10/15/2014 05:32 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

Lacking Leadership, Pennsylvania Backs Prisons Over Pupils

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The recent decision by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) to unilaterally suspend the public school teachers' contract, unannounced, is a local issue with national implications. It speaks to a leadership vacuum, warped priorities, and a willingness to feed the prisons and allow the schools to starve.

The SRC -- a five-member board, with three members appointed by the governor and the remaining two by the mayor of Philadelphia -- runs the underfunded school system. And in the absence of an elected school board, the SRC represents an undemocratic, neocolonial structure in which Philly parents -- majority black and brown and disproportionately low-income, with an increasing number of white urbanites -- do not have control over their children's educational destiny.

At issue was the decision by the SRC to dismantle the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) Health and Welfare Fund, placing control over teachers' benefits out of the hands of the teachers union and forcing union members to contribute 10 to 13 percent of their healthcare insurance. But the implications are far greater than the mere issue of teachers' health plans.

The City of Brotherly Love has been an incubator for the school reform movement, a bipartisan enterprise embraced by Tea Party Republicans and corporate Democrats alike. This movement, through its embrace of school vouchers and charter schools, would privatize public education and commodify the learning of our children. Reform has led to the hollowing out of the public school system in Philadelphia and other cities, and the dismantling of the teachers' unions. As Daniel Denvir notes in his recent report in The Nation magazine, charter schools -- many of which are underperforming -- cost the school district as much as $7,000 per pupil in lost revenue.

In 2011, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett rode into the state house in Harrisburg bringing massive cuts to public education -- including $860 million in his first budget--while pushing through over $1 billion in corporate tax cuts since taking office. Moreover, Corbett has refused to support a tax on the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, which could eventually bring the state up to $1.4 billion in additional annual revenue.

Philly was badly hit by the state cuts, and shuttered 23 schools and laid off 3,783 employees as a result. School districts across the state were impacted as well.

And yet, there is always money for new prisons in the Keystone state. While Pennsylvania -- as ground zero of the education reform movement -- is exhibiting poor leadership in education, it does much of the same with mass incarceration.

As New York is closing prisons, and California is forced by the federal courts to release thousands of prisoners, Pennsylvania is building more facilities. The Keystone state constructed 20 new prisons in 35 years, including a new $200 million prison in Centre County in 2013, and a $400 million, two-prison complex under construction in Montgomery County, outside of Philadelphia. At over $2 billion, corrections is the third largest item in the Pennsylvania state budget.

Pennsylvania invented the penitentiary and solitary confinement, so it is no stranger to prison injustice and abuse. Over 60 percent of prisoners are of color, in a state that is over 83 percent white. Pennsylvania ranks second only to Florida in the number of inmates serving life without parole, and yet its murder rate is lower than that of 15 other states. And the U.S. Department of Justice cited the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for its placement of mentally and intellectually disabled prisoners in solitary confinement, characterizing it as "dehumanizing and cruel" and a violation the U.S. Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia supplies Pennsylvania with nearly a quarter of the state's inmates and half of its death row. One of these prisoners, Jimmy Dennis, has been on Pennsylvania's death row for 22 years. Last year, citing a "grave miscarriage of justice" by the Commonwealth, a federal judge ruled Dennis was wrongfully convicted of murder, amid prosecutorial and police misconduct and questionable evidence, and ordered him released or retried. District Attorney Seth Williams appealed the judge's decision, calling it "outrageous and wrong" and "profoundly illegal."

Mumia Abu-Jamal -- who was sent to death row for the 1981 killing of Philly police officer Daniel Faulkner, and is now serving a life sentence -- is perhaps America's most potent symbol of abuse in the criminal justice system. Mumia was convicted amid allegations of evidence tampering and witness intimidation, and a trial judge who was overheard promising to "help them fry the n***er." And Abu-Jamal is the bogeyman, the kryptonite of the Philadelphia establishment because his troubling case will not allow this city to forget its long history of corruption, police brutality, and racism against black men.

When it was announced that Abu-Jamal was selected to give the commencement address at Goddard College in Vermont, the police protested while lawmakers responded with selective outrage -- and legislation. A patently unconstitutional bill would allow the victim of a personal injury crime or the district attorney to sue an offender "for conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim," essentially removing a convicted person's right to speak if the victim wishes it.

Imagine if lawmakers could find the time or the will to save public education. Unfortunately, some state officials, and a judge, were too busy sending sexually-explicit emails to care.

The crisis with the Philadelphia public schools speaks to the dearth of effective political leadership, and the lack of will to seek justice and serve the interests of children. Misplaced priorities and a profit motive are starving the schools, in the midst of the state's impressive prison expansion. And those children who are failed by Pennsylvania's educational institutions will be welcomed with open arms to its penal institutions.