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By Elizabeth Fiedler, Tarik Khan, Bridget Kosierowski, and Bob Merski
Students in Philadelphia were forced to move to virtual learning last week, because of damaged asbestos discovered in their school. The new situation has raised health concerns, as well as potential fears about safety and neighborhood conflicts after students were told of a plan to move them to a different school miles away.
The tumultuous and often unsafe conditions created by the current state of Pennsylvania’s school buildings is a daily reality for students, educators and everyone who works in schools across Pennsylvania.
The recent Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruling shows that the state’s underinvestment in public schools is not only immoral– it violates the state constitution. This school funding decision validates the cries that have been rising for decades from parents, children and teens from Philadelphia to Scranton to Erie.
The court case, along with news reports, shows the cost: an overcrowded Greater Johnstown elementary school converted a windowless storage space with no ventilation into classrooms, because unsafe conditions closed a middle school; the shifting foundation and occupational therapy services provided in a closet at a Wilkes-Barre elementary school; the Scranton School District, where lead was found in more than half the tested water fountains, and asbestos of “near the highest levels of danger” was found in 74 locations.
Many of these facilities’ problems are not a surprise. Most Pennsylvania public schools were built before 1960, and more than 200 were built before 1950. In Philadelphia alone, where buildings are on average 70 years old, teachers work alongside $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance.
But this is not “just” a local problem, or “just” an urban or rural problem, it is a true statewide crisis that will determine the future prosperity of our Commonwealth.
We come to this work from across the state, with different experiences: as parents, healthcare professionals, a former teacher and a former reporter who covered this issue.
Despite our differing geography and backgrounds, we are unified as state representatives who see the cost of the state’s underinvestment play out in our communities every day. (In fact, one of us prepared two citations just this month to recognize local schools celebrating their 100th anniversary.)
With age, comes deterioration.
There are schools across the state with untenable levels of heat and cold, with poor or no ventilation, outdated windows, broken boilers and worse. There’s the ceiling collapse at a south Philadelphia high school; major HVAC problems and malfunctioning lighting in the William Penn School District; and 75 kindergartners in the Panther Valley School District who all shared one toilet.
In addition to the structural issues, students in Lancaster and across the Commonwealth learn alongside rodents, roaches, asbestos, rust and mold: toxins that pose a risk to human health, especially the very youngest. A Philadelphia first-grader was so determined to keep his desk clean, he swallowed paint chips that fell from the ceiling. Only after he was hospitalized for severe lead poisoning was Room 202 fixed.
The cost is clear, as is the opportunity. As we head into this new House session, in the majority, we are determined to push investments in school buildings to the top of the list. This is not the first time we have called for these investments.
During many past legislative sessions, House Democrats have pushed to invest state and federal money in school buildings, and former Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration proposed a $1 billion program to address school conditions.
But now, in the majority and with a new administration, with the call to action provided by the lawsuit, we are joining forces to call for this investment in public infrastructure, in improved public health and educational outcomes, and in creating jobs in our neighborhoods.
To invest in Pennsylvania’s school buildings now, is to invest in our state’s future nurses, teachers and parents, and in a thriving, strong economy for the Commonwealth.
Together, we have several proposals to invest in school buildings through the development of a Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program for Schools, and through funding the PlanCon maintenance program. These are just some of the ideas of how our state can fulfill its overdue duty to invest in schools.
As we return to Harrisburg, we are determined to answer this call to action.
All Democrats, Reps. Elizabeth Fiedler and Tarik Khan, of Philadelphia, Bridget Kosierowski, of Lackawanna County, and Bob Merski, of Erie, write from Harrisburg.
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