Philadelphia education cutbacks claim first victim

For over two years, parents, students and school workers warned the Philadelphia School Reform Commission that draconian cuts in school staffing would pose a serious threat to the health and safety of the district’s children. On Sept. 25, this dire but unheeded prediction came to fruition when 12-year-old Laporshia Massey died from an untreated asthma attack.

In 2011, the SRC had laid off 110 nurses despite 22 weeks of protests outside School District headquarters by Occupy 440, a group of school nurses and their supporters. Only 179 remained to service 331 public, charter and parochial schools. Student-to-nurse ratios doubled.

Because of these cuts, a nurse trained to detect asthma symptoms was not present at Bryant Elementary, the sixth-grader’s school. A nurse comes only two days a week. Students may bring medications to school but aren’t allowed to take them unless a nurse is present.

When Massey, who reported breathing problems throughout the day, became too sick to walk home, a school employee drove her. Her father immediately gave her medication and rushed her to the hospital. Massey’s father wants to know why the school did not call an ambulance.

It would be tragic enough if Massey were the only casualty of the massive budget cuts that have closed 24 schools and cut over 4,000 teachers and school staff. But Parents United for Public Education reports that since schools opened on Sept. 9, they have documented nearly 400 complaints from parents, staff and students.

Along with the Public Interest Law Center, Parents United launched ­MyPhillySchools.com, a special website to document the impact of the cutbacks. Hundreds of parents whose children have asthma, allergies, diabetes, epilepsy and special education needs have voiced concern over the lack of staff trained to handle emergencies.

One particularly outrageous case involved a 7-year-old boy who suffered second-degree burns on his face while in school. Inexperienced staff applied ice to the burns — not the accepted medical treatment — and then sent him home. His parents rushed him to the emergency room.

Parents United notes that the lack of nurses has been further complicated by reductions in guidance counselors, vice principals, office staff and other key adults. “There are no crisis plans and no protocol on calling emergency help; in fact, in our experience, the District has actively dissuaded staff from calling 911 in emergency situations.” (ParentsUnitedPhilly.com, Oct. 10)

Counselors replaced with cops

Other concerns underscore the impact of prolonged and serious underfunding. Students and teachers complain of severe overcrowding, with 45 to 50 students in classrooms lacking enough desks to go around. School libraries have been closed. Water fountains have been turned off. Schools lack paper, pencils, books and other supplies.

Last year, eight conflict resolution specialists worked with 755 students at Martin Luther King High School to prevent violence in the school. When schools opened in September, MLK had merged with its traditional rival, Germantown High School, for a combined 1,097 students. The conflict resolution specialists had been replaced by five police officers. (techbookonline.com, Oct. 11) This reporter observed over a dozen uniformed Philadelphia police patrolling the grounds of Abraham Lincoln High School in northeast Philadelphia at the beginning of October as students left school.

Most of the schools that have closed or merged are in communities of color. Immigrant students report being denied English as a second language services. Without enough counselors, high school seniors can’t get access to transcripts required for college applications. Putting police routinely in the schools only increases the odds that more students will be pushed out of school and into juvenile jails or prison.

Speaking at a press conference where the MyPhillySchools.com complaint line was announced, Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, whose district is predominantly Latino/a, said the complaints are serious and reveal “what we believe to be a violation of these children’s civil rights.”

Governor holds district hostage

Over the past two years, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett cut state funding for education by over $1 billion. The district blames these cuts for its current $304 million deficit, but wants the teachers’ union to accept $104 million in wage and benefit cuts and give up contractual seniority rights.

Corbett is currently withholding $45 million in federal grant money previously designated for Philadelphia schools until the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, currently in prolonged contract negotiations with the District, accepts these concessions.

That $45 million could fund 400 more teachers, counselors and nurses in Philadelphia schools. Eliminating the seniority that guarantees teachers job protection could intimidate teachers from speaking out against the horrific school ­conditions.

School nurse Eileen DiCampo noted: “Unlike 47 other states, Pennsylvania has no funding formula for education. It is basically orchestrated by politicians in back rooms who have no understanding of the noxious effects of poverty and no understanding of education itself.” She accused Corbett of “holding the District hostage unless teachers make concessions.” (RealNewsNetwork, Oct. 12)

Racism is clearly evident in Pennsylvania’s inequitable education funding. While Philadelphia and other school districts with a majority of working-class people of color have to deal with major funding cuts, predominantly white and wealthier suburban districts received funding increases. One high school in the Lower Merion School District, just across the county line from Philadelphia, has four times as many full-time nurses as comparable inner-city schools. Per student funding in Philadelphia is around $10,000; in Lower Merion it’s over $25,000.

At the same time, the district and the state have money for the banks and corporations. Each year over $280 million from money designated for education goes directly to the banks for “debt services.” In the mid-2000s, banks lured the city into swapping variable interest rates on loans for fixed rates. Like many cities, Philadelphia ended up paying more when global interest rates dropped to zero following the 2008 economic crisis. Swaps have cost Philadelphia $186 million.

While Corbett claims the state has no more money for education, in June 2013, corporate taxes were cut by $600 million to $800 million per year — more than double the school district’s deficit.