164th District Representative Margo Davidson is in a tight primary to hang onto her seat serving Lansdowne, Millbourne, East Lansdowne, and parts of Upper Darby.
Her surprisingly conservative voting record in this safe Democratic seat has attracted two primary challengers – Dafan Zhang, a third year JD student at the University of Pennsylvania who resides in East Lansdowne, and Billy Smith, a former Assistant District Attorney of Philadelphia and former Lansdowne Councilman.
Last week, we published a piece about the voter intimidation allegations raised against Representative Davidson by many within the local Democratic committees. Committee members are responsible for voting on endorsements, and threats and intimidation were reported not only at the ceremony itself, but also in the days leading up to the event. You can read more about that here.
So it was significant that on Saturday morning, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) announced their wholehearted endorsement of Billy Smith, for his commitment to restoring the billion dollars in cuts to Pennsylvania public schools and to enacting a fair funding formula for state education aid that would create an equal, quality playing field for every student in the Commonwealth. Smith has stated on many occasions that he is completely against school vouchers and that he would create a more accountable system for charter schools funded by taxpayer dollars.
Public education is a top issue for most Pennsylvanians according to numerous polls, but it is especially critical for voters in the 164th State House district and the surrounding area. Without a funding formula for public schools in Pennsylvania, which, by the way, is something 47 of 50 states already have, the funding disparities between districts are a direct cause of economic stagnation and impeded learning outcomes within local schools.
A recent report compiled by Public Citizens for Children and Youth found that Delaware County public schools are being underfunded by $45 million every single year without this critical policy component. Upper Darby School District, within the 164th District, is the most underfunded within Delaware County, with an $18 million budgetary shortfall. Be sure to check out PCCY’s series of reports about the counties surrounding Philadelphia.
In 2012, I was a leader of a movement within Upper Darby to restore funding for the school district, in the wake of an announcement by school administrators that art, music, physical education, library, technology, and foreign language programs would face overwhelming cuts. My community got to work, and after we created a video that went viral within days, and in coordination with our petition circulation efforts we were able to collect over 22,000 signatures from across the country and all over the world opposing the funding shortfalls created by conservative state lawmakers.
In the end, thanks to many people, from the many state legislators whom we personally lobbied, to Tina Fey (an alumna of the music and theatre programs at UDSD), to the journalists at a national level who picked up our story very quickly, $2.7 million was restored to Upper Darby School District, saving 57 teacher positions.
It was a bittersweet victory – our programs survived another year, but conservative state lawmakers still failed to address the $18 million funding shortfall that UDSD now confronts every year, not to mention the 500 other school districts also left in the lurch.
I’ve had contentious discussions with both Representative Nicholas Micozzie and Representative Margo Davidson, who absolutely contributed to our success in restoring that funding. Unfortunately, they both suffer from the delusion that budgetary earmarks from the state legislature are the decisions of individual legislators.
In reality, it took their voices and thousands of others to save UDSD’s programs and teachers. Here’s some proof: the year before, UDSD laid off dozens of staff members and slashed programs, and since my organization and the community uprising it produced did not exist in 2011, those cuts went through largely uncontested.
If Davidson and Micozzie each had the power to restore funding to UDSD and other schools within their legislative districts, all on their own, why didn’t they choose to do so the year before? What stopped them from restoring the full amount of funding to provide a thorough and efficient public education to students within our region?
Representative Micozzie used to be a leading advocate for a fair funding formula during the Rendell administration, but after Corbett was elected, he pretty much dropped the issue from his legislative agenda altogether. Only after recently announcing his retirement at the end of this term, did he bring up the issue again.
By contrast, Representative Davidson hasn’t introduced any bills addressing the inequitable nature of school funding during her two terms, and Pennsylvania’s politicized school funding allocation continues to go unchallenged by her.
As Kathleen Carey of the Delco Times reports, Representative Davidson’s re-election campaign sent out the following response to Smith’s endorsement:
“As the first person in my family to graduate from college, as a graduate of public schooling myself and as a mother whose children attended public schools in Upper Darby, I’ve been a champion for public education, fighting for funding for our local schools and against Gov. (Tom) Corbett’s $1 billion cut to education. I want to tax Marcellus Shale and fully fund every public school in the state, but I won’t be bullied by special interests on either side. You will always find me on the side of children and parents and hard-working teachers. That is why I fought and won the fight to save 59 union teacher jobs in the district. As a result, I have strong support among teachers, parents and students in the 164th. I will continue to work to ensure every child has access to a free high quality education regardless of zip code, which means keeping an open mind to every solution regardless of political pressure.”
If it were true that Davidson was the single person responsible for restoring funding to UDSD, she’d know that it was 57 teachers whose jobs were saved thanks to her alleged advocacy superpowers. If we had restored 59 staff members, UDSD might still have a grant-writer for the school district, or even enough staff to re-implement a fully functioning library science program.
Davidson also strangely believes that the same teachers whose jobs she saved are a “special interest” group whom she won’t allow to “bully” her, even though in 2010, when she was endorsed by PSEA and received $39,000 from the organization, she proudly accepted their support.
She must not think StudentsFirst, the national corporate education reform SuperPAC, is a special interest group because she accepted $7500 from them weeks after accepting PSEA’s donation during her first race in 2010.
Since then, tens of thousands of dollars of pro-voucher/pro-charter funding has flowed into her campaign warchest from PACs and from other state legislators who are bankrolled by the corporate education reform movement. PSEA PACE Southeastern PA representative Holly Renegar says, “[Davidson] has flip-flopped and she just showed us she couldn’t be trusted.”
When questioned a few weeks ago by John Kopp, a political beat writer for the Delco Times, why she was one of just four Democrats who supported the 2011 attempt by conservative state lawmakers to pass a school voucher policy for Pennsylvania, here’s what Rep Davidson had to say:
“I just wanted to make a statement that we really need to discuss this further. It wasn’t something that was going anywhere, but we needed to have a real conversation about how we’re going to fund public education and how we’re going to improve outcomes for children and families. We’re not having that conversation.”
One thing is for sure: StudentsFirst and other pro-voucher organizations paid quite a fee for one vote on one bill that Rep Davidson allegedly knew wasn’t going to pass. That empty gesture earned Davidson critical campaign donations, and now she is running away from accountability for her pro-voucher position. It will be interesting to see if financial support from these groups continues to flow if Davidson keeps making contradictory statements to suit her audience.
Since Davidson first took office in 2011, $10,603,021 in Upper Darby tax dollars has left the UDSD revenue stream to pay for charter and cyber charter school tuition, all for schools that are not even located within the township. This significantly increases the already staggering local tax burden to keep Upper Darby schools open to students in the first place.
Last school year alone, public school parents and I advocated against the two charter school applications that were submitted to Upper Darby School District, one of which I discovered had a direct conflict of interest with UDSD’s solicitor. Representative Davidson’s votes and support for the proliferation of charter schools and for school vouchers send a loud, clear message: “Want be the CEO of your very own charter school? Come to Upper Darby”
The thing that should disturb 164th district residents the most isn’t Representative Davidson’s advocacy for policies that directly harm our community. It’s that during her four years in office, she’s been willing to say whatever will get her campaign donations, changing her position if another group will offer her even more money. The 164th District needs a representative with real convictions, whose votes aren’t for sale to the highest bidder.