Trick or Treat

State Representative Rick Saccone put on his Halloween costume a week early and went trick-or-treating in the Pennsylvania House. It’s just not clear what his costume was supposed to be and if he was trying to pull a trick on our schools – or perhaps looking for a treat to appeal to those voters who don’t believe in the separation of church and state. Rep. Saccone, a Republican from right here in Allegheny County, introduced legislation that would require every public school to display the words “In God We Trust.”

This is what Rep. Saccone and his colleagues think our schools need? The words themselves weren’t adopted as our national motto until 1956 at the height of the Cold War and McCarthyism, under the Red Scare of communism. The phrase appears on our money, which happens to be what our schools actually require. Maybe someone from Rep. Saccone’s home township of Elizabeth Forward can remind him that students in that district alone are missing over $825,000 lost to budget cuts in the past two years. [Partners for Public Education Budget Calculator] I’m sure if Rep. Saccone wants to send Elizabeth Forward 825,000 one-dollar bills, they would be happy to display a few of them on the walls of their school buildings.

Philip Martell, the Elizabeth Forward School Board President, summed up Saccone’s proposal nicely, saying, “This is what he’s spending his day doing? He needs to find more useful legislation. I would hope he’s finding ways to solve funding problems facing public schools. That’s what the people elected him to do.” [Tribune Review, 10-24-13] Kudos to Rep. Erin Molchany and Rep. Jake Wheatley, the other Allegheny County representatives on the House Education Committee, who both voted against this ridiculous bill, and to Rep. Bernie O’Neill from Bucks County, the only Republican on the committee who voted no. [HB1728]

Unfortunately, the legislation passed 14 to 9 and will now move forward so more of our legislators can waste their time discussing mottos instead of restoring the budget cuts and a modern fair funding formula. Meanwhile, on the House education committee docket this week is legislation considering changes to the drug screening of job applicants, limitations on interscholastic athletics disclosure requirements, and character education in public schools. [House Committee on Education] While I am sure some of these bills merit consideration, our legislators need to get busy doing the heavy lifting of real governance.

For instance, how are these bills addressing the fact that Pennsylvania’s homeless student population has gone up seven percent? There are now 19,905 K-12 students without homes in our state. In Allegheny County alone, there were more than 1,700 school-age children homeless at some point during 2012 – and if you add in pre-school children, the number rises to 2,500. Among those kids living in local shelters, the average age is 7.6 years. [Post-Gazette, 10-30-13] Now that is a crisis far more important than hanging mottos on school walls.

But hey, Rep. Saccone says he just wants to honor the 150th anniversary of the first time someone stamped “In God We Trust” on a penny. He insists it has nothing to do with religion, saying, “So they can have Harry Potter on the walls, zombies and witches on brooms but not the national motto? … It would just be posted in the building somewhere so the kids know what the story is behind it. It’s about teaching history.” [Tribune Review, 10-24-13] Right. Well, here’s a history lesson: Congress actually adopted a motto for the seal of the United States back in 1782, which has also been used on coins and paper money, and was long considered the un-official motto of the country. It’s E Pluribus Unum – “from many, one.”

That “many” includes 2,500 children with no place to call home right here in our county. They are living in cars while trying to do homework, sleeping on different couches every night while trying to learn how to read. They’re seven years old and their schools – the places that should be safe and stable in their lives – are struggling without teachers, books, tutoring programs, and more.

I suggest Rep. Saccone and his legislative colleagues take off their Halloween masks and get serious about helping Pennsylvania schools. Right now they’re just scaring children.

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