Every day another story comes out in the Inquirer about how Philly schools are toxic. Serving a high proportion of black and brown students, members of our school communities from teachers to parents to children have to worry whether they’re going to get cancer from their school building. From mold control to heating and cooling, we need better infrastructure. That takes money. Yet Philly schools keep getting left in lurch. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania is 47th in the country when it comes to public higher education spending. We need a new approach to education that focuses on infrastructure, facilities, and funding. Nikil’s Green New Deal for Schools is that plan.
School facilities in Philadelphia function as social, emotional, and educational spaces for children and residents of the community. All children and community residents should have feel safe and secure in school facilities during and outside of school operating hours. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s award-winning series “Toxic Schools” laid out how these community hubs contain millions of square feet of asbestos, lead in the paint and water, and issues with mold and vermin. Governor Wolf has proposed allocating $1.1 billion dollars in the 2020-2021 budget towards lead and asbestos remediation in all Pennsylvania schools. Nikil supports using these funds in his district towards creating more sustainable and equitable community spaces.
Remediated for lead, asbestos, mold; Proactive investment into unionized maintenance and facilities jobs/staff; Training opportunities for maintenance and facilities staff for LEED and other green trainings and certifications; Invest in resilient infrastructure and design for any new construction – including green stormwater infrastructure, green roofs, passive design, sustainable/recycled materials, using local employees and providing training/job opportunities
Schools as Community Hubs
Continue to invest in using schools as cooling centers to counter urban heat effect during the summer; Provision of subsidies for urban and rural schools that invest in agriculture programs and infrastructure for student and communities to access; Investing and expanding adult night school and literacy opportunities in the evening; Subsidizing the use of schools to nonprofit and community groups for citizen training and mobilization programs (subsidize facilities and security staff required by DoE)
Creating equitable site design and planning for facilities – more community engagement in how we plan and design schools; Working with public transit agencies to site schools in places that are accessible for multiple modes; Creating school/neighborhood councils that are tasked with conducting space surveys and other community engagement practices to create long term trust and investment between schools and communities.
Curriculum & Human Resources
Toxic schools are more than just toxic buildings. There are severe long-term health impacts for prolonged exposure to asbestos dust, mold, and lead. The school district cannot demolish all school buildings and rebuild them simultaneously; so students, staff, teachers, and community members will have to use these buildings as remediation is ongoing. Nikil supports using state and local funding to support comprehensive remediation that also educates the users of school facilities, implements a new curriculum around environmental justice and racism, and makes green and sustainable design and construction a new career pathway for the school district’s unionized members.
Comprehensive and ongoing teacher training on environmental services, how to spot and report asbestos, mold, vermin, water damage; Environmental justice courses and modules for students and parents
Supporting the recruitment and hiring/retention of more Black, Latinx, Asian, LGBTQI, ESL teachers in public schools
Divestment from long-term contracting of district staff – commitment to keep public funds and institutions supported with public/unionized employees
Investment in social services and welfare within schools – for more nurses, guidance counselors, and staff that were eliminated during the 2011 statewide budget cuts
Create more opportunities for flexible school hours, cooperative work opportunities, vocational and technical training, childcare services in-school, use of gyms and kitchens to the wider community – modernization of public education, particularly for 9-12
Increase the number and diversity of BCAs, mandate the translation of all materials on website and in paper form for all environmental, labor, and climate issues in schools
Justice in Schools
To fully create sustainable schools that function as community hubs, the state must also account for its uneven district outcomes stemming from the long term disinvestment of public school districts in rural and urban areas. In Philadelphia, school funding is equal for each pupil, but private funding organizations, special admissions criteria, and the rise in charter schools have created unequal landscapes of educational access. Nikil supports education reform that promotes educational justice, or “community-determined educational aims and democratic schooling processes that ensure those mostly affected by inequities are key decision makers in shaping education.”
Implementation of ranking systems that prioritize the admission of low-income, ESL students into high-performing schools
Optimizing admissions decisions to maximize economic, racial, and other measures of diversity
Clear pathways for paraprofessional and teacher aides to permanent teaching jobs, through subsidy of continuing education and priority in hiring
Reconfiguration of charter system in PA
These proposals need money to happen, but school funding in Pennsylvania is immensely unequal. Aside from the $3.5 billion budget cost for day-to-day operation in FY 2019-2020, the Philadelphia School District found that it has a $4.5 billion infrastructure deficiency in its schools.
So where’s the money? Certainly Pennsylvania adopted a much-improved state funding formula in 2015. But it only operates on new money, ignoring inequities that are baked into generations of funding injustice. Half of Philadelphia’s school district revenues come from state subsidy, the other half from local property taxes. To pay the year to year costs, the district (like most school districts in the US) sell bonds to finance the budget. The District then pays back its lenders with revenues from property tax. But it’s never enough: the district is always in debt, and nowhere near able to fix the infrastructure deficiencies. So movement groups, unions, and organizers across the city have called for an end to property tax abatement, for universities to pay their fair share through PILOTs, to fix failing infrastructure and other initiatives. Meanwhile, the inequalities between school district funding in the Philadelphia metro region are staggering. For every dollar that Philly spends on its students, suburbs spend 50.
Following the Freedom Budget initiative championed by Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, and others, Nikil takes a freedom budgeting approach for the Green New Deal for schools. That means radically changing the conversation around school funding and taking a multi-faceted approach across issues to generate the necessary funds for transformative school policies.
Full funding now through support for multiple grassroots initiatives to generate more funds for the district. These include (i) ending the 10 year tax abatement on commercial real estate development where savings are estimated at $386 million/year, and sets an appropriate culture of contribution from city developers. (ii) Establishing a public bank for the city. (iii) Plugging the charter leak with a moratorium on charter schools and intense regulation of charter school finance, and restoring reimbursements so charters can’t hoard special education funding by only serving high-functioning IEP students. (iv) Supporting current efforts to “Fund Our Facilities.” (vi) Calling for the new state funding formula to be applied 100% across the board.
A line item for retrofitting school infrastructure in a federal Green New Deal. Current estimates of funding for a Green New Deal for Housing are between $116 billion to $192 billion. A school retrofitting program in that policy would address infrastructure deficiencies right now in SDP.
Changing the conversation about school funding and finance. Rather than focusing solely on municipal or state-based funding streams, we should explore the Philadelphia region/metro area, focusing on funding inequalities between city and suburb. When it comes to finance, we shouldn’t have to accept the status quo of bond sales. Rather, we should understand that system as a cycle of financial bondage from which our district should free itself.
Elevate Higher Education
Higher education correlates with higher wages, better life outcomes, and overall wellbeing. Yet Pennsylvania is 47th in the country when it comes to spending on higher education. We’re number two in average student debt, $37,000 per student. Pennsylvania community colleges are among the most expensive in the country. According to Research for Action, Pennsylvania’s “master plan” for higher education in 15 years old. The best way to support students and faculty is by supporting faculty unions that fight for students’ learning conditions.
College for All: a federal College for All plan, which would cover 67% of state public higher education costs if state governments can cover the remaining 33%; state-level Nellie Bly Grants; closing loopholes that let community colleges charge students double tuition if those students reside outside the college’s school district or county.
Taxing the rich:Creating a state tax on endowments of the richer universities; Investigating RACP grant funding as a way to fund infrastructure improvements; Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center’s (PBPC) “Fair Share Tax” plan.
A New Master Plan for PA Higher Education: Legislators and community members should come together to draft a new plan for higher education that takes current conditions into consideration.