PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Thousands of demonstrators statewide took to the streets Wednesday to protest education cuts they say have decimated school districts across Pennsylvania, and they called for lawmakers to reject further reductions Gov. Tom Corbett proposes for next year.
A total of 25 people were arrested during massive demonstrations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as they blocked traffic downtown in both cities, police said. Hundreds more demonstrated at the Capitol in Harrisburg, and organizers said similar rallies were scheduled in cities including Doylestown, Hollidaysburg, Bethlehem, Hazleton, and Greensburg.
"We're demanding that education funding be restored and that they take back this plan to privatize Philadelphia schools, stop threatening to lay off thousands of workers and instead sit down with parents, sit down with workers, sit down with elected officials and figure out a plan that saves our schools," said Gabe Morgan, Pennsylvania director of the Service Employees International Union chapter 32BJ, which organized the rally in Philadelphia.
Saying the state can't afford to spend more money, the governor suggested last week that school districts dip deeper into their reserves to avoid cutting programs.
State aid for public school instruction and operations this fiscal year, Corbett's first budget year, shrank by about $860 million, or more than 10 percent. His $27.1 billion budget plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 would hold most public school aid relatively flat, but eliminate a $100 million grant that helps underwrite full-day kindergarten.
A $27.7 billion budget proposal that passed the Senate earlier this month would add $50 million for the grant program, plus another $50 million for distressed school districts.
Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley on Wednesday attributed this year's funding losses to the end of federal stimulus money, and noted that about 40 percent of the state's general budget is devoted to education.
"Pennsylvania taxpayers now pay more toward basic education than at any time in the state's history," Harley said in a statement.
About 200 protesters marched to the governor's office in Pittsburgh. Eleven people were charged with obstructing traffic, according to police spokeswoman Diane Richard.
In Philadelphia, hundreds of protesters from SEIU 32BJ and several other district unions — plus concerned parents and community members — marched about a mile up Broad Street from City Hall to school district headquarters where they chanted, "Shame on you!"
The district suffered through more than $700 million in cuts this year, and is considering a radical overhaul that would close 40 buildings, cut hundreds of administrative jobs and allow outside companies to manage "networks" of schools.
SEIU 32BJ represents about 3,000 bus drivers, custodians and others in the school district. Most members have received layoff notices as the district seeks to negotiate $50 million in union givebacks to help balance next year's $218 million deficit.
Protester Melanie Sullivan, who said she spent 15 years working on Philadelphia school buses and 10 years helping special education students, is among those receiving a layoff notice.
"And for 25 years of doing a good job to get a layoff letter, I don't quite understand that. Just to get cheaper workers?" Sullivan said. "I'd like to know are you worried about the cost ... or are you worried about the children? I feel as though the children should come first."
Morgan, the state 32BJ director, and five other union members — including local president George Ricchezza — were among 14 people arrested peacefully as the group marched back to City Hall from district headquarters. A police spokeswoman could not immediately confirm the charges.
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Associated Press writers Marc Levy in Harrisburg and Joe Mandak in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.