Starting Saturday, June 20, the Capitol in Harrisburg was transformed into a place of worship and protest for the largest interfaith mobilization in Pennsylvania’s history, led by congregations concerned about the state’s well-known crisis in public education funding.
In the vein of the “Moral Mondays” movement in North Carolina, Pennsylvania-based congregations have planned a #MoralTakeover of the state capitol, where they believe “legislators and the governor are serving the interests of corporations and the super-wealthy at the expense of Pennsylvania’s families and children.” As Gov. Wolf and legislators begin negotiating the next state budget, the #MoralTakeover seeks to call attention to the education crisis by bringing a sunrise-to-sunset fast (happening across the state since March) to the steps of the Capitol so “legislative business cannot be conducted without lawmakers knowing that people of faith are paying attention.”
Pennsylvania is one of only three states without a funding formula to distribute funds to schools according to weighted factors like poverty, and has one of the most regressive corporate and income tax systems in the country. The majority of Pennsylvania’s schools, across urban, suburban and rural lines, are underfunded, and Pennsylvania has the most inequitable school funding levels in the U.S.
Organizers say that proposals for school funding from both Wolf and the Republican-led General Assembly alike are insufficient. The Campaign for Fair Education Funding, of which POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild) and its faith-based partners are founding members, has calculated that a total increase in $3.6 billion is needed to return all of Pennsylvania’s school districts to adequate levels of funding. Wolf, who was elected largely on his stance on education issues, has proposed an increase of $400 million for classroom spending next year — an increase of just 15 percent of what the Campaign has deemed necessary. The House of Representatives, on the other hand, proposed a budget last month that directs no new dollars towards education at all.
The #MoralTakeover encampment, consisting of a tent erected on the Capitol’s steps, will be a gathering place for fasters and participants in actions and prayers for 10 days. Each day, members of different religious communities from across the state will visit the tent and invite members of the general public to join them in the prayer services of their faith traditions. There will be a “Jericho Walk” every morning inside the building and visits to legislators’ offices to pray for them individually.
“None of us have a full education until we all have an equal education,” said Rabbi Eli Freedman, a clergy leader with POWER from Congregation Rodeph Shalomin Philadelphia, who co-led a Shabbat service at the site on Saturday. “We are called to be here on Shabbat because we are living into the world as it should be as we pray for a fair, fully funded education system in Pennsylvania that allows all of our kids to realize their full potential instead of just some.”
Faith communities led by POWER and Faith in PA, a statewide interfaith coalition, have also been calling for an end to racial bias in the funding system, which allocates more money to school districts with more white students, even across the same levels of local wealth. Due in part to the organizing and lobbying efforts of public education advocates, the Basic Education Funding Commission’s new formula contains no racial bias.
On Monday, members of the United Church of Christ attempted to meet with and deliver a letter of their concerns to the governor but were immediately met with closed and locked doors. Naomi Leaphart, a UCC pastor from Lancaster, then led the group in a prayer outside of the governor’s office.
“We come with loud voices singing Zion praises, because our voices can literally make these walls tumble to the ground,” said Leapheart. “The walls of inequality, the walls of racially biased funding for our public schools, the walls of disregard and apathy about our young people who are most vulnerable.”
Later in the afternoon, the UCC members loudly disrupted the session of the House of Representatives by singing the spiritual “Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho” and dropping a large banner over the balcony of the gallery reading: “Our prayer is that you fully fund our schools.”
On Tuesday, the #MoralTakeover combined forces with the Campaign for Fair Education Funding holding a large rally on the rotunda steps calling for legislators to restore funding to education and to implement a fair funding formula.
The #MoralTakeover includes 10 days of action led by members of UCC, Methodists, Presbyterians, Jewish rabbis, Unitarian Universalists, Muslims and Lutherans, including a Jum’uah (Friday) prayer service during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Proposals from both Democrats and Republicans contain plans for corporate tax relief, either through decreasing the corporate tax rate or continuing loopholes that for years have enabled corporations to evade billions of dollars in taxes owed to the state. Faith leaders in POWER say this is “a moral travesty when cuts to schools have been so drastic in past years that, in some districts, there have been dangerous cuts to nurses, guidance counselors, cleaning, security, and other essential services.”
“This is not about one party being right or wrong. It’s about our children,” said Bishop Dwayne Royster, POWER’s executive director. “We need 3.6 billion more dollars in our education system. As people of faith, we are not going to lie about or compromise on what is needed to give our kids a 21st century education. When we can consider tax relief for corporations that has no guarantee to stimulate our economy while our schools are still far from being fully funded, it’s clear Pennsylvania has a moral problem, not a financial problem.”