The Commonwealth

We are the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Stop and think about that phrase, the official title of our state. We are a commonwealth, that’s common + wealth. It’s an old English term from the 15th century meaning a body politic (or a political community) organized for the “public welfare” and the “general good.” [Online Etymology Dictionary]

We are one of only four states in the U.S. that calls itself a commonwealth (Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Virginia are the other three.) Not only is the word in the title of our state, it’s in our constitution. In fact, the notion is at the core of Pennsylvania’s original constitution, which was written in a convention in Philadelphia from July through September of 1776 presided over by Benjamin Franklin himself.

The very first section of that original constitution is a “Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth or State of Pennsylvania” and closely resembles the Bill of Rights. Number five on the list: “That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or soft of men, who are a part only of that community.” [PA Constitution, 9-28-1776]

Government is for the common benefit. We hold wealth in common, to serve the public good. These are powerful old ideas that derive from colonial common law and helped shape the new nation. Look at how Massachusetts puts it in their constitution: “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.” [Preamble, MA Constitution]

Our legislators need to think about the meaning behind the very name of our state, as they race to ink a final budget in the next three days. Republicans revealed the details of the budget yesterday with mixed news for education. [Post-Gazette, 6-27-12] On the positive side, it is all but certain now that Governor Corbett will not get his way with his proposal to eliminate $100 million from the block grant program that many schools use to fund Kindergarten and early childhood education. That is a $100 million victory for our grassroots movement and you can be sure we would not have achieved it without the enormous statewide effort of ordinary folks like us who stood up for public education.

Our countless letters to the editor, op ed pieces, phone calls, rallies, vigils, advocacy events for children, meetings with legislators, bus trips to Harrisburg, research, writing, and consistent dialogue in social media kept this issue front and center when the administration wanted desperately to make it go away. We pierced Govenor Corbett’s claims about his education budget, we skewered his metaphors, and revealed the big money interests behind his attempts to privatize our schools. And we caught national attention: people from coast to coast were horrified to learn about the operatic tragedy of arts education unfolding in Pennsylvania; our articles were published in the Huffington Post among others; we were invited to the White House.

Yet we know that this new budget provides only level funding for public K-12 education. Last year’s massive cuts are carried forward and will continue to deeply impact our schools. And we know that Governor Corbett will continue to play games with rhetoric, claiming that he has increased funding for schools when he has merely moved line items around. For example, the Post-Gazette is reporting today, “The basic state subsidy for public schools would be set at $5.4 billion, an increase of $49 million over the current year.” [Post-Gazette, 6-27-12]

There is no actual increase for public education overall. In fact, we are almost sure to see the expansion of corporate tax credit programs this week, which will effectively divert hundreds of millions of public revenue dollars to private and parochial schools that could be used for our public schools. (See “2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?” for the latest details.) You will hear Rep. Christiana and others claim that their massive corporate giveaway doesn’t take money away from public education.

But if we remember that we are the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, we can see the absurdity of that statement. Our public revenue, our wealth, is for the common good; it is to be held in common, for the benefit of us all. Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues inked those powerful words 236 years ago and they are every bit as meaningful today.

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Yinzercation is going on vacation. Your faithful blogger will return, but for now, I leave you with these words: Public education is a public good.

That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or soft of men, who are a part only of that community, And that the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish government in such manner as shall be by that community judged most conducive to the public weal. [PA Constitution, 1776]

2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?

HB 2468 has lots of cheerleaders. That’s the current House Bill under consideration that would expand Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, and add a new scholarship program, diverting $200 MILLION in public money to private and parochial schools. (See “One Million Per Day” for the details.)

The voucher-in-disguise bill was introduced by Rep. Jim Christiana, a Republican who hails from Monaca in Beaver County – site of the proposed Shell cracker plant. Just a few weeks before he brought the bill forward, Rep. Christiana received a nice fat check for $25,000 from the “Fighting Chance PA” PAC. That was the single largest contribution from this new political action committee (or PAC) that has already “doled out $225,000 to pro-voucher state lawmakers and other political committees in Harrisburg.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-26-12]

Fighting Chance PA PAC shares a name with a campaign launched by the “Pennsylvania Catholic Coalition” this spring, an effort associated with the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which has been lobbying hard for voucher legislation to fund its struggling schools. The new PAC has been entirely financed by three wealthy Philadelphia hedge-fund founders and their “Students First PA” PAC. That name should ring a bell: they are the group funneling gobs of out-of-state money from the likes of mega-billionaire Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children into Pennsylvania politics to support school privatization efforts. (Please re-read “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money” for details of the money trail.)

Rep. Christiana received well over a third (38%) of his campaign contributions so far this year from three pro-voucher groups: $25,000 from the new Fighting Chance PA PAC; $25,000 from the Students First PAC; and $2,500 from Wal-Mart’s school-choice PAC. Christiana apparently “laughed” when a reporter asked if these donations influenced his new tax-credit bill. “I’ve been a strong supporter of parental choice since my first election in 2008,” he said, claiming that voucher groups are merely trying to counteract “the status quo” advocated by teachers’ unions. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-26-12

Ah, yes. By all means, let’s blame teachers’ unions for the massive defunding of our public schools. And while we’re at it, why don’t we blame them for creating the insidious national narrative that our public schools are failing in the first place.

What HB 2468 is really about is giving away mountains of public, taxpayer money to private corporations. A new analysis of the proposed bill, released yesterday by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, found that, “Individual taxpayers are footing the bill for $9 out of every $10 of corporate contributions for private and parochial school scholarships” made through the current EITC program. [PBPC, Analysis of HB 2468, 6-25-12]

What’s worse, companies get a “triple dip” tax reduction, since they can take both state and federal tax deductions for their “charitable” contributions, on top of the state tax credit. That means that a corporation donating at the current annual cap of $300,000 will pay only $20 a year out of pocket. Twenty bucks! And don’t forget, that buys them huge PR in the community. (For example, see how Exxon has done this in “EITC: No Credit to PA.”)

[Source: Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center]

Even more astonishing, a company that contributes to pre-K scholarships, which has an even larger tax credit, can actually receive tax benefits largerthan the total value of the “contribution.” Yes, you read that right. The EITC program can literally net companies income – a reverse flow of public dollars to private corporations. That’s adding insult to injury, as public schools are reeling from massive budget cuts and these tax credit programs channel desperately needed revenue away from our public goods.

You can bet Exxon and many other corporations are waving their pom-poms and chanting, “2-4-6-8, Who do we appreciate?” when they think about HB 2468. Maybe we need to send some real cheerleaders from Pennsylvania’s public schools to Harrisburg where they can explain to legislators the value of public education. They could end with a better chant: “2-4-6-8, Public schools are really great!”

The Other C Word

Choice. They stole our word. Not so long ago, “choice” belonged to progressives who had successfully attached its meaning to women’s reproductive rights. It had become shorthand for an entire, complex movement (though often stood in for the single hot-button issue of abortion). But the agents of school-privatization have co-opted the term. “School choice” now means sending public taxpayer dollars to private and parochial schools benefiting a select few at the expense, and to the detriment, of the great many.

Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch wrote yesterday about the problem of looking at education as a consumer choice rather than a public good. “The more that people begin to see education as a consumer choice, the more they will be unwilling to pay for other people’s children. And if they have no children in school, then they have no reason to underwrite other people’s private choices.” [“How Choice May Kill Public Education,” 6-24-12]

Public education is a social compact (remember this from high school social studies class?): we collectively agree to educate all children in our community, because we all benefit from an educated populace. “But once the concept of private choice becomes dominant,” Ravitch warns, “then the sense of communal responsibility is dissolved. Each of us is then given permission to think of what is best for me, not what is best for we.”

We are a nation of consumers, trained from an early age to look at everything as a consumer choice. And we like the idea of choice: what’s more American than a grocery store aisle with 112 kinds of cereal to choose from? In fact, the concept of choice is almost a pathological fixation in our culture. If we can choose something, then we will like it; if we have a choice, then all is well.

Take healthcare as an example, where the far right has been launching a successful attack on affordable medical care for all, with scary stories about people losing their “choice of doctors” or “choice of plans.” When it comes right down to it, what people want is not necessarily a choice of plans or doctors, but a good doctor in their community that they can afford to see.

The problem of “choice” is related to “The Competition Fallacy” we outlined last week. (That article, by the way, has received some national attention and will be republished by Alternet.org.) Those who would like to privatize our public goods use the framework of choice and competition, but these are the wrong guiding principles. Nobel Prize winning Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman addressed just this issue over the weekend in a piece about the similar effort to privatize our prison system. He asserted, “you really need to see it in the broader context of a nationwide drive on the part of America’s right to privatize government functions.” [New York Times, 6-21-12]

Krugman went on to explain why this is happening with prisons, but he could just as easily been talking about education: “You might be tempted to say that it reflects conservative belief in the magic of the marketplace, in the superiority of free-market competition over government planning. And that’s certainly the way right-wing politicians like to frame the issue. But if you think about it even for a minute, you realize that the one thing the companies that make up the prison-industrial complex … are definitely not doing is competing in a free market. They are, instead, living off government contracts. There isn’t any market here, and there is, therefore, no reason to expect any magical gains in efficiency.”

And yet, Pennsylvania legislators are voting today on a massive expansion of a plan to send even more public money to private institutions. As we reported on Friday, this latest voucher-in-disguise effort will expand the current Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which currently diverts $75 million in revenue from corporations that we could otherwise be using for our public schools. (See “One Million Per Day.”) Yesterday Republican leaders announced they would almost certainly add another $25 million to this program, while creating a similar tax credit program that will cost another $50 million. [PennLive, 6-24-12]

The good news is that the House is not going along with Governor Corbett’s proposal to cut another $100 million in block grants to public schools for early childhood education. This is money that Pennsylvania schools could not afford to lose on top of last year’s massive cuts. However, the preservation of these funds comes with strings attached – and we’ll see those strings today as legislators vote to further expand voucher programs.

We will undoubtedly hear how tax breaks for corporations and the funneling of public money to private and parochial schools is wonderful, and how these programs create “choice” and “competition.” Just remember that other C word. No not that one. Remember “community.” As Diane Ravitch said, we have a communal responsibility to public education. Once we start seeing it as a consumer choice, we will lose the essence of our public schools: that they belong to all of us, and that we share the obligation to support them.

One Million Per Day

One million. Every day. That’s how much Pennsylvania taxpayers are losing on over-payments to charter and cyber charter schools. Auditor General Jack Wagner released a report Wednesday explaining that our state is spending “substantially more” than the national average on a “flawed and overly generous funding formula.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-21-12]

That eye-popping number comes to $365 MILLION wasted dollars every year. And a nice chunk of that money is going to line the pockets of wealthy, for-profit school owners who just happen to be some of Governor Corbett’s largest campaign donors. (See “Soaking the Public” for stomach-turning details.) This latest report echoes testimony Deputy Auditor General Thomas Marks gave the House Education Committee back in March when he told them cyber charters in particular were being drastically overpaid. He noted that taxpayers and school districts could have saved approximately $86 million in 2009-2010 alone if cyber charter schools had received funding based on what they actually spent per student. (See “Trouble Seeing the Money.”)

Representative Mike Fleck, a Republican from Dauphin County, has introduced a bill (HB 2364) that would start to fix this problem. It has received bi-partisan support and been endorsed by both the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania School Employees Association, which is saying something. Auditor General Wagner calls this a “good first step” though he would still like to see legislation setting average payments for charter and cyber charter schools. He targeted cyber charter schools in particular, which are spending large amounts of money on billboards and other advertising, and often wind up with large cash reserves. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-21-12]

That $365 million would save a lot of Kindergarten programs, tutoring, and librarians in our public schools. Instead, our legislators are ready to hand over even more of our taxpayer money to private and parochial schools. The latest voucher-in-disguise effort comes from Rep. Jim Christiana right here in Southwest PA, who has proposed expanding the current educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. Right now EITC gives away $75 in revenues from corporations that would otherwise be supporting the public good, and legislators have reached a “tentative agreement” to give away another $25 million in the current budget plan. [Post-Gazette, 6-22-12] Where are lawmakers finding millions of taxpayer dollars to send to private schools when our public schools are cutting Kindergarten?

But it gets worse. Playing right into the national narrative of “failing public schools,” our legislators are also planning to give away an additional $50 million that would be available to students attending the state’s bottom fifteen percent of schools. I wonder if they realize that some of the lowest-achieving schools are actually charter and private schools?

Last year, Lawrence Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition used student reading and math data from the PSSAs (the state’s standardized tests), and found 30 charter schools in the bottom fifteen percent. Religious schools may optionally administer and report their PSSA scores, but he also found 7 of them at the bottom. [KSEC, “Questions About 144 Failing Schools.”] And there are surely many more. Only two of twelve Pennsylvania cyber charter schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) last year, and seven have never made AYP at all. (For more on charter school performance, see “Dueling Rallies.”) Should we be giving EITC “scholarships” (which are really vouchers) so that students can attend these failing charter and private schools?

Maybe we should be giving vouchers to send students from failing charter and private schools back to public schools. Oh wait. That would mean funding public schools. Well that one-million-per-day would sure help.

Sunshine

Yesterday’s summer solstice gave Governor Corbett and Republican leaders the extra daytime they apparently needed to agree on a budget. Only they aren’t letting the details see the light of the sun. After the longest day of the year, Gov. Corbett announced Pennsylvania would have a $27.66 billion state budget saying, “We can put money back into some programs, we’re just not going to go into the details.” [Post-Gazette, 6-21-12] Why keep us in the dark?

The figure announced yesterday matches the one approved by the Senate, which included a $50 million cut to public education. While Governor Corbett originally proposed cutting $100 million back in February, we would obviously prefer to see the plan approved by the House a few weeks ago, which had no further cuts for K-12 schools still reeling from last year’s massive budget gutting. (See “Time’s Not Up, But Revenue Is.”)

Legislators feel they have a little more wiggle room in the budget with the state now anticipating $100 million more in June revenues than previously predicted. [Post-Gazette, 6-21-12] Yet they are poised to hand that – and far more – to Shell Oil Co. next week in a tax credit plan for a Beaver County petrochemical plant. That revenue-giveaway will cost us taxpayers $1.7 BILLION over 25 years. (See “Can Shell Educate Our Kids?”) While the final numbers may vary slightly, the big smiles on the faces of Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Gov. Corbett as they stood for press photos yesterday suggest that it’s a done deal. [Post-Gazette, 6-20-12]

So why keep us waiting for those budget details? Governor Corbett is trying to shove through some last minute legislation, and he’s got his eye squarely on vouchers. According to a “ranking Republican senator,” the Post-Gazette reports that “a policy discussed in negotiations [is] on its way forward.” That will most likely be Governor Corbett’s attempt to create a commission to study funding for charter and cyber charter schools (as well as special education).

Right now there are also several bills in play dealing with charter “reform.” Unfortunately, as Executive Director of Education Voters PA Susan Gobreski points out, this is “charter reform (without the reform).” Last week, Rep. Christiana, from here in Southwest Pennsylvania, proposed giving away $200 million to private schools by increasing the current EITC program, while creating a new Education Improvement Scholarship Credit (EISC) program. (See “We Have $200 Million?” for details.) This is HB 2468 and is scheduled to be voted on this coming Monday, June 25, 2012.

An alternative bill (HB 2364) sounds better: it would fund charter schools based on what they actually cost. Meanwhile, another local legislator, Rep. Jake Wheatley, a Democrat from Allegheny County, wants to introduce yet a different bill that will increase EITC funding and create a new Keystone Scholarship Tax Credit (KSTC) program. Various proposals also include a statewide “authorizer” that would “take away local authority and input.” [Education Voters legislative update, 6-20-12]

Christiana and Wheatley’s proposals are actually vouchers in disguise and should never see the light of day. But on the longest day of the year, Gov. Corbett declared, “I feel very confident that we’re going to have a very productive week next week.” [Post-Gazette, 6-20-12] Real charter reform would be a ray of sunshine, fixing the way charter schools are funded, increasing accountability, and maintaining local authority.

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Ed Voters PA is hosting a “virtual phone bank” today from 6:30pm to 7:30pm. You can volunteer to make calls to voters in key legislative districts and patch them through directly to their representative’s office. You can make the calls from the comfort of your own home and all you need is a phone and a computer. To help, please contact Ian Moran <ian@educationvoterspa.org> for details.

The Competition Fallacy

We love competition in this country. From early on, we are taught that competition in the capitalist marketplace allows the best ideas to emerge, the best-run companies to rise to the top, the best products to reach consumers. That’s a lovely thought, although the U.S. has never practiced pure capitalism (we decided long ago some government regulations were a good idea) and the rise of the 99% has highlighted the staggering problems of income inequality produced by our current system. Yet we love the idea of competition and continue to believe in its simplicity as a guiding principle. It’s part of our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American narrative of individualism; part of our moral fiber.

But the concept of competition does not apply equally to all things. Take public K-12 education. Those promoting privatization efforts such as vouchers and charter schools love to say that public schools will benefit from competition. Monica Allison, the Philadelphia based president of PA Families for Public Cyber Schools, wrote in a letter-to-the-editor today that, “Schools need to be competitive. Choice in education is very good and it breeds competition. Competition in education makes every school step up and provide a quality education.” [Post-Gazette, 6-20-12] Oh if only that were true.

We need only look at charter school performance to see the fallacy of “competition.” Only two of Pennsylvania’s 12 cyber charter schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress status last year, and seven have never made AYP at all. (For details on charter school performance, see “Dueling Rallies.”) The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. [Stanford/CREDO report summary, 2011] That’s a 100% failure rate. Pennsylvania introduced charter schools back in the 1990s – if competition was so good for them, would we not be seeing positive results by now?

The point is that competition as a philosophy doesn’t work when you are talking about our public goods. Let’s consider our public park system as an analogy. Would anyone suggest that we hand half of our public parks over to private corporations to run them as good little capitalist enterprises (think Budwesier signs on the fountain at the Point, oil derricks in North Park, casinos in Gettysburg); then siphon off state funding meant for the parks and hand the money over to those companies; and then tell the remaining public parks they need to manage with fewer resources and “compete” in order to attract visitors?

Actually, some people have suggested just this. But most people realize that our beautiful natural resources are not about increasing someone’s bottom line. They are not even necessarily about attracting visitors (we value remote wilderness for reasons other than its ability to pack in a crowd). We ask our government to own and manage green spaces for us because those places belong to all of us – they exist for the public good – whereas private companies are legally obligated to answer to their shareholders.

Public schools exist for the public good. They benefit not only individual students, but also society as a whole, which requires an educated citizenry in order to function. They are mandated to educate every child in every corner of the state and with every learning need. We are right to insist that our public schools deliver a quality education and work to fix problems where they exist. But the problem is not that our public schools lack competition. It’s that they are being systematically starved of funding.

Last week, Pittsburgh Public Schools announced they would start their own cyber charter school. The district figures its per pupil cost will be $3,500 compared to the nearly $14,000 on average that it is forced (by state law) to send to other cyber charter school operators. Since Governor Corbett cut reimbursements to districts for their charter school payments, right now Pittsburgh is losing $45 million per year for the 3,125 students it must pay to send to those schools. That includes $11 million for 798 students in cyber charter schools. [Post-Gazette, 6-13-12]

In a district with about 25,000 students, charter schools have sucked away a small percentage of overall enrollment, but a very large chunk of cash. It is the equivalent of having one or two students leave a classroom of 25, yet the district still has to pay all the costs of educating those remaining 23 kids, with the same teacher’s salary and the same light bill.

Ms. Allison of the PA Families for Public Cyber Schools claims that, “districts need to look at where they can do better and compete for students.” [Post-Gazette, 6-20-12] We always want our public schools looking at what they can do better, but asking them to compete for students will not make them better. In fact, competition is the wrong guiding principle for public education.

We need to adequately, equitably, and sustainably resource our public schools so they can meet the needs of all our students. Because good public schools are a public good. They benefit all of us.

Facts vs. Truth

Facts lie. And as Mark Twain said, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Tim Eller, Press Secretary for the PA Department of Education, was feeling defensive in a letter to the editor on Sunday, writing, “Let’s face it, the media’s attacks on the governor’s budget are nothing more than a call for higher taxes. Facts seem to be ignored when the argument is made that more money is needed.” [Penn Live, 6-17-12]

Actually, the Governor’s austerity budget is forcing school districts across the state to increase local property taxes, but there are many places Pennsylvania could be looking for money for public education – and a lot of them won’t cost taxpayers a dime. (See “Pizza and Silver Bullets” for our latest list of suggestions.) What Eller really wanted to do with his letter was to declare the following five “facts,” which practically beg for a little truth telling:

“Fact” #1: “In the 2010-11 school year — state, federal and local taxes combined — Pennsylvanians invested more than $26.5 billion into pre-K-12 education — an increase of $6 billion since 2004-05.”

Eller has been throwing around that large-sounding $26 billion figure for several months now – and this is actually the first time he has qualified it to show that he is really talking about federal, state, and local taxes combined. (See “The Accountability Hoax.”) To be clear: the state proposes to spend $10.6 billion next year on education – and this includes early childhood, K-12, the state higher education system, and our public libraries combined. [2012-2013 projected budget] Let’s put this in context: Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom ten out of all fifty states in spending on public education. And the PA legislature appropriates almost $500 per student per year less than the national average, and less than all of our contiguous states. (See “A New Mantra” for details.)

“Fact” #2: “Since 2004-05, the number of public school students dropped nearly 63,000, while the number of public school professionals increased by 9,500.”

Public school enrollments have declined – but not evenly or in all places. Some urban and poor districts have lost population, but have legacy costs of older buildings and fixed costs such as utility bills that do not decline. Places like Pittsburgh have to make hard decisions to close schools, but places like Duquesne are being forced to close up shop altogether and send their kids to neighboring districts – not because there aren’t students, but because of historical inequity in state funding that has compounded the crisis.

Last year Pennsylvania lost over 14,000 educators due to the state budget cuts, and thousands more teachers are losing their jobs this year. (See “No More Teachers, No More Books.”) And what about other school employees? Take Philadelphia, where every single bus driver, janitor, and maintenance worker got a pink slip this year – 1,400 members in all of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). [Philadelphia Inquirer, 1-3-12] If the state really has seen an increase in public school professionals, perhaps it is due to all those charter and cyber charter schools the Governor and his allies have been approving. We certainly haven’t seen an influx of teachers around here – just the opposite – ask the kids who will be sitting in classrooms with 30, 35, even 40 students next year. (See “Shifting Blame, A Shifty Trick” for examples.)

“Fact” #3: “In 2004-05, taxpayers contributed $228 million to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System. In 2012-13, this will jump more than 300 percent to $916 million.”

Yep. The state has been under-funding the pension system for twenty years, despite numerous warnings, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. It’s important to understand this issue, because it plays a huge role in the looming crisis for our public schools. (Please read “Pension History 101,” if you haven’t already.) But Eller seems to use this data here to suggest that public education itself is too costly. Get real. We absolutely must deal with the pension crisis, but we must also properly fund our public schools.

“Fact” #4: “In 2004-05, salaries and benefits paid by public schools totaled $12.8 billion. This increased 30 percent to $16.7 billion in 2010-11.”

Here’s another attempt to portray public education as too expensive. (As Pennsylvania native turned Harvard President Derek Bok famously said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”) But what this “fact” really attempts, in combination with the one above, is to portray teachers as the problem. Specifically their salaries and benefits. Did Governor Corbett work for free that one year he taught high school? I rather doubt it. Nor should he. Our teachers are professionals and deserve to earn reasonable middle-class wages for their work. And benefits. You know, those cushy things like health insurance so their kids can see doctors.

Sure, school districts and teachers unions need to work together to look at appropriate salary ladders. But portraying our educators as overpaid at the expense of taxpayers plays right into the broader attack on public workers that we are seeing across the country. And we need public workers. As we talked about yesterday, the vast majority of government workers are really teachers, firefighters, and police officers – and cutting those jobs has actually hurt the economy. (See “Economics 101.”)

“Fact” #5: “Gov. Corbett’s first two budgets will invest an additional $828 million in state support of public schools. It’s not that more money is needed. The public education system needs to refocus its efforts to ensure that students remain the No. 1 priority.”

Now that’s a whopper. Governor Corbett’s first two budgets actually slash $1 BILLION from public schools. Eller and his colleagues are usually very careful when they make this claim to say that they have increased funding for “basic education” – which is only one line item in the budget, while they have actually cut funding overall for schools. (See “Dishonesty Disguised as Generosity.”) But here he leaves out that caveat altogether. Where is he seeing an “additional $828 million in state support”? Governor Corbett actually allocated $372 million LESS last year alone for PK-12 education than the state spent in 2008-09, the year before federal stimulus dollars kicked in. (See “The Truth About the Numbers.”)

You can decide for yourself if Eller’s “facts” are lies, damned lies, or statistics. But to quote another well-known writer: the “truth will out.” (William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, for those of you keeping track of today’s literary references.)

Economics 101

Governor Corbett might want to get out his old economics textbook for a refresher. There is no evidence that his current economic policy – slashing essential public services while giving away billions to corporations – ever works.

After feeling the heat on his announcement that he would give away $1.7 BILLION to Shell Oil Co., Gov. Corbett went on the offensive last week. (See “Can Shell Educate Our Kids?”) He sent three of his cabinet secretaries to Beaver County Community College to tout the jobs his proposed petrochemical refinery plant would create. It was an ironic setting, given the governor’s simultaneous proposal to slash 30% from higher education.

Yet there they were, touting that the Shell cracker plant might employ up to 400 people and could create up to 10,000 temporary construction jobs. The American Chemistry Council estimates that another 2,400 jobs might be created in a manufacturing industry that could grow up around the plant. (That’s because Shell will have no state tax liability and could spend the money to build up associated industries.) [Penn Live, 6-14-12] That’s a lot of “mights” and “coulds.”

Those watching Harrisburg report that the Shell tax credit deal will “likely” pass, though “Republicans want some kind of assurance that the money will guarantee that jobs come with it.” And they note, “It helps that organized labor groups from the Pittsburgh area are supportive.” [New Jersey Herald, 6-17-12]

But best-case scenario, we’re looking at a couple thousand permanent jobs. Meanwhile, Gov. Corbett’s austerity budget has already eliminated over 14,000 public K-12 education jobs with many more losses to come. And many of those were actually good union jobs.

It seems that Governor Corbett shares a playbook with former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, who blasted President Obama recently: “He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.” Then he snorted, “It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.” [Washington Post, 6-8-12]

Princeton economics professor Paul Krugman took this slash and burn theory to task in his New York Times op-ed column over the weekend, saying “Conservatives love to pretend that there are vast armies of government bureaucrats doing who knows what; in reality, a majority of government workers are employed providing either education (teachers) or public protection (police officers and firefighters).” Krugman asked, “So would getting rid of teachers, police officers and firefighters help the American people?” Here is how Krugman answered:

“We now have a lot of evidence bearing on that question. … Conservatives would have you believe that our disappointing economic performance has somehow been caused by excessive government spending, which crowds out private job creation. But the reality is that private-sector job growth has more or less matched the recoveries from the last two recessions; the big difference this time is an unprecedented fall in public employment, which is now about 1.4 million jobs less than it would be if it had grown as fast as it did under President George W. Bush. And, if we had those extra jobs, the unemployment rate would be much lower than it is — something like 7.3 percent instead of 8.2 percent. It sure looks as if cutting government when the economy is deeply depressed hurts rather than helps the American people.”

Professor Krugman went on to explain how Europe is teetering on the brink of economic catastrophe due to austerity measures. Yet it’s ironic that “While Republicans love to engage in Europe-bashing, they’re actually the ones who want us to emulate European-style austerity and experience a European-style depression.”

Maybe Governor Corbett and his cabinet secretaries could enroll in Economics 101 at Beaver County Community College, assuming they are still able to offer that course after this year’s state budget cuts.

In the Tank

Governor Corbett’s approval rating has tanked, in no small part because of what he is doing to education. A new poll out this week shows him at his lowest rating yet, with only 36% of voters happy with his performance. Meanwhile, over half of those surveyed disapproved of the way Gov. Corbett is handling the state budget. [Quinnipiac poll, 6-12-12]

No small wonder that Mr. Unpopular has garnered national attention for his appalling track record of decimating public education. Last week Alternet.org named Corbett to its list of ten worst governors, saying “His attacks on public education alone make him worthy of our Hall of Shame, but coupled with a massive tax break for Shell Oil–$1.7 billion in subsidies for the oil giant—his comments about taking responsibility for future generations ring awfully hollow.” [Alternet.org, 6-9-12]

Local mom and OnePittsburgh activist Debbie Srogi took Gov. Corbett to task for the same thing in an excellent OpEd piece in today’s Post-Gazette. And Pittsburgh’s City Paper skewered the Governor’s support for Big Oil at the expense of essential public services on its cover this week, playing on the now-famous Time magazine breastfeeding cover. The cartoon, which spread quickly through social media, shows Governor Corbett suckling corporate greed and asks, “Are You Gov Enough?”

[Source: Pittsburgh City Paper]

Even the New York Times wrote a scathing editorial about Corbett’s cuts to public education, pointing to Reading, PA as the poster-child for the consequences of defunding schools. That city, which is considered the nation’s poorest, just laid off 110 teachers and is making drastic cuts to educational programs. The editors criticized Gov. Corbett for failing to replace federal stimulus dollars in the education budget, which the state had committed itself to several years ago, and said, “Instead he further drained his public coffers by cutting business taxes by $250 million this year.” [New York Times, 6-13-12]

But my absolute favorite quote of the week came yesterday at a meeting in Pittsburgh of the Governor’s new Advisory Committee on Postsecondary Education. He set up that group of 31 university administrators, business leaders, and students back in February when he proposed slashing the higher education budget by an unbelievable thirty percent. In a move reminiscent of his attempts to privatize public K-12 education, Corbett and his allies have been trying to funnel state aid to college students (who could attend private universities) rather than fund public universities directly. Even though he leads a private institution, Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon called that plan a “terrible idea” and said it “ignored the idea of education as a public good.” [Post-Gazette, 6-15-12]

Yes, indeed. Thank you President Cohon. Public education is a public good. And Governor Corbett’s approval rating may just stay in the tank until he realizes that.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood … for vigils, rallies, and speeches. Pittsburgh’s own Mr. Rogers was all about kids and learning, so he would probably have been happily singing his famous tune yesterday as people from across the state gathered on a beautiful spring day to protest budget cuts to public education.

Here in Pittsburgh, students had their last day of school with 285 teachers who received pink slips from the district. Over 170 people gathered last night for a candlelight vigil to honor those educators. Parents and children lit candles and held signs saying, “285” on one side and “Our kids need these teachers” or “Our city needs these jobs” on the other.

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National award winning poet Terrance Hayes spoke to the crowd saying, “I am adding my grievance to the list of grievances related to the state and the state of education.” Using a beautiful metaphor of teaching students like building poems, he explained he wants “a system that views its educators, its teachers as beings; as artists, not as machines.” (See the full text of his remarks, “At the Candlelight Vigil for Our Teachers.”)

Every major news outlet in the city covered the event, including channels 2, 4, and 11, the Post-Gazette and the Tribune Review! This was absolutely fantastic coverage and helps send a strong message to our legislators at a key moment in the final budget negotiations.

Let’s hope they were listening when Pittsburgh Colfax teacher Kaela Filipek, who actually attended that school and is now one of the 285 furloughed educators, told the media, “I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was in second grade, and now I’ll be out looking for another job.” She explained to reporters, “the fact that there could be 30 children in a classroom next year means the children will not have the same opportunities.” [Tribune Review, 6-14-12]

And perhaps the legislators were also paying attention to their front door yesterday, which was packed with demonstrators from across the state, including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Reading, York, and Harrisburg. WTAE reported that, “Speaker after speaker aimed their wrath at the Republican governor as they bemoaned continuing furloughs of teachers and support staff, growing class sizes, and the elimination of tutoring, physical education, arts and other programs – possibly even kindergarten.” [WTAE TV, 6-13-12]

Bryan Sanguinito, one of the more than 300 teachers being laid off in the Reading school district asked, “Mr. Governor, the question is this: did you lie during your campaign to the voters of Pennsylvania, or did you turn your back on their children?” Kids tried leaving their drawings for Gov. Corbett outside the governor’s mansion, “But as soon as they clipped the poster boards to the bars, police officers came and cut them down.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-13-12] They also drew in chalk on the sidewalk outside the residence and wrote, “Help our schools!”

It’s time the governor and his allies in the legislature listened to these kids. Perhaps they can pause for a moment to hear the words of Tamar Kaminski, valedictorian of this year’s senior class at Pittsburgh’s Taylor Allderdice High School, who used her two minute graduation speech to talk about the impact of state budget cuts on education. She said we must stop portraying inner city public schools as failures: “Instead of undermining our public schools, we should strengthen and improve them, we should cherish and celebrate their achievements.” Wise words.