Pennsylvania's four regional affiliates of the National Urban League sponsored the nearly daylong session on the eve of Wednesday's opening of the national organization's conference in Philadelphia.
Sandra Dungee Glenn, a former Philadelphia School Reform Commission member, moderated the panel, which included Hite and Pittsburgh Superintendent Linda Lane. Dungee Glenn recalled that many have called education the civil-rights struggle of the 21st century.
"Yet at a time when more is being required of our children and of our education system, we are reeling from a huge assault on education funding in Pennsylvania," she said.
Dungee Glenn, now the senior policy adviser for State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.), said state support for basic-education funding for public schools has been cut by more than $900 million over the last three years.
Those cuts, she said, "should give us all great concern as to the government's priorities."
John Sarandrea, superintendent of the New Castle Area School District, described his district in Western Pennsylvania as the seventh poorest in the state.
"I don't have any problems saying this, because it's true: Poor kids are getting the shaft right now," he said to loud applause from the audience.
"How can you possibly not invest in these children early, knowing what will be the outcome if you don't?" Sarandrea wondered. "It's negligence. It's criminal."
Earlier, William E. Harner, Pennsylvania's acting education secretary, said he understood the importance of funding.
"Let's be frank," he said. "You have to have money to get the work done, but you have to have a system of how you use that money."
Harner praised Hite's strategic plans for Philadelphia as "spot on," but did not mention any proposals for new money or altering how the state funds public schools.
Harner called education the state's No. 1 issue.
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