Remarks at PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center’s Press Conference as prepared – September 6, 2023
I’m Arthur Steinberg, President of AFT Pennsylvania, the union representing 36,000 educators, paraprofessionals, school staff, higher education faculty, and state workers. Thanks to Penn Environment for your diligence on the issue of lead in the water of our schools and for inviting us to join you all today.
For decades, our union, the American Federation of Teachers, and our locals—including my home local of Philadelphia—has been on the frontlines of the fight to rid our water pipes of lead. This fight was renewed after the reveal of the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan in 2015.
The primary population that the members of our union serve are children. And there is no safe lead exposure level for children. Even low blood lead levels are associated with IQ deficits, attention deficit disorders and poor academic performance. Most, if not all, of these effects appear to be irreversible, especially when children are exposed at very young ages.
That is why our union has long advocated for legislative policies that protect our children, their families, and our educators from toxins like lead, in addition to mold and asbestos, which are inextricably linked by lack of investment in public schools in lower-income and minority communities.
Unfortunately, when I look at Pennsylvania’s “F” grade, I’m unsurprised. Having worked on school facilities safety issues for over thirty years, I have seen how long it’s taken even school districts to act to remediate or remove water outlets that had unacceptable lead levels—in Philadelphia is was a decade. It was our union’s advocacy that pushed Philadelphia City Council to adopt the most protective school water quality standards in the nation, including regular retesting and lead-filtering hydration stations in every single school building.
Unlike Philadelphia’s City Council, the legislature—the folks who are supposed to work in this building—has continued to punt on lead safety in schools as part of its larger failure to fully and fairly fund public education in the Commonwealth.
In Pennsylvania, we have no requirement to track instances of lead in school water, no process for reporting, and no real public disclosure requirements. This is, I assume, among the reasons Pennsylvania has earned an “F” for the past six years.
The time for Pennsylvania to make progress on lead in schools is now. Our state and local governments have received hundreds of millions of dollars through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and school districts have received hundreds of millions in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. But the time to use these funds is quickly running out. I implore our legislature to enact laws to protect our children and school staff and to fund improvements to school facilities.
So, I again thank PennEnvironment for inviting us to join them today and I look forward to our continued partnership in seeing this work through.