Graduation of the Building21 High School students. (Eric Hitchens)

The speed and coordination of our local, state, and federal government in repairing I-95 in Northeast Philadelphia were beyond impressive. Press conferences featuring Gov. Josh Shapiro and President Joe Biden, flyovers, a 24/7 livestream, and Wawa catering for union members working hard around the clock all culminated in a parade featuring the Phanatic and Gritty to reopen the site after just 12 days. 

“We worked together and showed what it looks like when government works for the people,” Shapiro proudly said.

It’s a modern engineering miracle, no doubt. Yet as a teacher in an underfunded Philly school where exposed asbestos continues to jeopardize student and teacher health and interrupt in-person learning, I can’t help but compare the government’s rapid response to the I-95 disaster with the response to hazardous conditions in schools in the 45th-ranked state for equitable education funding. 

The governor bragged about the urgency he brought to the highway repair: “They said it couldn’t be done. There was a pessimism in the air — one that’s lingered over our Commonwealth for too long. Today, we proved them wrong.” He spoke proudly about how the project serves as an example that “this is a can-do town,” and declared, “We are going to make sure that we change that attitude of people being surprised to folks expecting excellence from us.”

In contrast, the School District of Philadelphia says it does not have the staffing or resources needed to address its facilities fiasco, and anticipates it will take three years to even be on track to meet federal inspection requirements — let alone actually address issues uncovered by inspections. 

And even after a historic Commonwealth Court ruling that declared Pennsylvania’s system for funding public education unconstitutional, the governor has been much tamer in his ambitions and urgency, calling for trust in a “two-step process” and setting a timeline between 16 months and five years to develop a more equitable funding system. 

The I-95 response shows us what government can do when we tackle problems with resources and urgency, but it’s which problems our leaders choose to bring resources and urgency to that show us their priorities. 

Ironically, the federal government’s original investment in interstate highways like I-95 not only disrupted and destroyed urban communities, but also fueled white flight and the movement of wealthier commuters to the suburbs. These factors in turn led to racial and economic segregation between cities and surrounding communities, which, in a state like Pennsylvania that relies primarily on local property taxes to fund education, contributes to our current inequitable system of school funding and a school facilities crisis in the U.S. city with the most deep poverty.

The no-holds-barred effort to mobilize public resources to rebuild a highway, when contrasted with a fatalistic, plodding approach to funding public education, might lead a cynic to conclude that to our government leaders, cars matter more than kids. 

Let’s take our elected officials at their word and demand “excellence” from them — not only for our roads, but for our schools.

Where are the press conferences for our schools? Where is the livestream of the rebuild of Frankford High, which will remain closed through next year due to asbestos, or the live tracking site of inspections of other toxic schools? Where is the flyover with U.S. Education Secretary Cardona and Gov. Shapiro vowing “all hands on deck” with “everyone working around the clock to get this done” as “safely and efficiently as possible”?

Granted, reforming our unconstitutional school funding system is a complex, long-standing problem that you can’t solve by simply putting up a livestream of Gritty dancing down the Delaware Expressway. 

Still, as the governor said, “we can do big things here in Pennsylvania,” especially when our childrens’ futures are at stake. We have a court mandate and a June 30 deadline for the state budget. And we have the resources: between the general and rainy day funds we have the largest surplus in Commonwealth history. We can do more than “lifeline scholarships” — aka vouchers for private or parochial schools. The Commonwealth Court’s ruling is unambiguous that state leaders have a constitutional mandate to fund public education.

With the I-95 rebuild finished early, the governor still has time to turn his enthusiasm and political capital toward passing a state budget for education that meets the moment with the constitutional urgency it demands. 

In the governor’s own words, “When times get hard, Pennsylvanians show up for one another. We work together — and we get shit done.” The necessary resources and our students’ potential cannot continue to be deferred and squandered by bureaucratic traffic jams and political platitudes. Let’s take our elected officials at their word and demand “excellence” from them — not only for our roads, but for our schools. 

Eric Hitchner teaches at Building 21 High School in the School District of Philadelphia and is a 2022-23 Teach Plus Pennsylvania policy fellow.