Pennsylvania Republican Governor Tom Corbett was slated Friday to make his first ever appearance in a Philadelphia public school since he took the state's helm in 2011.
Yet when he found out he would be met with mass protests from the students and workers whose public education system has been gutted under his watch, he backed out of the event, instead "honoring" Central High School for its top performance from his office in downtown Philadelphia.
"The governor bailed on us," Central High School senior Michael Krolikowski told Common Dreams.
"Governor Corbett showed cowardice in not showing up and facing the students who have had to deal with his budget cuts and have had to deal with the policies of the administration that have devastating effects on their education and futures," said Hiram Rivera, executive director for Philly Student Union, in an interview with Common Dreams. "He was not expecting the power of the students."
While Corbett failed to show up, students, workers and community members did.
Nearly 100 students at Central High School — where Corbett was slated to make his appearance — rallied in front of their school at 7:30 AM, chanting "No Education, No Life," and "Save Our Schools," waving banners and posters and passing out informational flyers to parents and students entering the building.
Later in the morning, a crowd of 200 protesters from teachers' unions, the NAACP, black churches, and community groups marched to the school, according to Rivera.
The mobilizations were preceded by organizing within the school, including a student declaration of independence and an open letter signed by 120 Central High School alumni urging students "to speak out against the Corbett administration."
In a bid to explain his cancellation, Corbett released a tweet on Friday declaring, "Out of respect to the students, I decided not to engage in theatrics designed by adults..."
His comment set off fury from students organizing to save their schools.
"There was only one adult manipulating us and that's Governor Corbett when he decided to slash our opportunities in half," said Krolikowski.
"My message is don't let guys in big suits and their fancy body guards or titles intimidate you. If there is something you feel is unjust or you are not being treated right as a human being, voice it." —Michael Krolikowsk, Central High School senior
"This visit is a mockery," writes Central High School student Alice Hu in an open letter published Friday. "It is a mockery of every Central student who has to wait two weeks to get help from a counselor, because the student to counselor ratio is 1 to 1200. It is a mockery of every Central teacher who has to buy their own paper and school supplies and spend dozens of hours every week handling non-teaching responsibilities because of inadequate funding."
Hu added, "We don’t want to be honored this way. We want accountability from the state."
Under Corbett's tenure, 10 percent of Philadelphia's schools — which are controlled in part by state appointees — have been shuttered, and 20 percent of school workers have been laid off. Meanwhile, the state is funneling resources into private charter schools while withholding nearly $50 million in funds in a bid to pressure the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) to accept steep concessions in their contract.
School closures hit low-income students and communities of color the hardest. While black students make up 58 percent of Philadelphia's population, they account for 81 percent of the city's youth directly impacted by the closures.
Central High school students say they hope their mobilization is helpful to others in the state and country facing public education cuts.
"My message is don't let guys in big suits and their fancy body guards or titles intimidate you," said Krolikowski. "If there is something you feel is unjust or you are not being treated right as a human being, voice it."