadelphia has been the hardest hit by the cuts that Corbett initiated in the 2011-2012 state budget. Only 10 percent of all Pennsylvania public school students are in the Philadelphia district, but the city has been hit by 30 percent of the statewide cuts — amounting to $300 million less per year. The district has over 200,000 students; 85 percent are students of color and 82 percent are “in need.”

Speaking for the over 15,000 members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, PFT President Jerry Jordan called out Corbett for not fulfilling his constitutional duty to public education “by cutting 1 billion from education while the children are being held hostage.” The school district, which is run by the unelected School Reform Commission, just announced over 3,800 layoffs, including 650 teachers, which will go into effect if the district doesn’t get more money from the state and the city of Philadelphia.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten spoke out at the state Capitol, saying, “The real people who should be arrested are those who support Gov. Corbett. They take away education while finding money to build prisons and give corporations tax breaks.”

Weingarten was arrested in March, along with 18 others, at a meeting of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, which decided to close 23 public schools. Weingarten also called out the attacks on the PFT and teachers in general by a group of pro-privatization organizations called PennCAN. Based in the offices of the Philadelphia School Partnership, it is supported by big capital investors and other powerful anti-public education groups like the Gates Foundation.

PennCAN launched a secret poll that pushed Gov. Corbett to scapegoat the PFT for the budget shortfall, in an attempt to bolster his re-election prospects. Corbett, as well as Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, have both called for major concessions in the union’s upcoming contract. These could include 15 percent pay cuts for teachers, an end to seniority and added responsibilities for teachers. It would take away a total of $133 million, around $8,000 per teacher.

Since Corbett’s cuts in the 2011-2012 budget, Philadelphia has made up the loss of $300 million per year in state funding by closing 30 schools over the last 14 months, issuing nearly 4,000 layoff notices and incurring a five-year debt that will cost over $1.1 billion. This debt continues to grow. While the Philadelphia school district faces $304 million in budget shortfalls from a lack of state funding, it is paying the banks $280 million a year, over half of which is interest. In 2013, the district borrowed another $300 million to cover the deficit that year. Just the interest for that loan comes to $22 million annually for 20 years.

Meanwhile, Corbett has continued to press for hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks for major corporations, including over $360 million for natural gas companies. In response, state Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia called out the governor and the gas drillers, leading the chant, “Put the children first! Put the corporations last!”

The demonstration ended with thousands of people making a human chain around the Capitol, encircling all the legislators and chanting, “No ifs, no buts! No education cuts!”