This post is coauthored by Dr. John Jackson, President & CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and Susan Gobreski, Executive Director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania.
Each day, parents across the country send their children to school with the expectation that they will be safe and cared for while they learn.
On September 25, the father of Laporshia Massey, a sixth-grader at Bryant Elementary School in Philadelphia, learned the tragic extent to which his daughter's school was not equipped to support her: Laporshia died after having an asthma attack at school.
Due to budget cuts, there was no school nurse on duty that day. Instead, her teacher told her to stay calm, and a staff member drove her home after school. Her father immediately recognized how serious her symptoms were and rushed her to the emergency room. Laporshia collapsed on the way there and passed away at the hospital.
Laporshia's family believes that having a nurse on site that day might very well have saved her life. Trained to recognize when a student is in need of emergency care and to provide it, a health professional is a critical resource that no school should be without.
It's no surprise then that in the wake of Philadelphia's school funding crisis, this story took three weeks to break. Laporshia's death is a sign of gross negligence on the part of city and school officials and policymakers in Harrisburg who allowed Bryant Elementary and other schools to open their doors this year without adequate supports to keep students safe and cared for -- let alone to help them learn.
Laporshia could have been anyone's daughter. Nationally, 7.1 million children (nearly 1 in 9) suffer from asthma, disproportionately those in low-income, urban communities. Teachers and school administrators are well aware of the challenges these students face in the classroom. In the best-case scenario, children with asthma would have access to quality medical care to control their symptoms. In reality, many go without proper medication or regular visits to the doctor. In 2008, students with asthma collectively missed 10.5 million school days due to their condition.
Yet rather than meeting these facts with the supports necessary to address the needs of students, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia's elected officials have devastated the school district with successive budget cuts, culminating in this year's "doomsday" education budget and the closure of 23 schools. The school district has lost over 100 nurses and now has one nurse for every 1,500 students -- the minimum ratio required by state law.
In August, Superintendent William Hite wasn't sure the district would even be able to open for the first day of school without at least $50 million, a far cry from the $180 million that district officials and community organizers were demanding in state aid. City leaders committed to ensuring the district got the $50 million needed to open in September, but provided the funds through a new loan rather than a sustainable source of funding. There is no guarantee that the essential supports needed for schools to function will remain in place.
As a result, Philadelphia students are contending with overcrowded and split-grade classrooms; insufficient or nonexistent funds for books and supplies; no full-time librarians; no guidance counselors for schools with fewer than 600 students; minimal administrative support; emergency-only special education services; and, as already mentioned, a ratio of one nurse per 1,500 students. The sum total of the cuts is an unsafe and inadequately supported public school system.
We can debate the acceptable ratios of librarians, counselors and assistant principals another day. But it is unthinkable that elected officials would literally risk students' lives by not ensuring there are trained health professionals on-site in every school.
For the past several months, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has held $45 million in school funding hostage seeking concessions from the teachers' union. On October 16, following the outcry over Laporshia's death, Corbett finally agreed to release the funds. Denying schools the money that could have provided nurses and counselors, the basics of a safe school environment, is a failure of our responsibility to our children. Any budgeting process that allows adults to prioritize ideological fights over the basic needs of students is a failed process.
The Schott Foundation for Public Education advocates for additional, wraparound health and wellness supports for students. Yet for Philadelphia students, and millions more across the country, wraparound supports are out of the question given that their minimum health needs at school aren't even being met.
In order to meet the basic health and wellness needs of every student, we encourage you to sign this petition by the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign demanding that every school have a full-time nurse on staff -- and receive the necessary funding for the position.
Health professionals provide security for students and their parents by ensuring that schools are a safe and supportive environment. We pray for Laporshia's family and demand that her story move education officials and policymakers to ensure no child ever fails to have a fair and substantive opportunity to live or learn in a public school again.