Op-ed By Senator Vincent Hughes
Our schools are crumbling.
Before the Inquirer reported on the deplorable conditions in Philadelphia schools, I heard that message from parents and students and even viewed it with my own eyes while visiting city schools. Seeing the conditions in which some of our students learn broke my heart but challenged me to act. And my proposal, the “Public School Building Renovation and Rehabilitation Program,” aims to help K-12 public schools fight this infrastructure crisis.
Last year, I received a letter from a student at Cassidy Elementary, a school in my district.
This young girl, Chelsea Mungo, a fourth grader, wrote that the school feels like “a prison or a junkyard,” and “it is always dirty everywhere.”
Images from the school last year show broken and missing ceiling tiles throughout the hallways, leaking, exposed pipes, buckets in the middle of the hallway to collect the falling water and debris, and rotting wood floors in the cafeteria.
These are health and safety hazards that no child — or adult — should face in a school.
School districts throughout the state are struggling with aging infrastructure – these often-grand buildings look impressive from the exterior but have seriously antiquated interiors. Ancient wiring, outdated plumbing, fossilized heating and cooling systems have come to be the norm in many of these buildings.
I have asked students to take pictures of their schools to serve as proof of the terrible conditions where they learn. I admire our learners’ resilience and dedication to education, and hope their extra efforts show people how important it is to do something quickly and effectively to ensure children learning in these conditions get the same educational opportunities as students in well-funded school districts. My support is also with our educators, who persevere through these conditions to mold our children into productive citizens.
A recent national study found that Pennsylvania had a $419 million gap in annual maintenance and operations funding for its school buildings. That leaves low-wealth school districts at a disadvantage and forces these districts to prioritize emergency repairs from limited operating budgets that fund teacher salaries and pay for instructional equipment. Those same struggling communities also have a more difficult time borrowing to invest in the long-term stability of school facilities, meaning the status quo essentially rigs the system against low-wealth school districts.
My legislation, Senate Bill 777, would give the Commonwealth Financing Authority (CFA) the authority to issue up to $5 billion in bonds paid for by revenue from an extraction tax on Marcellus Shale drilling. The bond proceeds would provide grants over several years to school districts to repair or renovate existing school buildings.
I agree with Superintendent William Hite that the community must come together to address this issue. In fact, communities all across this commonwealth need to come together to tackle this problem. I have witnessed firsthand that Philadelphia is not the only school district in Pennsylvania dealing with these issues.
How can we stand by and let children endure crumbling, out-of-date buildings that pose health and safety hazards? Research shows high-quality public school facilities help improve student achievement, reduce truancy and suspensions, and improve staff satisfaction and retention – all things that benefit a strong community that supports itself and its children.
We see the problem and know the dangers. Let’s take the steps to change things for the better.