Erica Burg unleashed a storm of nasty comments yesterday with the publication of her Op-Ed piece in Harrisburg’s Patriot News in support of public education. Within 24 hours, over forty posts had appeared in response to the on-line version. A quick read through these comments offers a primer in exactly what we’re up against as we fight for equitable and sustainable state funding for our schools. We’re going to win or lose this in the court of public opinion, so let’s re-arm ourselves with some relevant facts – and perhaps you might just be inspired to head over to the article and post a response yourself.
Most of the comments fall into one of several categories we hear a lot, including the claim that “this is just the end of stimulus money and schools should have known it wouldn’t last.” That’s an empty argument, as we have explained before (see “Should Schools Have Known the $$ Was Temporary?”). In a nutshell: for two years, Pennsylvania received federal stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, ARRA. The state used this money to plug an existing hole in the education budget – these were dollars that the state had customarily spent on education, but they were now coming from the federal government.
Schools did know the stimulus money would end, but had every reason to believe that the state would make good on its commitment to a new, equitable funding formula it had launched in 2008. In fact, to claim as one commenter did, that the state is merely reverting to funding levels from a few years ago is really “A Shameful Betrayal” of a commitment to equity. Pennsylvania finally chose to correct a long-standing historical practice of horrible disparity in school funding, but these recent cuts move us backwards.
Many others commenting on Burg’s piece suggested that all public schools are mismanaged, have squandered their resources, and would not be in a budget crisis if they operated more like a private business. Yet the vast majority of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts have been fiscally responsible while doing a pretty good job of educating the 85% of the state’s students who attend public schools. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t fix problems where they exist. But our public schools are not on the whole failing, as these comments would have us believe. The fact that even our wealthiest school districts are struggling with these draconian state budget cuts should tell us something. (See the list of schools in our area that just requested permission to raise local property taxes as a result.) Even private businesses would be in a pinch when their projected income was suddenly slashed.
Some commenters say this is exactly the problem facing the state: revenues have fallen short and we just don’t have the money to go around. Our grassroots movement has been saying quite clearly that it’s a matter of priorities: there are other revenue options we ought to explore before damaging our children’s future. Other commenters blame teachers, unions, Democrats, urban areas, and the federal Department of Education for our schools’ budget problems. One even suggested that schools shouldn’t complain because prisons have it worse (a hard argument to swallow when prisons were the one budget area that saw an increase under Governor Corbett).
My favorite comment came from someone trying to discredit Burg by calling her “just another bleeding heart liberal who is also an education advocate and tax leach.” As if supporting education was somehow a “liberal” (and evil) position, and that one is a “tax leach” for demanding adequate public funding for public education. There are plenty of Republican “education advocates.” In fact, I’d like to know who doesn’t advocate education? Shouldn’t we all be education advocates?
Finally, as a historian of women and gender, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the obviously gendered rhetoric used in a couple of the posts. Taking a tactic right out of the nineteenth-century, these comments try to belittle Burg’s argument by calling her a “silly woman babbling.” Another charges “Erica need[s] to be objective and less pointed.” Using only women’s first names, claiming that women lack objectivity, accusing them of being too shrill, or babbling, or silly – this is an old playbook. Women have been at the forefront of movements for the public good, especially in areas such as education, for well over 100 years in Pennsylvania.
As a politically savvy friend reminded me this week, these skirmishes in our fight for public education are an opportunity to get our points heard. It’s not about winning or losing this particular battle, but about drawing the opposition into conversation. We can be sure Harrisburg is watching this one – now is the time to get your voice heard.