Daily News Op Ed: 'A people's budget, not a prison budget'

Posted: June 24, 2013

ON SATURDAY, May 25, 45 people set off on foot from the steps of Philadelphia's Art Museum on a 113-mile mission to build a different future for Pennsylvania. Over the next 10 days, members of Decarcerate PA and ally organizations marched from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to demand "a people's budget, not a prison budget."

This diverse group of marchers - students, teachers, parents, organizers, and men and women who have spent decades in prison - demanded that Gov. Corbett and the state Legislature cancel the unnecessary $400 million prison-construction project in Montgomery County and invest those resources into fully funding public education, maintaining much-needed social services and helping people across the state access quality, affordable health care.

The necessity for such a dramatic action was clear. As we marched, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission passed its "doomsday" budget for our public schools. While the Department of Corrections was moving forward with the second-most-expensive construction project in Pennsylvania's history, the SRC voted in a budget that would leave our city's children with a skeleton of a school district next year, with 4,000 fewer staff and an inability to meet students' academic, social and emotional needs. And, even as groundwork was being laid for new prisons and pink slips were going out to school staff, the Department of Corrections was requesting an increase of more than $60 million to its operating budget for next year.

As we marched, we saw firsthand that Philadelphia is not the only place in the commonwealth suffering widespread damage due to the irresponsible choices of policymakers in Harrisburg.

In Reading, the president of the local teachers' union told us how budget cuts created more problems in an already struggling school district in one of the country's poorest cities. The same night we arrived, the School Board met to weigh its dim choices for next year: Eliminate prekindergarten or get rid of music and the arts? Lay off assistant principals or eliminate more teacher positions?

In Myerstown, a town of about 3,000 people, we learned that budget cuts forced the area's two elementary schools to merge. A mother told us about the extra-long bus ride her young children must take, arriving home after dark every night.

As we made our way into the streets of Harrisburg, on every block, parents asked us if we'd heard about the schools closing in their city. Four elementary schools have closed in Harrisburg because of funding cuts, while prekindergarten and high-school vocational programs have been eliminated entirely.

In every town, we met men and women who were coming home from prison after years away from their families, who were finding little access to re-entry programs, food, housing or jobs.

And everywhere we went, people were shocked to hear about the funds being spent on new prisons. Reactions ranged from disbelief to outrage when people learned that the same state that can't find a dime to keep experienced teachers in their classrooms or to maintain art classes and prekindergarten is spending $400 million to build new prison beds, even while the Department of Corrections' own projections predict that the prison population is decreasing.

The more stories we heard, the clearer the picture became. Communities across the state - from small towns to big cities, from poor neighborhoods to middle-class areas - are hurting the same as we are in Philadelphia. Quality teachers are being laid off in Reading, schools are closing in Harrisburg and children are forced to travel burdensome distances to get to the only remaining schools in their small towns. Young people are being pushed out of the school system and into the prison system.

This is why we marched.

The pain experienced by people across Pennsylvania is not inevitable. It is the result of deliberate decisions by Gov. Corbett and the Legislature to systematically defund public education while pouring millions into expanding the state's prison system. It is the result of a governor who cares more about generating money for prison-contracting firms than making sure young people have the tools they need to succeed. It is the result of a Legislature that would rather rubber-stamp the governor's destructive budget choices than take a stand against prison expansion and invest in a better future for young people in their districts.

Pennsylvania is at a crossroads. Gov. Corbett and the Legislature have walked a bleak path, on which thousands of teachers are suddenly jobless, neighborhoods are losing schools that have served as local anchors for generations and children witness their state investing more in building prison cells than in creating quality classrooms.

We walked a brighter path, through downpours and brutal heat, to map out a better future for Pennsylvania. And everywhere we went, people joined us to say "no" to new prisons, and "yes" to better schools, health centers, playgrounds, libraries and real models of community safety.

From Philadelphia to Harrisburg to Pittsburgh and beyond, the Pennsylvania we want is the one we need. It is a Pennsylvania that invests in a quality education for all our children instead of investing in more cages, shackles and steel doors that tear communities apart. If our elected officials won't lead the way, we must set the path for them.

Anissa Weinraub is a Philadelphia public-school teacher who was recently laid off and is a member of the Teacher Action Group. Diane Foglizzo is a member of Decarcerate PA, a group working to end mass incarceration in Pennsylvania.