It’s like an old spaghetti Western movie in Harrisburg these days. Lots of targets, lots of shooting, just not as many horses. So here’s the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in our state budget negotiations.
Top Republicans met with Governor Corbett Tuesday evening in a closed door session and word is they talked about “restoring” the $100 million in block grants. [Post-Gazette, 6-6-12] That’s the money that most school districts use for Kindergarten programs and that the governor had proposed eliminating in his February budget. However, calling it a “restoration” of those funds is a bit unfair – it’s more like blocking Gov. Corbett’s proposed cuts – especially since districts are still reeling from the $1 billion he succeeded in slashing last year. But saving that $100 million from the chopping block would indeed be a good thing. A great thing!
However, the current proposal to rescue the $100 million did not ride in on a white horse. This one arrived in an amendment from Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph, a Republican from Delaware County, and passed with a mostly party-line vote. [Post-Gazette, 6-6-12] The problem? The plan shifts money from basic education to cover the block grants. Representative Mike Gerber said it was “robbing Peter to pay Paul” and called it a “shell game,” urging his colleagues not to support the proposal. [Rep. Gerber House testimony, 6-5-12]
And while our legislators ride around shooting at each other, the biggest bad guy of all just snuck into town. Funded by the ultra-conservative Koch brothers, the PAC FreedomWorks is launching an ad campaign designed to get a new voucher bill passed this month. [Philly.com, news blog, 6-6-12] The radio spots actually take aim at Governor Corbett, accusing him of not moving swiftly enough to reintroduce his voucher legislation, which passed in the Senate but failed in the House late last year.
Residents in six key PA House districts will hear the ads that repeat the national conservative narrative of “failing public schools” from which families must be rescued by “school choice.” The spot claims that Gov. Corbett promised “to reform the failing education system in Pennsylvania,” and that, “Despite spending over $13,000 per student per year, Pennsylvania’s schools continue to fail.” The ad continues, “Children across the state remain trapped in failing schools,” and warns that this is a “growing problem” and that “time is running out.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-6-12]
This is truly an ugly attempt to portray all our schools as failures and our students as captive victims. (See “What I Told the White House.”) The reality is that most of our public schools are doing a good job educating students. Where there are problems, we should obviously fix them; but this gripping tale of supposed failure has captured the popular imagination contrary to the actual evidence. For example, Pennsylvania’s reading and math scores have both been going up and rank among the nation’s best (see comparative state school data on Save Pennsylvania’s Schools):
- Our students rank 5th (out of 50 states) in fourth grade reading and 8th in eighth grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
- Our students rank 4th in fourth grade math and 12th in eighth grade math on the NAEP.
- Pennsylvania has among the best Advanced Placement (AP) scores in the nation, ranking 15th in the percentage of public high school students who score high enough on AP exams to qualify for college credit.
- Pennsylvania is a national leader in “AP Honor Roll” school districts, with 28 districts receiving this distinguished designation.
Right now, this movie needs Clint Eastwood to shoot a few holes in the flawed logic of “public school failure,” touted by the deep pockets of conservative super-PACS. Meanwhile, our legislators have the chance to be real heroes: they can save public education without playing political shell games, and then ride off into the sunset while the credits roll.