With Election Day coming up on Tuesday, we need to give some serious thought to how we will take our passion for public education to the polls. First of all, you are planning to vote, aren’t you? Primaries typically have extremely low turnouts, which is unfortunate for democracy. But this also means that our votes matter and will be heard. So how does public education come into play on Tuesday? Glad you asked.
For members of Yinzer Nation living in the South Hills’ 22nd Legislative District, the issue of public education is front and center in a special election to replace Chelsa Wagner (who resigned to become the Allegheny County controller). The Post-Gazette today endorsed the Republican nominee, Chris Cratsley, in the race to complete the final eight months in that term. That’s right, it’s the Republican candidate who “believes the state should … restore cuts to education enacted by Gov. Tom Corbett.” And, crucially, “he does not favor vouchers for private school tuition, fearing the impact of further loss of dollars to public districts.”
Cratsley sounds like just the kind of moderate Republican we need in the state legislature. (He also believes in funding public transit, better local control over Marcellus Shale drilling, and getting the state out of the liquor business.) But he’s running against a well-known Democrat, Martin Schmotzer, in a heavily Democratic area. The kicker here is that Schmotzer – a ten year veteran of the Baldwin-Whitehall school board, no less – supports vouchers, funneling public money to private schools. It doesn’t help that Schmotzer pled guilty back in 1997 to stealing $50,000 from the Allegheny County clerk of courts office (his case was later dismissed on a technicality). That’s not the kind of public servant we need in charge of the state budget.
There will actually be two votes in the 22nd District, which includes the city neighborhoods of Beechview, Brookline, Duquesne Heights, Esplen, Manchester, Mount Washington, Sheraden and Overbrook, as well as Baldwin Township, Castle Shannon and Whitehall. In addition to electing someone to complete Wagner’s term in office, voters will be choosing party candidates to face each other in the fall for the regular two-year term. Cratsley is running unopposed on the Republican primary ticket, but Schmotzer has competition from Erin Molchany, who just picked up the Post-Gazette endorsement as well. Molchany opposes vouchers and wants a uniform, statewide property assessment system – an issue closely linked to school funding, which is heavily dependent on local property taxes.
So what if you don’t live in the 22nd District? Consider forwarding this message to anyone you know in the South Hills area and ask them to spread the word. And then take a look at those folks running in your own local primaries. I, for one, am extremely disappointed in the lackluster turnout of our Southwestern PA legislators this past week for the “WriteNow! Education Matters” event and the three Mock Bake Sales in support of public education funding. State representatives Dan Frankel and Matt Smith attended “WriteNow! Education Matters” (along with U.S. congressman Mark Critz, city councilmen Bill Petudo and Patrick Dowd, and state house candidate Erin Molchany). That’s two out of 31 state representatives and senators from Allegheny County alone. And with the exception of Rep. Bill Kortz, not a single other state legislator attended the Mock Bake Sales in Munhall or Squirrel Hill. These were significant events that together involved the work of over 650 people and engaged well over 1,000 members of the community in a dialogue about the state budget.
The Democratic Caucus has placed reversing the education cuts in the #2 spot on its budget priority list, right behind “growing the economy” (see “Education Makes the List”). Education is not a sideshow; it is one of the main issues facing our state in this current budget crisis. Curious, then, that even our Democratic legislators could not wander over to one of these events – some just blocks from their offices. Their absence is frankly appalling. We’ve met face-to-face with these folks, written to them, talked to them on the phone, and been told repeatedly that they “support” public education. Indeed, we can probably count on them to “vote for schools” on the budget.
But that is not enough. We need champions for public education. We need legislators who are willing to publicly take a stand – or at least to stand in public on a street corner with us for a couple hours and talk about our schools. And we need Republicans and Democrats who are willing to stop kicking the can down the road and start dealing with the pension crisis – an enormous failure of our state legislature that has been a slow-moving train wreck for the past twenty years. (I invite you to re-read “Pension History 101” for a primer on this crucial issue.)
So here’s one last suggestion if you are as frustrated as I am. On Tuesday, we have the option of voting “No Confidence” for our primary candidates. This is a particularly effective way of sending the message to those incumbents running unopposed that we are paying attention and holding them accountable. (Though this works in multi-candidate races, too.) There are two ways of doing this: one is by simply going to the polls, but abstaining from casting a vote in a particular race. This is called “under-voting.” When enough people do this, politicians pay attention.
But they are even more likely to pay attention when voters use the write-in option. This is perfectly legal, but very rare (there are typically zero or one write-in votes in a precinct). You might consider writing in “No Confidence” to express displeasure with the Legislature’s performance on public education funding. Even a small number of write-in “No Confidence” votes will achieve high visibility with our representatives. And particularly for those running unopposed, will likely not affect the outcome of the election. In other words, this is a way to send a strong message that the status quo is no longer acceptable.
No matter how you choose to vote, remember to vote! Tuesday, April 24th the polls open at 7AM and close at 8PM. Click here to find your polling place. During the Primary, registered members of the Republican and Democrat parties are eligible to vote. Remember, for this Primary, all voters are being asked to show an acceptable photo ID, but you are not required to do so. You will be able to vote as in the past without your ID, unless you are a first-time voter. (Only voters who appear at a polling place for the first time must show approved forms of ID.) However, all voters will be required to show a photo ID before voting at a polling place in the November 2012 Election.