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Addressing the Education Funding Crisis, Rosh HaShanah 5774

posted Sep 10, 2013, 11:43 AM by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

Rosh HaShanah 5774, Addressing the Education Funding Crisis, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

A story from Isaac Peretz, a Yiddish writer of the late-19th century:


Every Friday, during the month of Elul – the month of introspection that precedes the High Holidays-the Rabbi of Nemirov would vanish. He was nowhere to be seen – not in the synagogue, not in the streets, nowhere.  The villagers wondered, “Where could the Rabbi be?”  The people agreed: In heaven, no doubt.  During the month of Elul, he would ascend to heaven to pray on behalf of his village, to beseech God to bring peace in the New Year.

One villager, unsatisfied with this answer, decided to find out himself.

That same night, the villager snuck into the Rabbi's home, slid under the Rabbi's bed, and waited.  He stayed up all night, waiting to find out where the rabbi disappeared to. 

Just before dawn, the Rabbi awoke, got out of bed, and began to dress.  The villager saw that strangely, the rabbi put on work pants, high boots, a big hat, a coat, and a wide belt.  The villager was astonished when the rabbi put a rope in his pocket, tucked an ax in his belt, and left the house. The villager followed.

The Rabbi crept in the shadows to the woods at the edge of town.  The villager watched with amazement as the Rabbi took the ax, chopped down a small tree, and split it into logs and then bundled the wood, tied it with the rope, put it on his back, and began walking.

The rabbi stopped beside a small broken-down shack and knocked at the window.

"Who is there?" asked the frightened, sick woman inside.

"I, Vassil the peasant," answered the Rabbi, entering the house. "I have wood to sell."

"I am a poor widow. Where will I get the money to pay for wood?" she asked.

"I'll lend it to you," replied the Rabbi.

"How will I pay you back?" asked the woman.

"I will trust you," said the Rabbi.

The Rabbi put the wood into the oven, kindled the fire, and left without a word.

Now whenever anyone reports that the Rabbi has disappeared and gone to heaven, the villager simply adds,

"Heaven? If not higher." 

This story offers a deep and important lesson for this season.  It is set during the month of Elul—the holy time of self-accounting that ushers us into the holiest days of the year.  Because these days are centered on inwardness and personal efforts toward change, one might think that the High Holidays are a time to shut out the outside world and focus on the self and God.  But Peretz’s story illustrates that this is not the case.  Our prayers and petitions are not enough alone: we need to be engaged in righteousness, we need to be engaged with others.  With our deeds, we have the possibility of transcending our world and reaching heaven. 

Though it is a modern story, this concept is not new—it is as old as the holidays themselves. Earlier in the service, we recited the stirring words of Untane Tokef and prayed: “Teshuvah, Tefillah UTzedekah Ma’avirin Et Ro’ah HaGezera” “Teshuvah- Repentance; Tefillah – Prayer; Tzedakah- charity or righteous deeds, from the root “tzedek” – justice-- can avert the severity of the judgment of the day.” Teshuvah- turning and tefillah- prayer—we would expect them to be part of this list. 

Tzedakah is not as obvious.  Just as Peretz teaches us, so does our liturgy: tzedakah is an essential component in our work toward transformation on these Holy Days. In fact, this is precisely the time to consider what is broken and what we can fix; to move from apathy to action. Without tzedek and tzedakah (justice and righteousness), our task on the High Holidays is incomplete.

This Rosh HaShanah, as we consider what our “tzedek”/“tzedakah” work will be and how we can make our world better, I would like to raise a social justice issue which I believe demands our attention and our involvement: the crisis in Philadelphia public education.  An unprecedented funding crisis has left our school system in dire straits.  Crippling budget cuts have led to school closings and unprecedented layoffs.  A new school year is set to start in just four days, yet the immediate future remains uncertain and the long term future seems bleak

You may be thinking to yourself: “While Philly schools are in trouble, why this issue in particular?” “Why should I spend time and attention on the Philly school crisis, especially if I don’t have children at all, have grown children, or have children who attend private school or suburban public schools?”  I understand those concerns—there are a lot of issues that need our attention and this issue may not touch upon everyone’s lives in a direct way.

Yet, I believe education is an issue that demands our empathy and involvement for three reasons.  First, the education crisis is one of, if not the, biggest threats to the families of Philadelphia in the current moment and one of the biggest threats to the prosperity of our city for the future.  Second, I believe that what is happening speaks to the heart of our greatest Jewish values and  urges us into action.  No matter what our station and life and whether this issue affects us “directly”, we are people who care about justice and who are part of “Kol Tzedek,” a community that seeks to be “a Voice of Justice” in our neighborhood and city.  And lastly, I truly believe that if we work strategically and thoughtfully, that we can win a victory and make a difference in the lives of Philadelphia’s children.

Some of the folks in this room have been intimately involved in this struggle for the past few months, while others of us are newer to the conversation. For more details, I encourage you to read the online journal the Notebook or go to one of the websites printed on the handout.  For now, here is a basic overview of the problem:

The Philadelphia School System is now dealing with the worst funding crisis it has ever faced, a crisis that threatens the safety and well-being of the majority of its 200,000 students.  There are many reasons for the enormous deficits, but the primary factor is the fact that Governor Corbett has cut $1.2 BILLON dollars in education since coming into office.   While almost every school district in the state is affected, the schools in more middle-class and wealthy districts are more able to make up the funding deficits through property taxes.  Philadelphia, which is the country’s poorest large city in America, cannot. 

A budget gap of $304 million led to drastic actions by the District in May: closing 24 schools and firing 3,800 workers, one-fifth of its workforce.  While some money has been found since May, it has only come through the city and is only a fraction of what is needed for schools to function properly. 

Nurses, guidance counselors, aides, safety staff, school secretaries, librarians have been the primary casualties of the layoffs.  Cuts have also put arts, music, and sports programs in jeopardy and leave literally no funding for basic supplies like paper and pencils. 

These cuts translate to no teacher aides like Sheila Armstrong.  Sheila Armstrong, a mother and a former school aide who was one of the 3,800 employees laid off, gave testimony at a town hall meeting hosted by POWER, Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild, about one month ago.  As a teacher’s aide, Ms. Armstrong would work with those children struggling in class and give them additional support. She told the story of working with a particular student. 

The teacher, stressed from managing an overcrowded classroom, had lost tolerance for this child whose antics took her attention away from the rest of the class and had labeled him a “problem student.” Ms. Armstrong, in working with the student, came to realize he wasn’t a problem child at all.  He was actually gifted – and was acting about because of stresses at home. She began to give him extra work and challenged him to see himself as a smart, good student instead of a misfit. Over time, he began to believe it too.  She advocated to the teacher on his behalf until she began to understand this student’s true potential.  Now, instead of being a “problem child” in detention at the end of the day, he is in a program for talented and gifted students.  Because she was there and because she cared, Ms. Armstrong gave this child the possibility of a future he could never have dreamed about himself

At that same town hall meeting, we also heard from a student: a third grader named Sharon Tyler.  She shared a story from the first grade.  Sharon was being bullied by some kids in her class.  Afraid and anxious, she went to the guidance counselor and shared her concerns.  The guidance counselor jumped into action and brought together all the kids in her class for a “lunch-brunch” where she facilitated an open and honest conversation among the young students. That one get together changed everything – and the kids were much kinder to each other from that day forward.  Most importantly, Sharon knew that if she ever had a problem, she knew where to turn. 

Let us imagine for ourselves: What would it have been like if when we were applying for college or navigating financial aid, there was no guidance counselor to help us?  What would it have been like if we went to a school that had no music, no art, not theatre, no sports teams?  Can we imagine doing research without the help of librarians? How might we have fared in a school environment with increasingly large classroom sizes and overextended staaff?

Jewish tradition and values teach us that we can and we must do better.  Judaism is a spiritual tradition in love with learning and with utmost respect for students and teachers.  Our ancestors had a lot to say about the value of educating our future generations and raising them with a sense of torah, of wisdom.  One teaching I particularly like is from Resh Lakish, a rabbinic sage, who spoke in the name of Rabbi Judah.  He said: “The world endures only because of the breath of schoolchildren.” He also said: “One many not neglect schoolchildren even in order to build the Holy Temple”  What I take from this passage is that learning is the most important activity there is, and that we must never abandon our children—even for the most holy activity in the world – because our future depends on them.

Valuing our children means investing in their education.   Unfortunately, our elected officials are choosing a different kind of investment for our city’s children.  While Corbett cut $1.2 billion for education, he allocated $400 million towards the building of a new prison in Montgomery County.  There is a great irony in the fact that this prison will have a librarian, while most of our schools will not.  There is even greater irony in the fact that studies have shown that money invested in early education saves the state byreducing costs related to crime, drug use – those things that land young adults in jail in the first place.   

Jewish tradition also teaches that we are to pursue justice by helping the poor and militating against the differences between “the haves” and “the have nots.”  As it says in the book of Deuteronomy, “If there is among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within any of your gates…you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother; but you shall surely open your hand to him.” In so many other passages, we are told to do what we can to balance the scales, to build a more equitable society. 

When funding is further cut or withheld, all schools suffer, but those schools already stressed suffer more, those districts with fewer resources are all but abandoned.  This is not just an issue of education but an issue of economic and racial justice.  Low-income and children of color are disproportionately affected by the cuts. School closings primarily impact African-American and Latino students, leaving them to cross dangerous streets to get to another school. 

The repercussions of this kind of inequality are profound.  With poor education and increasing lack of access, fewer low-income children will have the opportunity to go to college or graduate with the skills to enter the workforce.  It will be harder and harder for people to escape poverty.  This all translates to probable increase in crime, violence, joblessness, hopelessness. Reverend Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel Congregation in South Philadelphia, has called the struggle to combat Philadelphia’s Education crisis a modern day civil rights movement.

While my concern is with all of the city’s children, I am less worried about my own children or many of the children within our community than I am about the tens of thousands of kids whose futures will be diminished through continued disinvestment.

I am frustrated that I live in a world in which we invest more in prisons than in education.  I am angry that the zip code in which a person lives determines whether or not he or she will receive a good education.  I want to live in a society that values learning, honors children and gives them the opportunities they need to succeed and fulfill their God-given potential.

Now, here is some good news.  As I mentioned earlier, I truly believe we have an opportunity to move things in the right direction. First, we can act to address the immediate crisis: make phone calls, write letters, and support teachers, parents, and students that are organizing actions.  Over the past five months, there has been some excellent organizing and advocacy.  Young children, including Kol Tzedek’s own, have gone to the City Council and knocked on their doors until they had to come out.  

One KT mom told me this story: Her and her child went with a group of students to knock on city council’s doors to advocate for education.  Her city councilwoman came out and spoke to the children, giving them the gifts of pencils -- which, as this mom pointed out, is sadly needed because with budget cuts, they won’t have pencils!!  The council woman asked the girl what school she went to.  The 3rd grader said, “Penn Alexander.”  The council person retorted, “Oh! That’s a very good school, it’s one of my favorites.”  This wise 3rd grader retorted, “Excuse me, but I don’t think you have favorite schools. I think all the schools should be good schools.”

Even as we respond to the crisis in front of us for this school year, we also need solutions that will reach the dream of the 3rd grader: good schools for everyone.  Kol Tzedek is a founding member of POWER, (Philadelphians to Organize Witness Empower and Rebuild), is an organization made up of 41 congregations working across religious, class, racial, geographic lines to build a city of opportunity for everyone – with no one left behind.  Education has been a key area of organizing for POWER for the past year.  For the last few months, a group has been studying education funding and considering strategies for long-term change.  This team has recommended that POWER take on a multi-year campaign that would involve civic engagement and advocacy for a fair and transparent funding formula.

POWER’s first goal is to make education the number ONE issue in the coming Governor’s election.  Through public forums with candidates of both parties; phone banking, voter turn-out, we will mobilize people to show up and vote on the issue of education.  POWER is already connecting with partner organizations around Pennsylvania to make this a state-wide effort.  This is not about political partisanship—just like Kol Tzedek, POWER is a non-profit and will not endorse a candidate.  But we can make sure that people come out and exercise their power as citizens – and in doing so, God-willing, put someone in office that cares about our children and will invest in their future.

The longer-term strategy is to work with partners across the state to achieve a fair and equitable funding formula. A fair and equitable funding formula is a way in which a state distributes funds by taking into account rates of poverty, the numbers of English as a second language and the number of special needs students per district.  A fair funding formula is a long-term solution to the problem of funding – it mandates that the state give money to districts based on facts and data and not on political whim.  This is about giving all children, whether rich or poor, black, white, Latino, access to good education.

These are campaigns that we can be involved in as individuals and as a Kol Tzedek community.  We can sign up to phone bank or do neighborhood door knocking; we can talk to our friends and neighbors about the stakes of the primary election.  Down the road, there will likely be opportunities to go to Harrisburg and speak about the importance of fair and equitable funding. 

Before we get overwhelmed with skepticism, let us give ourselves permission to image: What would it be like for us to look back in a year or two or three and see a real change? To see a future brighter for all the children of our city?   If each of us does a small part, our collective efforts will make a difference and God willing, we will be able to say: We helped make our city and our world a better place.

Further, let us see this process as the beginning of a much larger fight for the soul of Philadelphia’s education.  We know there are many more problems with schools than funding, including an too much focus on standards and testing and the privatization of the education system.  Let us solve the funding crisis so that we can put out a long-term vision for education in Philaelphia that ensures that all children in this city have the opportunity to learn, to succeed, to be challenged, to be engaged, and to thrive.   

On Rosh HaShanah, we are called upon to repent and to turn, to pray our heartfelt prayers, and to align ourselves with Tzedek-justice and to engage in righteous deeds.   On Rosh HaShanah, we are called to look into our communities, examine what is broken, and see how we might be a part of fixing it.  On this day, as we are called upon to make new commitments for a new Year of sweetness for us and for the world. 

Earlier in the service, I gave a blessing to all the children of the congregation.  At this time, I would like to give a blessing to all the children in our city and to all of us

May the Holy One of Blessing Bless all of the children of our city.  As they begin a new school year in just a few short days, grant them protection, safety, and security.  Grant them loving support and a sense of hopefulness.  Grant them opportunities to learn and be challenged, to teach and to grow.  Bless them with a love of learning and with teachers who show them their own unique potential. Grant them blessing, success, and honor.  

May the Holy One of Blessing bless us and inspire us.  May we feel that our destiny is tied to the young children of this city as well as the young children of this country.  May we feel moved to act on their behalf to bring about a more equitable, fair and just world for our children to inherit.  May we help even out the scales of justice so that all people will be granted access to good schools and an excellent education.  May the work of our hands be blessed.  Amen.