PHILADELPHIA — Gov. Tom Corbett ditched his first scheduled visit to a district-run public school in Philadelphia, where dozens of demonstrators had gathered Friday to protest his education policies and rally for more funding.
Corbett had been scheduled to present an academic award to Central High School but canceled at the last minute. Instead, he held a news conference at his office in downtown Philadelphia because he didn’t want his presence to create “a major distraction” for Central students.
“Today wasn’t supposed to be about politics,” Corbett said. “It was supposed to be about how we should be recognizing the hard work of those students and teachers.”
Protesters from the Philadelphia teachers’ union, local churches and other community organizations saw it differently. As they rallied under a heavy police presence in front of Central, district retiree Rich Migliore called the no-show “an act of cowardice.”
Pennsylvania’s largest district is weathering its worst financial crisis in recent memory. Some parents and teachers in the heavily Democratic city say it was worsened by Corbett’s budget-balancing cuts to school aid in 2011.
The Republican governor, who is running for re-election, has been traveling the state to commend high-achieving schools like Central, based on the state’s new performance profiles. Two other Philadelphia schools also made the cut: Masterman and George Washington Carver.
On Friday, Corbett called the district-run buildings “shining examples of what is working in public education, not only in Philadelphia but across the commonwealth.” The governor, who has promoted private, parochial and charter schools, has never visited a district-operated school in the city.
Members of Central High School’s staff said their students’ success has come in spite of, not because of, the governor’s leadership. They wrote an open letter to Corbett expressing “discomfort” with his planned visit and calling for a statewide funding formula for education. Pennsylvania is one of three states without one.
“We strongly believe that the ability of our students to achieve will not continue given the current funding structure,” said the letter, which was read aloud at Friday’s rally by biology teacher Galeet Cohen.
Senior Alexia Quinn, 18, said she had heard some students planned to turn their backs on the governor during his visit, because “he has turned his back on us.” Quinn said their repeated requests for more state aid have fallen on deaf ears.
Since Corbett took office, Central has lost about $1.4 million in funds and more than 30 staff members, according to budget figures cited by Parents United for Public Education. The school librarian is being paid for by a private donor, and there are only two counselors for 2,400 students.
Corbett declined to comment Friday on the education proposals he would offer in his annual budget address Feb. 4. But he said he would seek “some investment increase” for schools across the state.
This week, the state House approved legislation that would create a commission to come up with an education funding formula. The bill still requires Senate approval.
Also Friday, Corbett announced two nominees to the School Reform Commission, the state body overseeing the Philadelphia schools. City Councilman Bill Green and nonprofit executive Farah Jimenez still need approval from the state Senate. Green will have to step down from his council post to take the job.