HARRISBURG — Three buses of Pottstown activists were among the more than 1,000 people who converged on the state capitol Wednesday to fight for fair education funding.

It is three times the number of Pottstown protesters who showed up last year and the total crowd was more than twice the size of last year's turnout.

They were there because if the state's fair education funding formula adopted in 2016 were used for all basic education funding, Pottstown would no longer be looking at cutting programs to balance its budget, as happened this year, but could add programs, increase teacher pay and cut local property taxes.

Pennsylvania is widely recognized as having one of the worst funding gaps between poor and wealthy districts, due largely to its over-reliance on local property taxes to fund public schools, and its failure to fully implement the fair funding formula.

"When we look at the inequity in public education, we should be embarrassed," said state Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-146th Dist., who met and spoke with the Pottstown protesters when they arrived.

"Districts all over the Commonwealth are suffering and Pottstown is the fifth most under-funded district in the commonwealth, almost $14 million, and the fair funding formula would make them whole and all the other districts that need to have that, including Spring-Ford and Perkiomen Valley," said Ciresi.

Currently, only 10 percent of Pennsylvania education funding is distributed according to the fair funding formula.

"It's like I told you I was buying you a Ferrari, but never produced a delivery date," said Ciresi.

In addition to its inherent economic unfairness, researchers for POWER have discovered that the current funding scheme actually favors districts with higher white populations, even when poverty levels are the same.

Jonathan Corson, known to most in Pottstown as "Johnny," says that violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The state's failure to enact its own fair funding formula "causes our children to be at a disadvantage compared to other children around the commonwealth," said Corson, who is the president of the Pottstown chapter of the NAACP. 

He and the group of nine other chapter members who accompanied him Wednesday agreed that revitalizing Pottstown would be much easier if school taxes could be lowered and more resources and programs could be to those schools added at the same time.

The group visited the offices of House members before and after Wednesday's rally to lobby for fair funding bills.

They also paid a visit to the office of state Sen. Bob Mensch, R-24th Dist., for the same purpose, but were told he was busy on the floor of the Senate voting on "opioid legislation," said Corson.

But a Tweet from Mensch's account later that day only highlighted his introduction of a resolution recognizing 244th anniversary of the formation of the U.S. Army.

So NAACP chapter members joined other POWER protesters in the office of House Speaker Mike Turzai.

Turzai, a Republican who represents an Allegheny County district that is 90 percent white, has the power to ensure fair funding bills get to the floor for a vote, as well as the power to prevent them from even getting a hearing.

The protesters were asked to leave Turzai's office by the Capitol Police, so they rallied in the hall outside instead.

The bill getting the most support Wednesday is House Bill 961. It currently has 61 co-sponsors and, if enacted, would distribute all basic education funding through the formula.

It is sponsored by Philadelphia-based state Rep. Chris Rabb, D-200th Dist., and Wednesday he told the rally "promises are not enough. I want a hearing not only for my bill, but for all fair funding bills. We have twice as many-co-sponsors as we had last year."

On the bus home Wednesday, local organizer Marlene Armato said POWER Interfaith, which organized the rally and the buses which took Pottstown protesters there for free, met recently with Gov. Tom Wolf and urged him to press for hearings for bills like Rabb's.

School board candidate Laura Johnson has been part of the effort to get more co-sponsors for Rabb's bill. She said it only needs 103 votes to pass.

Wednesday she was the only rally speaker from Pottstown and focused on delivering a few truths. 

"The truth is, we have caring and committed teachers, many of whom stand with us today. The truth is, we have a wonderfully diverse student population. The truth is, we have some truly excellent programs," said Johnson.

"But since I’m telling the truth, I need to tell you the whole truth: As I’ve become involved in our schools, I've learned some troubling news. The truth is, that the current education funding in Pennsylvania is racially biased. The truth is, that students in diverse districts like Pottstown are consistently underfunded," she said as cheers echoed in the Capitol rotunda.

"The results are severe," said Johnson. "Our caring and committed teachers are underpaid. Programs have been cut. Our students lack the supports and opportunities they need. Additionally, our economically hurting town has one of the highest tax burdens in the entire state."

"Let’s tell the truth," she said repeatedly. "The lawmakers know there is racial bias in the current funding. They know we are desperately hurting. Many of them have some underfunded schools in their own districts."

Johnson concluded: "If you are a lawmaker, your job is to ask what is morally and ethically right and use your power to help make it a reality. To hide from what you know is right in the name of political impossibility is to fail to do your job. It is time for our political leaders to find the will and the courage to correct this injustice."

There were plenty of examples of that injustice offered Wednesday.

Brian Costello, superintendent of the Wilkes-Barre School District, said his students have to enter their buildings "through makeshift sheds to protect them from dilapidated buildings. This is an inequity."

"This is not a Philly problem. This is not a black problem" said Rabb. "This is a Pennsylvania problem!"

"Justice for our children! Justice for our schools! Justice for our communities!" shouted the Rev. Edward Bailey, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Lancaster. "Everyone here wants justice!"

"We ended apartheid in South Africa, but apartheid exists in Pennsylvania," said state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-7th Dist. "Let's end it now. Fund the schools," he shouted.

And it wasn't just politicians and schools chiefs who took to the microphone. Speakers included school children as well, like Justin Simpson, who said his teachers are frustrated with overcrowded classrooms that are barely heated in the winter.

Another young girl, whose name was inaudible, said her school only has two bathrooms, "and they are both in the basement. I'm not asking for much. I just want a decent school for me and my friends like everybody else."

Pottstown students were no less outspoken. More than two dozen, many of whom graduated less than a week ago, climbed onto the buses to add their voices to the call for fair funding.

"It's important to be able to have programs like art and music and I don't want to see our schools lose that," said Heaven Charriez, who will be a junior at Pottstown High School in September.

Also on hand were dozens of members of the Federation of Pottstown Teachers.

Naimah Rhodes, who has taught early education at Pottstown High School for four years, said under-funding can be seen in the vocational/technology area by comparing resources available at the Western Center for Technical Students and those at Pottstown high School.

It also means lower pay for teachers, Rhodes said.

In 2017, The Mercury reported that the average teacher salary in Pottstown is the lowest in Montgomery County.

"Pottstown loses a lot of really good teachers because of the pay," she said.

Also on hand was nearly the majority of the Pottstown School Board and Trenita Lindsay, a member of Pottstown Borough Council.

The fact that Pottstown filled three buses "tells me this is a really important cause and people understand it's important and they're behind it," said School Board President Amy Francis.

And momentum is building.

Former school board member Emanuel Wilkerson, who was elected while still a high school student and is now a student at Temple University, made a special trip to Harrisburg to be part of the rally.

"I can remember when going to Harrisburg for this was just me, Mr. Armato and Mr. Rodriguez in a car. Today, Pottstown came in three buses," Wilkerson said. "It's time for Harrisburg to listen to the people."

Last year, the rally attracted 600 protesters. This year, with Pottstown's help, 1,000 came.

Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez, who spoke at last year's rally, said the difference one year has made "is the difference between throwing a bullet and shooting one."

He said Pottstown will keep coming back, with more and more people, until they don't have to come at ball because its schools are funded fairly through the state formula.

"I am so proud of our community," said Armato. "We came together like nothing I've ever seen before, we had churches, the teachers federation, students, the YWCA, The Hill School, the NAACP, this is something that has really united Pottstown because it's something that would help all of Pottstown."

Planning for "keeping the momentum going" is already underway and will be the subject of a meeting Wednesday, June 19, at 7 p.m. in the Pottstown High School cafeteria.

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