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Students tell Pa. governor: ’Education is a human right’

Published Feb 22, 2012 10:23 PM

More than 400 high school students, parents and activists from Pittsburgh, Reading, Chester, Philadelphia and other cities converged on Pennsylvania’s Capitol in Harrisburg to demand love for schools on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. The majority of the students were people of color, who came to speak their minds before the assembled media in front of the Capitol’s rotunda steps.

WW photo: Joseph Piette

“These budget cuts hurt,” said Tia Torres, a high school student from Pittsburgh. With tears in her eyes, she described how last year’s slashing of school funding affected students in her school. “Are you setting us up for failure?” she asked as she described the leaky roof, busted water pipes and weak floors in her school building.

Almost $1 billion was cut in last year’s state funding for basic education. An Associated Press analysis of those budget cuts showed that where the median household income is less than $36,000, the state cuts took $609 from every student, compared to just $84 in Lower Merion, for example, where the median household income is $110,000.

Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget for this year does nothing to repair the crises many school districts find themselves in. Harrisburg, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Reading, Chester-Upland and Philadelphia — places with high levels of poverty — are all on a state list of 18 financially distressed school districts. To make matters worse, Corbett proposes eliminating a $100 million Accountability Block Grant program that many districts use to fund kindergarten and pre-K programs.

As teachers, school nurses, workers and staff are being laid off, more and more programs for youth are being eliminated; public schools are being closed due to severe underfunding; and officials are handing over scarce resources to private charter schools. The powerful people who want to privatize our schools are using many different means: state control, high stakes standardized testing, school closures, merit pay and attacks on teacher unions — anything to justify the private takeover of the education system.

Proponents of charter schools claim to be creating a better system, but studies refute that claim. The Schools Matter blog reports that “urban charter schools make it easy to segregate based on race, economics, gender and disability.” (www.schoolsmatter.info) The end result is a two-tiered education system with less accountability and more uneducated youth, but huge profits.

Higher education is also under attack. The governor cut state funding to higher education in 2011 by nearly 20 percent. Colleges responded by raising tuition and cutting programs. This week, Gov. Corbett called for an additional 30 percent cut in state aid to Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pittsburgh and Temple University, and a 20 percent cut to the 14 state-owned universities, including Cheyney University and West Chester University.

State attacks community programs

Last year, the state eliminated funding for the Homeowners Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program, the health care program for 40,000 low-income adults called Adult Basics, and the state’s $130 million job training program. Not only are those cuts continued this year, but another $631 million is being cut from the Department of Public Welfare.

Threatened programs include behavioral health services; drug and alcohol, mental health and intellectual disabilities programs; special grants for county child welfare; homeless assistance; the general assistance cash grant program; and cash assistance to nearly 68,000 disabled adults, domestic violence survivors, children in the care of nonrelatives and others.

A further attack on the poor, effective May 1, is an asset test for the 1.8 million Pennsylvanians who receive food stamps. Individuals under age 60 who have more than $5,500 in savings and other assets will no longer be eligible to receive food stamps.

Last year’s final state budget was reached through a political compromise that slightly decreased the proposed massive cuts in education, but increased cuts in social service programs instead.

Baseera Watson, a high school student representing the Philadelphia Student Union, asserted at the Harrisburg protest: “We reject the premise that we are pitted against each other; that poor and working people have to fight each other over scraps. We should not have to choose between Head Start and available school nurses. We should not have to choose between education and social services. We should not have to choose at all. Education is a human right!”