Parapets, Public Welfare and Philadelphia Public Schools

It was a beautiful summer day; I was about 6 years old and playing with my little brother in a second floor room of our suburban Boston house.  We were horsing around near the windows when I distinctly remember my mom yelling to my brother, “Nate, don’t lean on the screen…”  Well, as you might have guessed, the screen was not very sturdy and without warning my brother plummeted out the second story window.  Thank God, there was a fichus tree directly beneath the window that broke his fall and he bounced up laughing and smiling as if to suggest, “Can I do that again?”

Nearly one-eighth of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot (commandments) are found in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetse; seventy-two according to Maimonides.

Included in this portion are prohibitions against the mixing of cotton and wool and laws relating to making and keeping vows. We also find the commandment to wear tassels, later interpreted as tzitzit, on our four cornered garments. We also find laws related to skin afflictions, corporal punishment and feeding the hungry.  Although the laws in this week’s portion truly run the gambit, the majority of the laws are concerned with moral values and the creation of a just society.

However, there is one law in this week’s portion that overshadows all the rest in my mind.  Maybe it’s because of that fateful summer day with my brother or perhaps because of the powerful message of communal responsibility that we derive from it.

“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” (Deuteronomy 22:8) It’s a simple principle–a flat roof, where family and friends might hang out and barbecue, is an inherently dangerous place. We should anticipate that danger and build a railing so no one falls.

This parapet requirement provides a practical application of the more abstract principle of, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:16)  Beyond demanding that we not perpetrate sins of commission against one another, the Torah now concretely prohibits a sin of omission. It’s not enough for us simply to refrain from pushing someone off of a roof, we must anticipate and proactively protect against that danger.

This past week, the School District of Philadelphia, along with the city and state government, had been playing a very dangerous game of chicken with lives of our students, threatening to not open schools if the proper funding was not found.  Thankfully yesterday, City Council and Mayor Nutter pledged to Superintendent Hite that the school district would get the $50 million required to start school on time with minimal staff.  However, the debate over where this money will come from along with the need for additional state funding dependent on union concessions still rages.

Yes, we have solved the immediate school crisis here in Philadelphia and schools will open this year.  But the message of the parapet in this week’s Torah portion is meant to teach us that stop-gap solutions are merely band aids over the real problems.  The Torah does not command us to make sure to help those that fall off our roofs; it commands us to be proactive and make sure that we do not get into this mess in the first place.  We need a comprehensive plan in place to ensure that our schools are continually well funded.

The Education Law Center, an advocate for fair and equitable public education funding for nearly 40 years, recently released a report called, “Funding, Formulas, and Fairness: What Pennsylvania Can Learn From Other States’ Education Funding Formulas.”  I will not go into too much detail on this report but am happy to share it with anyone interested.  In this report, they note that Pennsylvania is one of only two states in the country that does not have a funding formula for public education. According to the Education Law Center:

States throughout the country have implemented sound funding formulas designed to accurately, fairly, and transparently identify costs and distribute critical education funding to their school districts.

Pennsylvania has gone in the opposite direction. The state currently has no system for accurately, fairly, and transparently identifying costs and distributing education dollars.

It’s time for that to change. It’s time for Pennsylvania to become a national leader in the development and implementation of a sound education funding formula that addresses real classroom costs, meets real student needs, and builds successful schools and successful communities.

Anything less puts the future of the Commonwealth’s students and communities at risk.

As many of you know, our congregation is part of a multi-faith community organizing effort called, POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild).  This year POWER’s main agenda will be education reform in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.  Both through local direct service efforts at Spring Garden School as well as through city and state-wide advocacy efforts, we look forward to doing our part to help build a parapet around our broken school funding model to ensure that no student falls of that proverbial roof.

I encourage all of you who are interested to join us this Wednesday, August 21st at 5:45 pm, here at RS, for a planning meeting to learn about how you can make a difference in our children’s futures.

Our tradition offers us one final way to look at this dilemma from a well-known Talmudic passage:

Whoever can prevent his household from committing a sin but does not, is responsible for the sins of his household; if he can prevent his fellow citizens, he is responsible for the sins of his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is responsible for the sins of the whole world. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b)

The key word here is can. If one can intervene only in one’s household, that is the purview in which one is responsible. If however, one can intervene on a state-wide level, one’s responsibility extends that far.

We can make a difference in the upcoming debates around school funding and therefore have an obligation to do so.

According to the aforementioned Education law Center report:

In the debate over Pennsylvania’s 2013-14 state budget, legislators, education leaders, media members, and Pennsylvania taxpayers should ask the following questions about the education funding proposals presented by the Governor and the General Assembly:

Does the budget proposal use accurate student data to distribute education dollars?

Does the proposal fairly distribute dollars to address real costs for educating students with different needs in each school district throughout the state?

Does the proposal distribute education dollars through a transparent formula that uses publicly available and accessible data?

When we look at our city and state, at all the roofs left unguarded, all the dangers that imperil people, the implications are daunting. As we begin the season of personal reflection of the high holidays, the question of how much responsibility each one of us bears becomes paramount. We must think deeply about whether we have acted to prevent misfortune and we must begin the work of constructing parapets, of institutionalizing precautions against destruction, willful or accidental. It’s hard work, but if we truly want to avoid “standing idly by the blood our neighbor;” it must be done.