(The Center Square) — Legislative Democrats gathered at a public school in Philadelphia on Monday where they demanded more state funding and decried the physical state of aging buildings.
The trip is the first of four “Save Our Schools” visits by House Democrats across Pennsylvania amid a budget impasse fueled by political divides over creating a $100 million scholarship for children in low-performing school districts to attend private or public schools elsewhere.
“It’s a disgrace,” Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-Royersford, said after touring South Philadelphia High School, which was built in 1957 and has never had a full renovation. “We as a state need to invest in these properties. Our children cannot go to facilities like these.”
School District of Philadelphia officials guided legislators around the property, taking them into the boiler room to show the heating system, which used to run on coal until they were converted to natural gas in 1989. The boilers, with a life expectancy of 30 years, are “basically running on borrowed time,” school officials said.
Officials also noted the original floor tiles, made from asbestos; mercury-filled fluorescent light bulbs; and the difficulties in heating and cooling the building. South Philadelphia High School’s problems, they said, are “broadly reflective of the district’s issues.”
“These children should have the same opportunities that everybody else does,” Ciresi said.
Democrats argued the recent Commonwealth Court ruling that the state’s education funding formula was unconstitutional shows the need for greater investment.
“We fundamentally know that the way we fund education in Pennsylvania is in fact broken,” Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Allentown and chair of the education committee, said. “(We’re) advocating and rallying around a better fair-funding formula that will put us in a position to make sure every kid gets what they need to be successful.”
State Republicans have argued that they compromised on the budget, agreeing to increase education funding at a “historic” level and create a $100 million Lifeline Scholarship program. When House Democrats balked at Shapiro’s support of the voucher program, the governor pledged to line-item veto it, angering Republicans.
“Instead of focusing on saving our schools, House Democrats should join with Republicans in both chambers in saving our students,” House Republican Spokesman Jason Gottesman said in a press release. “By doubling down on an unconstitutionally broken public school system to the exclusion of transformational change and a child-first, family-focused education experience, House Democrats clearly have a bad case of partisan tunnel vision that leaves most Pennsylvanians by the wayside.”
Democrats say they also compromised and are waiting for Republicans to engage.
“We’re just waiting on the Senate Republicans to, frankly, start thinking about getting back to work and doing their damn job,” Schweyer said.
As legislators spoke outside the high school, a dozen supporters flanked them with signs reading “Say no! to vouchers.”
House Majority Leader Matthew Bradford, D-Norristown, said the school showed “the impact of literally decades of disinvestment in public education means in terms of the brick-and-mortar schools that are supposed to be the temples of education here in the commonwealth.”
The repair costs are significant.
Reginald Streater, board president of the School District of Philadelphia, cited a 2017 analysis of the district estimating that deferred maintenance on its facilities would cost about $4.5 billion.
“We are doing what we can with the resources that we have,” Streater said. The district decided last year to invest $325 million of federal stimulus funds into renovation projects over four years. The district plans to invest $2 billion total for building renovations over the next six years.
“If not now, when?” Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said. “We got a $9 billion budget surplus, $5 billion in the state rainy day fund … it’s not any more complicated than that.”
Republicans have warned that inflation and Shapiro’s policy priorities could deplete surpluses, as The Center Square previously reported. The Independent Fiscal Office has also warned that a shrinking and aging workforce could eat away at the surplus, with state spending outpacing tax revenue growth.