Our Children Are Worth More. We Can't Wait Any Longer!

Our Children Are Worth More. We Can't Wait Any Longer!

Hannah made an announcement before worship on Sunday, Nov. 16 that POWER was planning some direct actions this week, on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Philadelphia hearings of the Basic Education Funding Commission.

Michael starting getting questions. What was going to happen? And why? Who was going to be involved? What response might be expected? How would POWER (and by implication its member congregations) get covered in the media?

Everyone can relax now. The direct action got just the reaction it hoped for. In fact, so much so that the threatened direct action did not need to occur. Because the Basic Education Funding Commission agreed to make room in their hearings for the public to speak. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Direct action is different than the campaigns we have known POWER to do in the past. Or at last the actions planned for this week are a stepped form of direct actions as rallies on the steps of the governor’s office and visits to Harrisburg have not caused any change in state funding priorities.

Direct action occurs when a group of people take an action which is intended to reveal an existing problem, highlight an alternative, or demonstrate a possible solution to a social issue. This can include nonviolent (and less often violent activities) which target persons, groups, or property deemed offensive to the direct action participants. Examples of non-violent direct action (also known as nonviolent resistance or civil resistance) can include sit-ins, strikes, workplace occupations, blockades, hacktivism, etc. The aim of direct action is to either obstruct another political agent or political organization from performing some practice to which the activists object; or to solve perceived problems which traditional societal institutions are not addressing to the satisfaction of the direct action participants.

One of the most helpful explanations that I remember hearing during the training is that “nonviolent direct action gives us the opportunity to act as if the world is the way it should be, even if that means breaking the rules of the world as it is.” As Margaret E. commented to me, “In that sense, sabbath is essentially direct action that religious people engage in each week.”

In the case of this week’s planned direct actions, the problem was that the legislature’s Basic Education Funding Commission is holding hearings around the state, but refusing to hear anything that parents, students, teachers, administrator and citizens have to say.

Therefore, POWER wanted to act in a way that would change this situation… to add the voice of regular people to Commission’s hearings. To illustrate important issues — both the question of what adequate funding would be, and the problem with the Commission’s timeline with findings not scheduled until after this next year’s budget process — that are not being taken seriously. To raise up voices — anyone but the experts the Commission wants to hear from — that are not being given air time. And yes, to elicit or even force some more immediate reactions.

Here is POWER’s explanation of the decision to take direct action, with the text of the letter it has sent the Basic Education Funding Commission alerting them of the planned action.

Here is a write up of the proposed action by the Notebook.

POWER leaders planned to attend the Commission’s hearing… to be in the room at City Hall on both Tuesday and Wednesday. After all, it is a public hearing.

POWER had asked to be on the agenda, but been ignored. The same had been the case for partners across the state at the previous hearings. The Commission had not made room for the voices or testimony of “regular people.”

Apparently, parents and teachers and students pointing out that distributing inadequate funding fairly won’t solve the education funding crisis isn’t worthy of being heard. Apparently, advocates pointing out that we can’t wait another budget cycle — and lose another school year — to end the funding crisis isn’t important enough to get on the agenda.

POWER informed the Commission that without a venue for public comment at the hearings here in Philly on Nov. 18 and 19, POWER was going to simply do what is right and provide the public comment they have failed to allow.

What could POWER have expected from such direct action?

~ the Commission could have moved its “hearing” to a closed room, which would have been at least an honest admission of what these hearings have and have not been.

~ the Commission could have asked authorities to escort those who were trying to speak out of the hearing. Again, that would have provided a more honest picture of the Commission’s hearings. And some telling images for the media — of parents and pastors being removed from public hearings.

~ the Commission could have adjourned their meeting, simply refused to listen to Philadelphians or even hold one of their hearings in the largest school district in the state of Pennsylvania. That would have provided a fairly stark indication of their disinterest in Philadelphia schools and school children.

Or, the Commission could have… and did suddenly change course and make room for public comment.

But after the article about POWER’s proposed action appeared in the Notebook yesterday, David Mosenkis got a call from the office of Sen. Pat Browne, one of the chairs of the Commission, saying they were sorry they hadn’t called back earlier… they hadn’t known he was associated with POWER. David has done some data analysis that shows that there is racial discrimination in how public education is funded in PA.

The staffer wanted to know if David were added to the agenda to speak at the Commission’s hearing, would POWER call off its planned action?

Later, making a similar offer to Dwayne Royster, POWER’s Executive Director, she informed him that they’d set up a website where the public could register their testimony, and it would be shared with the members of the Commission. Dwayne responded that he’d met with Sen. Browne over a month ago, and the same offer was made then. But, as he’d explained the last time, there is no assurance that the Commission members will ever see what people write in via the website.

If there are “public hearings,” there needs to be a space for the public to comment, and we need to know the Commission members are listening. Experts of the Commission’s choosing do not make for a “public hearing.”

The staffer than offered that the Commission could fit David and his testimony into its hearing in Philly on Wednesday and provide 30 minutes at each of the subsequent hearings (but not here in Philly), if POWER would cancel its planned action.

POWER leadership was gathered within 15 minutes on a conference call (even as leaders were headed to the office to rehearse for the action). And quickly it was decided that we would change our plans if David was promised a place on the agenda to share his findings AND 30 minutes for public testimony was added to all Commission hearings hereafter, beginning here in Philadelphia.

Sen. Brown has accepted POWER’s counter-offer. David presented his analysis on Wednesday. And seven POWER leaders — parents, students and clergy — also testified, driving home the urgency of coming up with adequate funding for public education before the next state budget cycle. There was a refrain “Our children are worth more. We can’t wait any longer.” And there was time for other citizens and education to speak to the Commission also.

It’s a little win, but, this is what POWER looks like! Maybe this concession on the part of the Commission isn’t so significant, but it does promise that the Commission is not as insulated from political pressure and being moved as we might have thought or feared. An initial win in a much bigger and longer campaign to effect a fair, full funding formula…

Good job, POWER!

Michael