Wearing buttons that declare, "Excellent Public Schools: a Civil Right for All Children of God," more than 50 UCC clergy, teachers, parents, youth and community leaders rallied in Harrisburg, Pa., on Monday, March 10, to support reform in public education.
As part of Good Schools Pennsylvania, a grassroots, faith-based organization created to respond to the crisis in public education, members of Pennsylvania Southeast and Penn Northeast Conferences led a liturgy of public witness in the capitol rotunda. Then they lobbied state senators and representatives.
Their demonstration followed a similar show of support for educational reform by Penn Central UCC leaders in February. To keep the goal of "good schools" before the state legislature, one of the faith communities of the commonwealth leads a daily vigil for each day the legislature is in session.
How public schools are funded, and how to develop a fair system of accountability when resources are so uneven, are major concerns in Pennsylvania. Currently a gap between the highest-spending district and the lowest- spending district exceeds $9,000 per pupil. In recent years, half of all Pennsylvania students failed to achieve a "proficient" score on the state standardized test.
With a newly elected-governor and a $2 billion state budget deficit, the UCC delegation shaped its message to advocate that public education reform be a priority.
Chris DeRemer, a high school 11th grader, talked of the unfair advantage he and his classmates enjoy with a class size of 15 while class size in many neighboring school districts is 25-30. Sandi Stecker, a school board member from Allentown, whose schools have among the lowest state test scores, spoke of the discrimination experienced by those in poverty. In her district, teachers purchase school supplies from yard sales and copy student hand-outs because of textbook shortages.
The Rev. Russ Mitman, Pennsylvania Southeast Conference Minister and a founding partner of Good Schools Pennsylvania, called upon those present to remain active in justice reform. The Rev. Alan Miller, Penn Northeast Conference Minister, echoed the strong sentiments of those present to address the inequities in school funding and promote the best quality education for all students.
Jan Resseger, UCC Advocate for Public Education, spoke of the widened "opportunity gap between vulnerable urban and rural children and those more privileged in property rich districts."
"You are showing your legislature that you believe Pennsylvania can raise its expectations for educational services," she said, "even in what some say are lean times."
The delegation concluded its witness by singing of faith in action: "Our spiritual discipline we humbly note; we take time to pray and we make time to vote!"
Participants then visited representatives and state senators. At each office they left a shoestring attached to a note reading, "Shoestrings are for sneakers, not for education budgets."
The Rev. Emmajane Finney directs a "best practice" youth initiative for the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley. She is a member of Bethany UCC, Bethlehem, Pa.