The Children of Philadelphia Have Been Attending Toxic Schools for Years. This Is a National Crisis

Sen. Vincent J. Hughes
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The children of Philadelphia are in dire need of our help. They are at the mercy of a man-made, ticking time bomb that is nearly inescapable. I’m talking about toxic schools.

Conditions in Philadelphia schools have needed a remedy for many years. Lead, asbestos, mold and other toxins are far too common in our aging school infrastructure, but folks have been vigilantly fighting for justice, proposing the necessary resources and means to make a difference.

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One such school building, Cassidy Elementary, remains at the center of the conversation about toxic schools, largely due to the efforts of a heroic student, Chelsea Mungo.

Following my visit to Cassidy with other advocates in 2016, Chelsea and nearly three dozen of her schoolmates wrote various legislators, asking for change in their school. A fourth-grade student at the time, Chelsea wrote that going to school felt like going to prison. She also questioned why her skin color affected her ability to receive a quality education in a clean, safe facility.

The fight for environmental justice regained national attention a few years ago with the tragedy of the water in Flint, Mich. We know the story of Flint well. The fact that it remains unresolved and that Flint residents are still drinking bottled water is criminal and a national embarrassment.

As W. Kamau Bell said in the most recent episode of the United Shades of America on CNN: “This isn’t just a Philadelphia problem, it’s an America problem.”

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This is a national crisis. Public school buildings in black, brown and poor communities are filled with lead paint, which was outlawed in 1978 because of its poisonous content. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Report Card gives the nation’s 100,000 public school buildings a D-plus grade for their conditions.

Our children are overwhelmed by these toxic school buildings that state law mandates they attend. I say mandate because most states have a minimum requirement of the number of days children are to attend school. In Pennsylvania, it’s 180 days. Therefore, our students are required to attend school in toxic buildings, usually filled with lead, asbestos, or mold, and which are often rodent infested.

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Think about the cruelty of that. The absurdity of that. The immorality of that.

After a year of raising hell with the spirit of Chelsea’s letter in hand, I announced $15.7 million in funding for an immediate cleanup and remediation in city schools, alongside Gov. Tom Wolf and Mayor Jim Kenney. That money paid for 59 projects at city schools and improved conditions for about 29,000 students. Cassidy, which has been referred to as the district’s worst building, will be demolished and a new building is set to open in 2021.

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These victories have made a difference, but we’re not stopping there. Philadelphia schools still need more than $4.5 billion in structural repairs to improve the conditions for every single student mandated to attend toxic schools.

Philadelphia is a city with a lead problem worse than the infamous issues in Flint, so it is important we address lead and other toxic conditions in our schools and communities immediately. I have been working with the Fund Our Facilities Coalition to address the issues in Philadelphia schools. We welcome anyone who wants to participate and advocate on behalf of our children.

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As I said when Chelsea stepped on the floor of the Pennsylvania Senate in June 2017: “We will not let them down.”


Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent J. Hughes is a leading progressive voice on local, state, and national issues. His colleagues elected him to be the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in 2010 and he continues to bring proactive leadership to that role. Sen. Hughes has served the commonwealth as a member of the Pennsylvania Senate for more than 20 years.

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