Two days ago, the Chester Upland School District in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, ran out of money.
Despite this fact, the schools are still functioning. Children in the predominantly African-American school district are still attending classes every day, as if nothing is different.
But something is very different. The teachers are now working for free.
While you digest that, here are some other things to know about the Chester Upland School District. The median household income in Chester, PA is $23,703, less than half the national average. With such an economically disadvantaged tax base, the school district relies on state aid for about 70 percent of its total funding.
When freshman Republican Governor Tom Corbett signed his budget last summer, he cut $900 million from Pennsylvania’s statewide education funding. Yet it was the Chester Upland school board that received a letter from the state Education Secretary in December saying, according to the Philadelphia Enquirer, that “the board had failed to properly manage its finances and would not get any additional funds.”
So at a union meeting on Tuesday, the employees resolved that despite recent developments, they would stay on teaching without pay “as long as [they] are individually able.”
Chester Upland was forced to lay off “40 percent of its professional staff and about half of its unionized support staff before school began last fall.” That leaves 200 professionals and 65 support staff to manage a school with class sizes of over 40 students.
Chester Upland is not the only district desperately trying to stay afloat. Corbett’s cuts forced one school district to enforce wage freezes and cut extracurricular activities and another turned to actually using sheep instead of lawnmowers to cut grass at two of its schools. As ThinkProgress’s Travis Waldron pointed out, Corbett could relieve school districts if he let special interest groups like tobacco and the oil and gas industry go without their tax breaks. But he seems to prefer allowing teachers to go without pay.
Budgets aren’t just numbers on a piece of paper. They show the priorities of those in power. The priorities of the Corbett Administration, it would appear, include enriching the wealthy donors and industries that supported his 2010 campaign, but not the education of Pennsylvania’s children.
For instance, a woman in Florida who donated $180,000 to Corbett’s campaign is married to the CEO of a Marcellus Shale drilling firm. The legislature is currently debating how much Marcellus Shale drillers should pay for the affect their activities are having on Pennsylvania’s environment, communities, and local infrastructure. Corbett, not so coincidentally, has been very reluctant to levy fees on the drillers, despite the desperate need for revenue.
I guess it’s a damn shame that neither the children of Chester, Pennsylvania, many of whom come from households below the poverty line, nor the teachers of the Chester Upland School District who are currently making zero dollars for educating those children, can afford to make massive contributions to Tom Corbett’s reelection campaign. It’s a damn shame because perhaps Corbett would be more reluctant to gut Pennsylvania schools and more willing to charge enormous, wealthy energy companies what they owe.
But this isn’t just a story about Corbett. It’s a story about the brave men and women of the Chester Upland School District who are doing what many of us would not be willing to do: go into work every day without the promise of a paycheck, for the simple reason that the students need them. More than anything, it’s a reminder to thank a teacher.