Amidst protests, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett cancelled a visit to Philly's Central High School at the last minute today and convened a press conference at the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce instead.
Corbett, who has orchestrated deep cuts to public education statewide, was scheduled to commend Central, an esteemed magnet school, and two other city schools for their academic achievement.
"Today wasn't supposed to be about politics, it wasn't supposed to be about contracts, it wasn't supposed to be about negotiations. It was supposed to be about the students," said Corbett, as reporters rushed across town to the hastily relocated event. "I decided not to engage in the theatrics that have been designed by adults within and outside the system."
Kirstie Floyd, an 18-year old senior at Central, disputed Corbett's characterization.
"No adults put us up to anything," tweeted Floyd, who tells City Paper that students were only notified of the cancellation just before the event was set to begin. Students protested outside Central early this morning before classes."He just switched up last minute so the masses wouldn't have time to get to where he went. Scheme."
Corbett, who has never visited a Philadelphia District public school, insisted that he was not afraid of protesters. He simply did not want to distract students from their studies.
"I don't run from anything," he told reporters crowded into the business association's Center City conference room. "I take decisions head on."
Asked who was to blame for the statewide public schools crisis if not him, Corbett said the problem was decades in the making but declined to say anything specific.
Democratic candidates for governor condemned the move.
U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz tweeted that the cancellation was "an affront to students, parents, & teachers," while Katie McGinty tweeted that Corbett "stiffed Philly students w/ education cuts. Now he's stiffing them again by not showing up. Think we need a new Gov?"
Tom Wolf issued a statement, contending that "Corbett cannot lead Pennsylvania if he is too afraid to look students, parents, and educators in the eye while explaining his cuts and failed education policies."
John Hanger called the the governor a "coward," and said "he does not have the courage to face the students he has harmed with these cuts."
At today's press conference, Corbett also announced that he is appointing City Councilman Bill Green as chair of the state-run School Reform Commission, which took over city schools in 2001. Green has in the past been a vocal proponent of breaking up the public school district into privately managed charter schools. The governor also named People's Emergency Center director Farah Jiminez to replace Randell-appointee Joseph Dworetzky, often a lone critic of costly charter expansion on the SRC.
Hanger called on Green — who has long been rumored to be planning a run for mayor in 2015 — to abolish his own agency.
"State control of the Philadelphia school district has been an abject failure," said Hanger. "If Bill Green is to make improvement of Philadelphia schools his mission, I ask he work toward ending the SRC and returning control to the citizens and taxpayers."
At the press conference, Green blamed the District for mismanaging federal funds and declined to say whether he blamed Corbett for the crisis afflicting city schools.
Mayor Michael Nutter, who himself has been heavily criticized for his actions during the schools' crisis, issued a statement surprisingly critical of Green:
"While I appreciate the hand that City Councilman Bill Green extended to me earlier today in his comments, I find his nomination quite frankly perplexing given his votes against some education funding measures and his published views on public education. As Mayor, I have a duty to raise these concerns over his appointment...
I've shared my concerns directly with Councilman Green regarding his policy proposals in support of vouchers, 'charterizing' the whole School District and further cutting a district budget that is now woefully inadequate.
I am also deeply concerned, based on his past public statements and participation in School District Budget hearings, as to whether or not, as Chair, Councilman Green will be a strong and forceful advocate for increased educational funding in his requests to Governor Corbett, the General Assembly and Philadelphia City Council."
The governor is playing defense on education. Corbett has rock-bottom public approval ratings, and polls indicate that cuts to education are a major reason why. The Inquirer reports that the governor plans to propose to restore at least $100 million in education funding in his February budget address.
Those funds, however, will be nowhere near enough to stop the ongoing Philly schools' budget crisis, or to reverse the mass layoffs of teachers, counselors, nurses and other staff. And politically, it may be too late.
Central High teachers and staff yesterday released a letter to Corbett "to express discomfort with your visit. We are proud of and celebrate our students' achievements, yet we recognize that they have accomplished this in spite of, rather than because of, your budget cuts and educational policies."
The letter, signed by a reported 107 staff members, criticized the SRC, and called for a fair funding formula and teachers' contract, and full staffing of librarians, non-teaching assistants, nurses and counselors.
"As we observe the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we recognize that education provides a way for students, especially those most disadvantaged, to fulfill the dream of equality. We call for an end to policies that marginalize our neediest students, and hope that the current funding structure will be seen for what it is: unjust and destructive. We hope that these polices, like the injustices of the past, will be relegated to the dustbin of history."
Central High alumni released a letter calling on students to protest. Senior Alice Hu released a letter slamming the governor.
"You are here to honor us — except this is not an honor, by any measure. This visit is a mockery. It is a mockery of every Central student who has to wait two weeks to get help from a counselor, because the student to counselor ratio is 1 to 1200. It is a mockery of every Central teacher who has to buy their own paper and school supplies and spend dozens of hours every week handling non-teaching responsibilities because of inadequate funding.... Instead of 'honoring' a magnet school for achieving high scores, I urge you to visit high schools like West Philadelphia High School and Overbrook High School — schools that don't have alumni that spend millions of dollars making up for the yearly gap in funding."
Parents United for Public Education released a comparison of the budget and staffing at Central, Masterman and Carver before and after Corbett:
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