Will the Voices of Chester Upland Teachers Be Heard at the State of the Union?


Photo by Terrapin Flyer on Flickr, via Creative Commons

Updated – Take action! Tell Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett to fully fund public education and put teachers back to work.

In the Chester Upland School District in Pennsylvania, unionized teachers worked without pay for weeks after the district ran out of money. The district relies on state aid for 70 percent of its funding, and the $900 million in education cuts put in place by Republican Governor Tom Corbett have put teachers and students in an impossible position.

Yesterday, the Governor said he would release enough funds for the district to operate through June. While the immediate problem is resolved, this makes no assurances for next year; nor does it address similar situations that could soon be faced by schools in Reading, York, Duquesne City, or Harrisburg.

Luckily, this problem might get a big, bright light shone on it this evening at the State of the Union, where Chester Upland District math and literacy teacher Sarah Ferguson will attend as a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama.

Ferguson, who has taught in Chester for 21 years, had one of the more devastating quotes in the Philadelphia Inquirer piece that broke the news on the catastrophe in Chester:

Columbus Elementary School math and literacy teacher Sara Ferguson, who has taught in Chester Upland for 21 years, said after the meeting, “It’s alarming. It’s disturbing. But we are adults; we will make a way. The students don’t have any contingency plan. They need to be educated, so we intend to be on the job.”

Of the decision to invite Ms. Ferguson, the White House wrote that she is someone who “sees education as a vehicle of change in our society, and feels privileged to have touched the lives of so many students.”

What the invitation also says, implicitly, is: There are real, tangible, and dire consequences of politically-driven decisions to oppose funding for states to pay teachers and public safety workers.

The education catastrophe in the Chester Upland School District is a result of two policy shifts.

First is the budget-slashing bonanza that has been a hallmark of freshman Republican governors from Ohio to Florida.

State budget details aren’t the most exciting things to talk about, but they show the priorities of those in power. When Governor Corbett can’t cough up money to pay educators to teach low-income students, but can shield oil drillers from paying for impact they have on Pennsylvania communities, that shows his priorities.

The second shift is the desire at the federal level to oppose any and all attempts to alleviate unemployment and the public layoffs at the state level. When President Obama proposed the American Jobs Act, Senate Republicans blocked a chance to debate it. When Democrats attempted to pass the sections of the bill separately, including the Teachers and First Responders Back to Work Act, Senate Republicans once again filibustered even debating the bill, even though CNN found 75 percent of Americans in favor of the provision.

It’s obvious and natural that many Republican politicians don’t want President Obama to be reelected. It’s just a question of priorities: is one political victory more important than thousands of children getting an education? Is protecting the Pennsylvania oil drillinng industry, which happens to include many of his campaign donors, more important to Governor Corbett than adequately funding Pennsylvania schools?

Working America members are asking these questions. Hopefully after the State of the Union, the rest of the country will be asking them too.

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