Did Philly school budget cuts cause a girl’s death?

OPINION - The question people are asking is whether the budget cuts to the Philadelphia School District killed 12-year-old Laporshia Massey...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The question people are asking is whether the budget cuts to the Philadelphia School District killed 12-year-old Laporshia Massey.

The short answer is yes, and her father and many others certainly believe that.  The longer answer is the cuts to the Philly schools killed the girl, and the deliberate starving of the schools by the state’s Tea Party governor places the safety, well-being and education of public school students at risk.

On September 25, Massey, a sixth grader at Bryant Elementary School, felt sick while at school, but there was no nurse on call that day.  Due to the crippling budget cuts, the school has had no full-time nurse for two years.  And sadly, the nurse works only two days a week, and not the day that Massey was ill.  So, with no nurse to assess whether she needed to go to the hospital, Massey spent the day at school.

Massey’s father, Daniel Burch, received a call from the school reporting that his daughter had an asthma attack, though he had no idea how serious her condition was.  School staff told her to be calm.  When Massey returned home, it was clear something was seriously wrong.  Burch rushed his daughter to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  She collapsed in the car on the way to the emergency room, and died at the hospital.

“We will never know whether or not having had a full-time nurse in the building would have been able to save her life,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.  “But what we do know is that there was not a nurse at the time of her illness to — based on the training nurses have — determine whether or not the child was in crisis, and seek medical attention from a hospital,” he said.

“We don’t have the people in place in the schools right now that can provide necessary services to our students,” said State Rep. Ronald G. Waters.  “At the end of the day, there’s only but so much that any building can provide if it has to deal with a skeleton operation.”

The process of hollowing out public education, and the steps that brought us to Laporshia Massey’s tragic death are due to a policy of willful neglect and cold-blooded calculations.

The Philadelphia School District—which has been controlled by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for a dozen years now— has been underfunded for years.  Pennsylvania  one of three states in the nation with no funding formula.  Funding is based on closed-door political deals, and the children suffer as a result—unless they live in wealthy districts which can spend more on education.

Further, the city’s schools have fallen prey to the experiments of the school reform movement and the expansion of charter schools and vouchers, which have led to a siphoning of millions of dollars from public education.  Public resources for education are being privatized, and public education is being outsourced.

Enter the Tea Party, with its hatred of government, public education, and Philly.  Although President Obama carried Pennsylvania both in 2008 and 2012, the Republicans control the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state legislature.

White, ultra-conservative and representing the western and central regions of the state—including the rural parts of Pennsylvania known as “Pennsyltucky”—the Tea Party-led GOP exhibits outright antipathy towards the mostly Democratic,  predominantly black and brown city of Philadelphia.

Corbett and his cohorts—who paved the way for voter suppression and “Stand Your Ground” laws in Pennsylvania— brought the war on public schooling, particularly the Philly public schools.  The district is the eighth largest in the nation, 85 percent children of color and 82 percent poor.

In his first budget, Governor Tom Corbett cut $1 billion in education, a devastating blow to those who believe government plays a vital role in investments in our children’s future.  The consequences for Philadelphia were decisive—this past summer, the school district laid off 3,783 school employees, including assistant principals, guidance counselors, administrative support staff and apparently nurses.  In addition, 24 schools were shuttered, and art, music and athletic programs were eliminated.  Now, the schools are operating in a bare bones state, with large class sizes and a skeleton staff, with fewer than half of the laid-off staff brought back.  Some schools lack basic supplies such as paper and pens.

It is no wonder that over half of Pennsylvania’s worst performing schools are in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, civil rights leaders such as Ben Jealous of the NAACP, Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference and Rhonda Brownstein of the Education Law Center have urged the governor to release $45 million in earmarked federal aid, which he is holding hostage until the Philadelphia teachers union agrees to deep cuts in salaries and pensions.  The $45 million would barely begin to address the school district’s shortfall of over $300 million.

“This crisis quickly has become an embarrassment to the entire nation. Over the last several years, Philadelphia has become a cautionary tale for the rest of the country, illustrating the harm that occurs when political posturing and irresponsible budget decisions trump the educational needs of students, families, and communities,” the leaders wrote in a letter to Corbett, also calling it “unfathomable” that the state would choose to build a $400-million prison in the Philadelphia area.

Further, a MoveOn.org petition is urging Corbett to release the $45 million in federal funds to Philadelphia to hire nurses and counselors.

There have been hundreds more cases in the city of Brotherly Love like Laporshia Massey, other children with serious health issues who were placed in harm’s way by their school.  Meanwhile, as ThinkProgress warns, budget cuts brought the number of nurses down by 100, and there are a mere 900 nurses serving the city’s 200,000 students.  Moreover, this is a national issue, as a quarter of schools in America have no nurses at all.  None whatsoever.

And when Tea Party politicians take hostages, whether the federal government or the Philadelphia schools, the vulnerable are bound to suffer the most, including poor and black children.

When the safety of our children hangs in the balance, we must take no shortcuts.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove