When cuts are deep enough, they can leave ugly scars. That’s the lesson being learned across Pennsylvania this year, as some of the state’s poorest districts try to cope with $860 million in funding cuts advanced by Governor Tom Corbett – cuts educators say are causing serious and permanent harm to the state’s neediest students.
The Chester Upland School District outside Philadelphia, where students face issues ranging from poverty to drug-related violence before they enter their classrooms each day, became the face of the funding crisis in January, when the district announced that it would not be able to make payroll. The members of the Chester Upland Education Association and the Chester Upland Education Support Personnel Association banded together and voted to continue working without knowing when or if they’d be paid in order to keep the district from failing.
As the Chester Upland crisis became a national story – President Barack Obama invited district teacher Sara Ferguson to attend his 2012 State of the Union address – the Corbett administration could not wash its hands quickly enough of the mess it had caused. Corbett even publicly blamed the district – which laid off 40 percent of its teachers and half its unionized support staff before the start of the year – for its own financial troubles.
But Pennsylvania educators say Corbett’s finger-pointing can’t obscure a simple fact – Chester Upland is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, districts throughout the state are dealing with their own Corbett-initiated funding crises.
“In my building alone, we furloughed approximately 30 teachers last year,” said Kristen Cole, a teacher from the Pocono Mountain School District, where nearly half the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Corbett’s cuts are also yielding distressing consequences for kids in the McKeesport Area School District, where programs designed to keep students from dropping out have met the ax, thanks to $2.9 million in state funding cuts. The poverty rate in McKeesport is more than twice the state average.
“We lost our credit recovery program in our school,” said teacher Derek Pavlovic. “The kids have lost an opportunity.”
“Our tutoring program is basically non-existent at this point,” added district educator Linda Cosgrove.
The situation is no better in the York City School District, which lost $8.4 million in funding and furloughed 123 educators this year. Programs like elementary art, music and physical education were eliminated. The cuts have left educators with more challenges than ever, as they scramble to meet the needs of the district’s predominantly lower-income students.
“Public schools can not function on skeleton staff,” said furloughed educator Laura Baum. “And this is even less than skeleton staff.”
The Pennsylvania State Education Association, an NEA affiliate and vocal opponent of Corbett’s education funding cuts, is working to create awareness statewide of the effects the cuts are having on students. To hear educators tell their stories, check out PSEA’s “Kids Cuts & Consequences” video series.
Kids, Cuts and Consequences Intro Video: