Inadequate

A pro-public-education piece in Harrisburg’s Patriot News unleashed a torrent of nasty comments, as we reported last week, and has now drawn a reply from the state. In a letter to the editor, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Education Tim Eller argues once again, “Corbett’s first two budgets increased state funding to public education.” We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, this claim is “Dishonesty Disguised as Generosity.”

Eller further complains that school districts seem unwilling to consider the new pension payments from the state as funding for public education. While pension costs are fast becoming a huge burden for districts – and the state is finally doing the right thing by making its mandated cost-sharing contributions to the system – what the districts are saying is that those dollars do not free up any others in their budgets. Districts have to match those pension contributions, and because by law those contributions will increase dramatically over the next few years, schools are looking at enormous budget shortfalls.

If Governor Corbett had actually increased funding to Pennsylvania’s schools, we would not be seeing the flood of reports from one side of the state to the other as districts try to cut educational programs and balance their budgets. Since January, newspapers have carried over 400 articles detailing program cuts, staff cuts, and increased local property taxes as a result (see the whole list here).

Mr. Eller’s punch line seems to be: “Each year, taxpayers invest $26 billion in public education.” Where this number comes from is entirely unclear. Did he add up all the local school district tax revenues and combine them with the state’s own school budget? If so, that would be a pretty dirty trick designed to confuse local and state spending while hyper-exaggerating the extent of state support for our schools. Governor Corbett’s own proposed education budget totals $10.63 billion for next year – a far cry from $26 billion – and that includes higher education as well as K-12 and early childhood education. Simply dangling that $26 billion figure out there is clearly an attempt to shut down rational discourse on the subject of public funding for public education.

But to put things in context: Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom ten of all fifty states in support provided to public K-12 education. (See further explanation here.) And how about comparing education funding to prison spending, the only budget line Corbett has actually increased since coming into office? In looking at the draconian cuts Corbett has proposed to higher public education in particular this year, a Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center report concludes “that come 2013 Pennsylvania will be spending twice as much on prisons as on colleges and universities.”

It’s actually a tactical victory when a grassroots movement succeeds in drawing high-level opposition into a public conversation, as Erica Burg’s piece has done this past week. Take it as another sign that the state is listening and we must not give up.

Mr. Eller closed his letter by claiming, “The debate of public education centers on one thing: money, and there will never be an agreement on what is enough. But $26 billion is far from inadequate.” Funny. Inadequate is exactly the word I would use to describe the state’s commitment to public education. Because what this debate over public education really centers on is equitable and sustainable state resources for one of our most important public goods. And that’s something we should all agree on.

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