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It feels like years have passed since the sun-soaked May afternoon when I happened upon a student protest near City Hall. Philadelphia high school students—about 1,000 of them—were gathered together with a smattering of adults.

“S.O.S.! Save Our Schools!” they shouted, their voices echoing against the tall buildings on either side of Broad Street.

As I listened to them yell for help, I wondered if the assistance they needed would ever arrive. In recent days, there has been partial progress, but in my view, it’s still not enough.

Yesterday, just ahead of the funding deadline set by school Superintendent William Hite, Mayor Nutter announced that the city would provide the $50 million Hite says was needed to open the schools on time. In a vote last night (Thursday, August 14) the School Reform Commission, at Hite’s recommendation, temporarily suspended some teacher seniority rules in an effort to quickly bring back about 1,000 of the 3,900 school personnel who had been laid off.  Earlier, the district recalled about 800 of them.

Meanwhile, Gov. Corbett has refused to provide the Philadelphia School District with a $45 million state grant until the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers makes major concessions on wages, benefits and work rules.

That means the ball is in the state’s court. If the schools are going to close the projected $304 million budget deficit, Gov. Corbett has to go beyond political posturing. He must realize that the district’s call for help is not the one that matters most. The call for help that should take priority is the one voiced by our children.

The students understand better than most what they are up against. They aren’t simply fighting for money to fill the district’s funding shortfall. They are fighting creeping apathy that has left them trapped between a funding crisis and Gov. Corbett, a man who seems more interested in spending $400 million to build a new prison than in funding schools.

When I think of the students’ dilemma, I’m haunted by the words of student Benny Ramos, who I met on that May afternoon during the march up Broad Street. I asked Ramos why the students were protesting that day. He didn’t talk about funding. He didn’t speak of teacher contracts. He said they were marching for something else altogether.

“We’re out here to stop the school-to-prison pipeline,” Ramos told me.

student protest

Students at May’s S.O.S. march. (Photo by Solomon Jones)

Ironically, the pipeline from Ramos’s school, Charles Carroll High School, was closed off in June, when it became one of 23 Philadelphia school buildings (24 schools overall) to be shuttered due to the District’s financial troubles.  On average, over 95 percent of the students in the closed schools came from low-income families, according to school district statistics.

But Ramos, who went on to say that the students hoped to get more teachers, more supplies, and fewer metal detectors, didn’t talk about economics. He talked about prison, and an educational system that seems to train students for the future that comes with a poor education.

Statistically, it’s irrefutable that education keeps kids out of prison, since nearly 70 percent of males in state and federal prisons do not have high school diplomas.

What does that mean for Philadelphia, a city where nearly 1-in-5 citizens is a high school dropout? It means that Gov. Corbett, who has refused to release additional state funding without concessions from the teachers, has lost sight of the big picture. It means that our City government, which has moved slowly to provide the needed funding, must move now to do even more.

Bad schools produce dropouts, dropouts go to prison, and all of us pay for it through our taxes. America can’t afford that. Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged as much while announcing sweeping changes to mandatory minimum sentences for minor, non-violent drug offenses. He sounded eerily like Philadelphia student Benny Ramos.

“We’ll continue to work with allies – like the Department of Education and others throughout the federal government and beyond – to confront the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ and those zero-tolerance school discipline policies that do not promote safety, and that transform too many educational institutions from doorways of opportunity into gateways to the criminal justice system,” Holder said.

That sounds like a common sense approach, but while I believe Holder is right, I also believe that change must begin from the bottom up. Our city and state must answer our children’s call for help now, not after they’ve dropped out of inadequately funded schools.

Parents must answer our children’s call for help now, not after they’ve decided that their best opportunities lie in drug dealing.

Teachers must answer our children’s call for help now, not after they’re standing before a judge and waiting to be sentenced.

Fund our schools, Gov. Corbett, and prove to us that despite the state’s investment in a new $400 million prison, our children’s education is a priority. And when the funding arrives, Superintendent Hite, don’t use it for more metal detectors. Use it for what our children tell us they need —more teachers and more supplies.

“S.O.S. Save Our Schools!” 

Stop the school-to-prison pipeline now.