"We are in a crisis. We here in Philadelphia cannot wait until September to consider this tax," Johnson said.
"It is time to stop playing games with the lives of our young people," said Evette Jones, a teachers' union official representing its president, Jerry Jordan.
With a looming $81 million budget gap to fill and no promise from the legislature to return this month to vote on the cigarette tax, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said he may be forced to delay the opening of school, lay off up to 1,500 employees, and swell class sizes to more than 40.
Gov. Corbett has said he would be willing to advance millions to the district so that schools open on time, but it's not clear that will be enough to stave off the crisis.
Trappler and others said they are on pins and needles.
"As a parent, I am appalled," said Eileen Floyd, whose son attends Sharswood Elementary in South Philadelphia. "We just came off a year struggling with not enough nurses, which is incomprehensible."
Greenfield, a well-regarded neighborhood school at 22d and Chestnut Streets, has already dropped its Spanish program, assistant principal, and full-time nurse. When crucial support staff were cut last year, parents paid to fund the positions, fearing that the school would not be safe if they failed to step in.
"They just hired a bunch of new teachers," Trappler said. "I hope they don't have to let them go."
The budgetary crisis "is just tearing the heart out" of schools, said Greenfield parent Christine Carlson, founder of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition, who decried "the ongoing uncertainty generated by the annual budget crises and continued political posturing."
Before daughter Lucy entered kindergarten last fall, Julia Shaw wondered if she and her husband should gamble on public schools or find a way to afford private schools.
They chose to send Lucy to Greenfield, and were pleased they did. But the yearly uncertainty around funding is a killer, said Shaw, who came to the rally with Lucy. Her daughter wore a pink feather in her hair and sparkly shoes on her feet, and carried a sign that read, "I am a Philadelphia public school student."
"To think that I have another 12 to 15 years of this - it's so tough," Julia Shaw said. "We don't want to be forced to leave the city."