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  June 12, 2013

Philadelphia Slashes Schools Budget While State Spends $400 Million on New Prisons

Philadelphia communities fighting back against planned cuts that disproportionally impact low income and African American communities
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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

The Philadelphia school board recently announced it's going to close 23 schools and lay off nearly 4,000 employees, including over 600 teachers, 200 counselors, 100 assistant principals, and more than 1,200 noontime aides.

To discuss this latest news, we're joined by two guests.

Anissa is a high school teacher, community leader, core member of the Teacher Action Group, and rank-and-file member of the Philadelphia federation of teachers. She's been teaching in Philadelphia for the last seven years, but recently was notified that she was going to be laid off, along with 3,800 of her colleagues.

Gerald Wright is a father of two girls who attend Philadelphia public schools. One is a sixth-grade student at John Story Jenks Elementary School, and the other is an eleventh-grade student at Constitution High.

Thank you both for joining us.


NOOR: Gerald, let's start with you. Your children do not attend a school that's going to be closed down. Will your children and will your children's school still be impacted?

GERALD WRIGHT, PARENTS UNITED FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION: Absolutely. The school closings are impacting all of the schools across the city, because the budgets that have been given to all of the schools have been cut by about 25 percent. So every school in the School District of Philadelphia is affected, whether it's closing or not.

NOOR: Gerald, you're also a cofounder of Parents United for Public Education in Philadelphia. Can you talk a little bit about what this group has been doing in response to these announced cuts?

WRIGHT: Parents United for Public Education continues to call on the School District of Philadelphia and the School Reform Commission to be transparent in their decision-making and include parents in all levels of their deliberations about what to do next as a result of the crisis that we face. So we updated information on our website. We continue to work with all groups across the city that are engaging and responding to this crisis. And we continue to call on our elected leadership to provide the necessary funds for public education, funding that is sustainable, consistent, and that will stabilize the ability of the public schools to function.

NOOR: So, Gerald, for over the past decade, Philadelphia's schools have been managed by the state. What impact has this had on the priorities of the budget in Philadelphia public schools?

WRIGHT: Well, the state takeover is managed by a group called the School Reform Commission, and that's been in place since 2001. The prior governor before the current governor, Ed Rendell, as a result of that takeover put more money into public education. And each year that he put more money in, the results from the public system have been better. Students have done better consistently as money was put into the system.

The current governor, Corbett, took about $1 billion away from the education system in Pennsylvania, which certainly impacted Philadelphia significantly. As a result, we're now looking at a school district that passed a budget that does not appear to provide enough money to allow the schools to operate at any kind of quality level. The budgets that the individual schools have received will only pay for a principal and teachers. Extracurricular activity is done away with, counselors are removed, noontime aides are removed, support staff's removed, and a large number of teachers are taken out. Nearly 700 teachers are going to be laid off come the fall of 2013.

NOOR: And, Gerald, the cuts are going to disproportionately affect African-American and low-income students. Talk about the impact they're going to have on these communities, on these high-need communities.

WRIGHT: Well, the school closings are by far disproportionately impacting low-income and African-American neighborhoods. For example, the school district has pretty much closed every high school in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. There will no longer be a neighborhood high school in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. So students will either have to travel a greater distance to another section of the city or they'll have to find a school with special [incompr.] privileges. And you still have to travel to get to that school, because those schools are not located in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

NOOR: I wanted to bring Anissa Weinraub into the conversation. Anissa, you're one of over 600 teachers that has been notified they're being laid off this year. Talk about the moment you found out about this layoff and what your reaction was.

WEINRAUB: Yes. Actually, you know, it's interesting because, you know, we in Philadelphia, this is not the first time we've had--a couple of years ago there were a few thousand layoffs, and at that time I was lucky enough to receive a layoff as well--unlucky enough, actually. And what's different this time is, whereas last time there were layoffs, it was actually a person, my principal, my supervisor who brought me down and talked to me, this time what happened was it was a Saturday afternoon and I came home to find a white envelope in my mailbox. And, you know, I'm not alone with this story. People out, you know, having brunch, playing with their kids, maybe doing some final grading, and came home on a Saturday to find this letter that says, we regret to inform you that your services are no longer needed.

And I think that's really indicative of what's going on in the School District, because we see, you know, as Gerald so explained, we see that we have a state that has taken over our school system. There's no elected representation for the decisions that are made on our school board. People are really insulated and not had to be held accountable for the kind of budgets and mismanagement and decisions that they're making. Similar to that, you know, there's no human there that is responsible to tell me and to take some kind of accountability for the fact that I and, you know, 3,800 other people are going to be laid off.

NOOR: Anissa, what's the impact going to be for the students at your school that teachers are going to be laid off there?

WEINRAUB: My school and every single school across the entire city is losing counselors, support staff, secretaries, assistant principals, nurses. Essentially, everyone it takes to really run a school will not be here. So the ripple effects of that are devastating, disastrous, and destabilizing. As Gerald poignantly mentioned, you can't run a school, you can't run a school, you cannot ensure student safety if there aren't any people around to make sure that the people in the hallway are supposed to be there. You cannot ensure student social and emotional health if you don't have counselors. And you can definitely not ensure student academic performance when you're going to have overstuffed, 33 students to a classroom classes where you're going to have teachers who are overwhelmed with the kind of responsibility of taking on all the responsibilities that a dean and a counselor and a secretary and an assistant principal used to do. So essentially what are we doing to our building is we're consigning our schools and our students and the people who work for the School District of Philadelphia to failure.

NOOR: Now, Gerald, I wanted to read you a quote from the superintendent of Philadelphia public schools, Dr. William Hite Jr. He said the layoffs are a result of severe budget cuts necessary to keep the nation's eighth-largest school district financially sound. He says the School District of Philadelphia must live within its means. We can only spend the revenues that are given to us by the city and the state. Unfortunately, this is the harsh reality of how that looks. Gerald, you've talked about the priorities of the state, and the same time they have slashed the public school budget, they have allocated $400 million to build new prisons near Philadelphia. What's your response?

WRIGHT: Well, I mean, it doesn't make sense. That $400 million is in addition to the budget passed for the Corrections Department in Pennsylvania. So if you can find $400 million in addition to the budget that was passed to build prisons, why wouldn't you want to divert at least some of that money to schools that are clearly suffering and responsible for the well-being and the education of tomorrow's workforce and today's children?

NOOR: Anissa, I wanted to get your response to Robert Pollin. We recently had him on The Real News. He was talking about the most effective way to create jobs. And a lot of these cutbacks you've seen around the country, like, for example, in Pennsylvania, where they're facing a massive budget shortfall, the same time they're cutting public education they're also cutting taxes to corporations. And the idea is to create jobs. But Robert Pollin says in fact the best way to create jobs is to fund public education. Let's go to that clip.


ROBERT POLLIN, CODIRECTOR, POLITICAL ECONOMY RESEARCH INSTITUTE: Spending on education is one of the best ways to create jobs, and it's maybe the best way insofar as we already have an infrastructure in place called the system of public education at the state level, at the local level. And when you spend $1 million on education, you're going to create 27 jobs.

So we must reverse this thinking that somehow public education is a drag on economic well-being, that we need austerity in public education. Quite the opposite. Even on strictly economic terms, on job creation terms, invest in education, invest in public education. It's the single best route to creating jobs right now.


WEINRAUB: I think it's very clear that those who have been elected to be our so-called leaders are really asserting priorities that are not in a line with most people's common sense and our communities' well-being. When you give tax--you know, when the idea of economic development is give megacorporations tax breaks, don't have downtown real estate holders pay their fair share of taxes, and then to slide that burden and to try to balance that budget on the backs of my students, my colleagues, and our city, you know, we're living in an upside-down world.

And I think that the gentleman is correct that if we are--it really begs the question: what kind of community, what kind of city, what kind of nation do we want to live in? Do we want to live in one where everyone is literate, where everyone can function within 21st-century demands of technology and ability to collaborate? Is it one in which people will be able to work and then know that they will have health care that's affordable to them and will have city services that are there for them? Or is it one where a very few will, you know, extract all of the wealth and the rest of us will just be left for low-wage labor, unemployment, incarceration, joblessness, and really tearing at the real threads of our community?

So I do think that this moment in public education in Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, and across the nation is asking us in our cities and in our communities what are our priorities. Will we invest in schools as public institutions and the cornerstones of healthy communities and the future generations? Or are we going to invest in this kind of casino capitalism where, you know, it's just the very few richest that get to take away all of the wealth? We're really living at a moment that I see as a tipping point.

NOOR: So, Gerald, at the same time public schools are being shut down and teachers are being fired, do you still have the expansion of publicly funded but privately managed charter schools in Philadelphia? What's your response? And what will the next steps be for parents and community members in Philadelphia challenging these policies?

WRIGHT: Well, the first thing that parents and community folks need recognize is we have to fight real hard to expand the amount of money coming into the pot to provide taxpayer-paid public education, whether it's charter or whether it's, you know, traditional public schools.

That being said, given the pot of money that we have right now, the continued drive to expand charter schools without expanding the amount of money that we're receiving to provide education, the way that charter schools are organized and the way that the political will is being expressed in Philadelphia is draining needed resources from the public schools run by the School District of Philadelphia. Charter schools appear to be something of a priority the way that the state law has been interpreted, and as a result--there's still only one pot of money, so as a result, you have more hands in that one pot of money, and therefore the School District of Philadelphia has less money to provide to the schools that it is directly responsible to manage.

And ironically, we don't have rational discussions. We have political discussions around School District-run schools and charters. So one of the things that parents and the rest of the community needs to do is to begin to change this contentious discussion into one where we're talking rationally about what we need to do in order to provide public education that's run by the School District of Philadelphia, which is still the place where most of the children are going to receive their education, and it is the only place that those children have to be accepted. Charter schools don't necessarily have to accept schools, and if they kick a child out of their schools, that child comes back to the School District run public schools. And in this current scenario, those are the very schools that are being hit hardest by the budget cuts and by the lack of positive reinforcement that's going on now in the education reform discussion.

NOOR: So, Anissa, we'll end with you. How does the teachers union fit into this picture?

WEINRAUB: Well, I think what we have seen this year in Philadelphia is something that's very exciting, where parents, teachers, and students, and community groups, and other labor unions are coming together through a coalition called PCAPS, the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools. And so I think inside of that we're seeing much more grassroots and school-based organizing happen among the rank-and-file in the teachers union.

And so, you know, I am a member of both the Teacher Action Group and the Philly Federation of Teachers. And so, as a teacher leader, I think it is critical for all of us on the ground level, all of us who are working directly with students and directly with parents, to see ourselves as the union and to ensure that we push ourselves and our colleagues as the union forward, and really understanding that our working conditions and teaching conditions are our students' learning conditions, and that we have to have a real collective understanding that these are our schools, and so we must fight together.

So this summer is going to be a real exciting one. We're going to be in the streets a lot. We're going to be canvassing with students and parents. We're going to be getting the word out. And we're going to be fighting for a contract that's good for us and good for our students and communities.

NOOR: Anissa, thank you for joining us.

WEINRAUB: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: Gerald Wright, thank you for joining us.

WRIGHT: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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