The Letter Wars Continue (or Why Networking is Working)

The letter wars continue on the editorial pages of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Today’s letter-to-the-editor is a spot-on rebuttal to two of the most commonly repeated, and false, claims about the budget cuts to public education. But it is also an excellent example of how Yinzer Nation is growing through our personal networks — and how this most basic strategy of networking is working.

Here’s how: upset by the disparity in the last round of state cuts to public schools, one Mt. Lebanon mom with personal connections in Pittsburgh’s East End got involved in conversations that launched Yinzercation. Through her networks, groups of concerned parents and community members have been meeting in the South Hills to talk about the effects of the budget cuts: they have hosted house parties in Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair, urged their friends to write letters to their legislators, participated in the state-wide call-in days, and set up personal meetings with their legislators. And through those ever-expanding personal networks, they reached out to Katherine Luniewski, author of today’s letter-to-the-editor, who lives in Peters Township, Washington County.

This is exactly why we must each continue talking to our friends, family, and colleagues about these budget cuts. It is the only way to build our grassroots movement — and the most powerful weapon we have. So please keep networking, and encourage your friends to stay connected through Yinzercation.

And now for Katherine’s letter …

His education budget defenses don’t hold up

I would like to provide insight into two of Gov. Tom Corbett’s defenses for “defunding” public education (see Bob Gold’s letter “The Funding Facts,” Feb. 14).

First, the administration states that monies lost were a result of the withdrawal of federal funds provided by the America Recovery and Reinvestment Act. True, the ARRA funding ended, but it was always presented as temporary. The ARRA funds were used to plug existing holes in the budget, but these were dollars that the state had slated to spend on public education as part of a new equitable funding formula approved by the General Assembly in 2008. Now that the federal funds have ended, the state has gone back to the old funding formula and left local school districts (and taxpayers) to make up the funding difference.

The second defense is that this administration has increased funding to “basic education.” This is a deception. The Corbett administration collapsed four budget lines (basic education subsidy funding, pupil transportation, nonpublic and charter school public transportation, and school employees’ Social Security) into one: basic education.

Basic education now has a higher funding amount but increases in Social Security require all of that funding increase and more. The governor’s proposed budget also reduces or eliminates other funding lines so the overall education funding is less. The administration claims the “collapse” allows school districts to allocate monies as they see fit. But making it fit will be to the detriment of student learning.

The allegations that Pennsylvania funding of public education has been reduced are not false.


12 thoughts on “The Letter Wars Continue (or Why Networking is Working)

  1. What Katherine leaves out, of course, is the fact that Pennsylvania was $4.2 billion in the hole last year and nearly anothe billion this year. With education and welfare consuming more than 70 percent of the state’s budget, what would she have done? The increase necessary to cover these deficits would have hit the average, two income working family in Pennsylvania with an additional $1,200 in taxes. She also neglects to mention that an additional $300 million in state tax dollars had to be put toward a growing pension debt created by the Public School Employees Retirement system — a debt that will rise to $2.7 billion in another five years.

    • Dennis Roddy is wrong about who created the growing pension debt. It was the State Government and the two previous Governors that created this mess. The public workers had nothing to do with this, and they are falsely being blamed for the politicians votes.

  2. Dennis, asking where money ought to come from is a fair question. Please see today’s blog post for a partial reply.
    We have resources, but need to discuss how we will use them. In your calculation of tax burdens, for instance, there is no mention of corporate responsibility — something that we clearly need to put on the table. There are many other potential sources of income we could be discussing (Marcellus Shale is the obvious one, along with closing the Delaware Loophole.) It’s time we all started having this very discussion.

  3. The corporate income tax rate in Pennsylvania is 9.9 percent.nsmaller businesses that qualify for the personal rate would also be affected by any increase in the personal income tax. Marcellus, of course, is the single, largest imaginary cash cow since Casino gambling. Remember how slots were going to end pur property taxes, fix our roads, underwrite our human services and maybe grow my hair back? We spent that money fifteen different ways before the first casino opened. Didn’t solve things, did it? A tax on Marcellus peoposed during the prior administration would have brought in $160 million in a good year. You guys want a billion replaced. And you can bet you’d be fighting for a fraction against the environmental groups, mass transit and the road contractors.

    The hard truth is that educators have priced themselves to the point that no amount of money will be enough. And that pension bomb on the horizon is exacerbated by the fact that pensions increase with salary. Simply throwing another tax on corporations might feel good, but we tried that. Rockwell is now in California. Westinghouse is gone. The steel companies either collapsed, were bought, or bugged out. Not all of this is tax driven, but the job growth is now in the small and startup business sector, and those folks will make decisions based on tax policy. Simply passing it on to business pits public sector union growth against private sector union workers. Listen closely at who is taking greatest offense at rising education costs and property taxes. They’re wearing blue collars and they understand that when you have less to spend the only sensible answer is to spend less.

    • Before I reply, I’d like to point out that the above comment is from Dennis Roddy, former Post-Gazette columnist and now a paid member of Governor Corbett’s communication staff. I have confirmed this via email, and though Mr. Roddy says he is posting as a “father” and “taxpayer,” I believe his affiliation is highly relevant to this conversation so I am choosing to include it here.

      Mr. Roddy, we might disagree on just how much Marcellus Shale would yield in tax revenues for the state, but to call it an “imaginary cash cow” suggests that any potential income would be negligible and not worth considering. I disagree. Even if it doesn’t solve all of our budget woes, it is inconceivable to me that we are sitting on resources such as these and not taxing them – even when the drilling companies have said they would be willing to pay. It’s a matter of priorities. You point your finger and say, “You guys want a billion replaced.” Yes. Don’t you? Shouldn’t we be talking about just how to put revenues back on the table?

      I take issue with your radical, and unsubstantiated claim that “no amount of money will be enough” for educators. Really? We are protesting $1 BILLION in cuts last year, on top of $100 MILLION more proposed this year. Parents, students, teachers, and community members are not asking for more – they are asking to stop the bleeding of our public schools.
      Where I do agree with you is that the working class is taking the biggest hit in education costs and property taxes – precisely because Governor Corbett has slashed state funding, forcing responsibility for schools down onto local municipalities (which is actually the worst and most inequitable way to fund public schools). Local towns have no choice but to raise property taxes in response to the devastating budget cuts.

      Twenty percent of school districts across Pennsylvania had to raise property taxes least year in response to these cuts!

  4. My problem with the line of defense for the devastating education cuts coming from Governor Corbett and his representative is that they seem like ex-post-facto justifications for being willing to inflict direct harm on the learning environment of Pennsylvania kids … with no record of actually working to positively bring about the changes that the Governor and Mr. Roddy say are needed, or plan to do so.

    I hear a basic argument that sounds like “The character/performance of everyone leading in public education is suspect, so it’s ok to just cut deeply there” — with immediate and direct impact on kids including my three daughters and so many millions of kids and families across the state forced into too-large classes, losing crucial subjects etc.

    Missing are 1) any sense of objective evaluation of a lot of the great work that is / has gone on to improve things in my daughters’ schools and so many others across the Commonwealth; and 2) a credible strategy for helping the right things occur based on those strengths …. akin to the Obama administration’s use of incentives to reward the right kind of fundamental changes, changes which so many of our school districts do need.

    Tough budget times are tough for those in leadership, like the Governor. But with no positive strategy (an embryonic block grant approach w/lesser overall funds doesn’t rise to the needed level), and a willingness to directly inflict huge direct consequences on kids, justified by a overly broad attack on public education as a sector, while leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table that every other state is collecting from drilling, I don’t sense a leader willing to invest in creating a positive, fact-based approach to doing better for kids even in lean times.

    I do hope the Governor has it in him, even at this late date, to turn away from the ideological justifications and dig in with a balanced, deeply investigated, fact-based approach to build the strength of public education, to make things better in each classroom, for each kid.

    We’ll see.

    Ken Segel

  5. Aside from the preciousness of putting father and taxpayer in quotes, as if they are excuses rather than positions, I also object to the fact that someone posting as “Yinzer Thing” insists on fuller disclosure as to my identity. As to local property tax rates, critics seem to have overlooked the fact that, at the time last year’s budget passed, it was accompanied by reforms to Act 1, which requires districts that wish to raise property tax rates beyond the rate of inflation (last year it was 3 percent) they must put it to a referendum vote. If taxpayers wish to replace that money with local funds, so be it. If not, then districts will have to economize. So there is not “automatic” pass along to the local districts.

    Although the accusatory flourish sounds nice, I am not “pointing my finger” at anyone when I say you want $1 billion replaced. That is what you are asking. I ask, in return, where you expect a state $4.2 billion in the hole last year, and nearly $1 billion more in the hole this, to find that money. If you tax Marcellus, assuming you can get your hands on that cash, it will be a tiny fraction — certainly not the $1.5 billion in income, sales and franchise taxes that the industry has already produced. We placed an impact fee precisely because the communities that host these drillers should be the recipients of any compensation for its effects.

    Costs in the education area have run laps around the inflation rate. Even as recession left the state short of money for programs, one district outside Harrisburg was signing a three-year contract giving raises of more than 3 percent to teachers over a three-year period. This kind of behavior can only be attributed to a theory that taxpayer revenues are a bottomless well. They aren’t.

    Because you bring my employment into it, let me point out that the governor and Susan Corbett both began their working lives as teachers in public schools. They are products of public schools and sent their children to the same schools. They value education. That is why, in the face of these deficits, he still found a way to put back the state’s share of dollars in a Basic Education Formula that had been painfully distorted by the inclusion of one-time federal stimulus money that was never intended for year-to-year operating expenses. That is the $1 billion that, with my finger on the keyboard, not pointing anywhere, I say you would like to have returned. And, again, I ask: where do you propose to get it?

    • I blog under “Yinzer Thing.” This is my blog. I clearly identify myself under the “About” and “Contact” menu tabs. I am certainly not hiding my identity. This site was set up as a communication vehicle for a grassroots movement of parents and concerned community members trying to save their public schools. The volunteers in this movement are offering reasonable solutions that ought to be discussed at the legislative level: Marcellus Shale, Delaware loophole, bonus depreciation, even reducing the size of America’s largest full-time legislature. But in the end, it really is a matter of priorities. We are letting our legislators know that they need to put children first and find the political will to work together towards meaningful revenue solutions. That is their job.

  6. Kathleen Newman
    PPS parent and English professor
    I’m hoping this message reaches Governor Corbett:

    The question “where is the money going to come from” does not feel like a sincere question coming from you, Mr. Roddy. If we say “close the Delaware Loophole” maybe you’ll say “We’ll lose business in PA.” If we say “other states have closed it” maybe you’ll say “so what?” If we say raise taxes a little bit on everyone (5 billion = about $1,000 from every household in PA), maybe you’ll say “we refuse to raise taxes.” If we say “tax Marcellus Shale” you’ll say something disturbing like comparing the government to a tube lined with Velcro.

    My sense is this isn’t a question of budget numbers, but a question of values, and a question of vision.

    In your vision we have to balance the budget above all, above all other choices of actions we could take. In your vision we do irreparable damage to schools, middle class families, working class families, and the poorest and most vulnerable PA residents, by cutting health and welfare services, public transportation, and schools. In your vision we will lose real future viability for a generation of PA kids and families, maybe more.

    Our vision (members of this grass roots collective that has grown like wildfire since December) is a PA where we work together to make a few shallow cuts where we can and go further into debt if we have to, with the belief that austerity does not create prosperity. In our vision we invest MORE in our children, not less. In our vision businesses pay their fair share because they want the children of PA to grow up with the kind of quality education that will make them ingenious workers in those same businesses. In our vision citizen taxpayers pay more, business taxpayaers pay more, and the very wealthiest pay even more, and our children pay NOTHING—they don’t suffer for our sins, whatever those sins maybe.

  7. I want to thank folks for this dialogue. But I think we’ve become a bit sidetracked by outing the speakers. I think, too, the battle between visions is only helpful to a point. Whether we use verbs like prioritize or economize, we’re not really getting to the nitty-gritty impact of those verbs. Perhaps we can shift this discussion to more concrete details. Here are questions as parents, teachers, and students we can all consider, regardless of political affiliation:

    Parents: What will the sustained cuts mean for the schools your children attend? Please share the specifics.

    Teachers: What does the proposed education budget mean for your classroom? What adjustments would you have to make?

    Students: What resources do you most need and value in your schools? For example, if your school is forced to choose between a once-a-week librarian or a part-time music teacher how would you respond?

    This is clearly a lively space to answer these questions. And as the Corbett Administration (thank you for reading), the state legislature, and the public schools continue to discuss the impact of these cuts, it will help all parties to have clear evidence of what this will actually mean for the schools we send our children, the schools we teach in, the schools we attend.

    Matthew Luskey
    Pubic School Parent

  8. To me, the problem with Mr. Roddy’s and the Governor’s arguments for cutting public education, and the subsequent debate about budget deficits, is the shocking lack of consideration about what constitutes the true costs and benefits of public education. Education is not simply a one-way cost to be born by the state. Its an investment. Education can reduce medical costs, juvenile justice costs, and can lead to adult workers who will make more money, resulting in more tax revenue for the state. Therefore, using education funding to plug budget holes right now is short-sighted because it ignores these other costs and potential revenues.

    These are not platitudes, but the results of research on the cost-benefit ratios of public education.

    One study, conducted in 2007 by Henry Levin et al. from Teachers College, Columbia University found the following about high school graduation. Although this is a low bar to be sure, it is a good indicator of education success.

    “We find that each new high school graduate would yield a public benefit of $209,000 in higher government revenues and lower government spending for an overall investment of $82,000, divided between the costs of powerful educational interventions and additional years of school attendance leading to graduation. The net economic benefit to the public purse is therefore $127,000 per student and the benefits are 2.5 times greater than the costs.”

    This is what you get when you consider ALL the costs and potential revenues of public education. Interestingly, in the same study, they also found that raising teacher salaries 10% would result in 5 more high school graduates per 100 students.

    Therefore, I would ask the Corbett administration to consider ALL the impacts of education cuts–impacts on future costs and future revenues. Although education is expensive, inadequate education for many may result in public and social consequences that cost much more.

    Matt Chinman & Sarah Galusha, parents of two Pittsburgh Public schoolers

  9. I made a claim over at Chris Potter’s CityPaper blog (see for details) that we could find the money that Jessie and Dennis agree needs to be found in order to restore some or all of the funding to public education. I also made the wild claim that I could find $5 billion in state expenditures that presumably could be used for anything, tax reductions, roads, etc.

    This is harder than I thought! I spent more of this weekend than I care to admit looking at the budget. I think there are plenty of items worth pursuing, but for now let’s start with a $100 million or so.

    You can find the Governor’s Executive Budget at:

    Look at Section C (Tax Expenditures, p. 219-330) – you’ll very quickly become angry or discouraged. First off, it’s a grab bag of giveaways representing every special interest you can imagine. Second, the numbers are in many cases shaky – since this is revenue the state is not collecting, they can only estimate, and those estimates can be pretty rough.

    This astonishing range of exemptions starts at the lowly (horses: $3 million), runs to the foolish (coal: $120 million; candy: $90 million), to the truly breathtaking (retirement income: $2.3 billion). Let’s be as clear as possible about this: exempting candy from sales tax is exactly the same as spending $90 million in tax revenue. We get to buy our kids candy tax free, but they lose their music teacher. Hmm…

    These exemptions are real money, but we need to be careful in how we count it because some exemptions overlap so you can’t just add up the savings. Candy and coal probably don’t overlap, though, so taking the governor’s estimates with a grain of salt (these are presumably the same guys who guessed that “bonus depreciation” would cost $69 million instead of the $269 million it’s actually costing), let’s stick our necks out and write a letter.

    Dear Legislator,

    I’ve been reading the governor’s budget and have noticed that our state currently gives away more in special tax exemptions than we actually spend on education. I’m sure some of those exemptions are great public policy, but some seem stupid.

    I propose that you please choose one of the following two options. Either: A) vote to cut $90 million from the education budget; or, B) vote to repeal the sales tax exemptions for coal ($120M, p. D47) and candy ($90M, p. D43), eliminating roughly $100 – $200 million in stupid giveaways of state revenue, and use $90 million of this recovered revenue to restore this year’s education cuts. I give you permission to let the rest of it stick somewhere to your Velcro wall.

    Maybe there’s something I’m missing here, I’ve never done this before and I’m not a lawyer or a tax accountant. If so, please explain why candy and coal are tax exempt. Now.

    Sincerely yours, etc.

    I’m OvertaxedWorkingFamilyGuy412, and I want to know!

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