Facts lie. And as Mark Twain said, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Tim Eller, Press Secretary for the PA Department of Education, was feeling defensive in a letter to the editor on Sunday, writing, “Let’s face it, the media’s attacks on the governor’s budget are nothing more than a call for higher taxes. Facts seem to be ignored when the argument is made that more money is needed.” [Penn Live, 6-17-12]
Actually, the Governor’s austerity budget is forcing school districts across the state to increase local property taxes, but there are many places Pennsylvania could be looking for money for public education – and a lot of them won’t cost taxpayers a dime. (See “Pizza and Silver Bullets” for our latest list of suggestions.) What Eller really wanted to do with his letter was to declare the following five “facts,” which practically beg for a little truth telling:
“Fact” #1: “In the 2010-11 school year — state, federal and local taxes combined — Pennsylvanians invested more than $26.5 billion into pre-K-12 education — an increase of $6 billion since 2004-05.”
Eller has been throwing around that large-sounding $26 billion figure for several months now – and this is actually the first time he has qualified it to show that he is really talking about federal, state, and local taxes combined. (See “The Accountability Hoax.”) To be clear: the state proposes to spend $10.6 billion next year on education – and this includes early childhood, K-12, the state higher education system, and our public libraries combined. [2012-2013 projected budget] Let’s put this in context: Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom ten out of all fifty states in spending on public education. And the PA legislature appropriates almost $500 per student per year less than the national average, and less than all of our contiguous states. (See “A New Mantra” for details.)
“Fact” #2: “Since 2004-05, the number of public school students dropped nearly 63,000, while the number of public school professionals increased by 9,500.”
Public school enrollments have declined – but not evenly or in all places. Some urban and poor districts have lost population, but have legacy costs of older buildings and fixed costs such as utility bills that do not decline. Places like Pittsburgh have to make hard decisions to close schools, but places like Duquesne are being forced to close up shop altogether and send their kids to neighboring districts – not because there aren’t students, but because of historical inequity in state funding that has compounded the crisis.
Last year Pennsylvania lost over 14,000 educators due to the state budget cuts, and thousands more teachers are losing their jobs this year. (See “No More Teachers, No More Books.”) And what about other school employees? Take Philadelphia, where every single bus driver, janitor, and maintenance worker got a pink slip this year – 1,400 members in all of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). [Philadelphia Inquirer, 1-3-12] If the state really has seen an increase in public school professionals, perhaps it is due to all those charter and cyber charter schools the Governor and his allies have been approving. We certainly haven’t seen an influx of teachers around here – just the opposite – ask the kids who will be sitting in classrooms with 30, 35, even 40 students next year. (See “Shifting Blame, A Shifty Trick” for examples.)
“Fact” #3: “In 2004-05, taxpayers contributed $228 million to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System. In 2012-13, this will jump more than 300 percent to $916 million.”
Yep. The state has been under-funding the pension system for twenty years, despite numerous warnings, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. It’s important to understand this issue, because it plays a huge role in the looming crisis for our public schools. (Please read “Pension History 101,” if you haven’t already.) But Eller seems to use this data here to suggest that public education itself is too costly. Get real. We absolutely must deal with the pension crisis, but we must also properly fund our public schools.
“Fact” #4: “In 2004-05, salaries and benefits paid by public schools totaled $12.8 billion. This increased 30 percent to $16.7 billion in 2010-11.”
Here’s another attempt to portray public education as too expensive. (As Pennsylvania native turned Harvard President Derek Bok famously said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”) But what this “fact” really attempts, in combination with the one above, is to portray teachers as the problem. Specifically their salaries and benefits. Did Governor Corbett work for free that one year he taught high school? I rather doubt it. Nor should he. Our teachers are professionals and deserve to earn reasonable middle-class wages for their work. And benefits. You know, those cushy things like health insurance so their kids can see doctors.
Sure, school districts and teachers unions need to work together to look at appropriate salary ladders. But portraying our educators as overpaid at the expense of taxpayers plays right into the broader attack on public workers that we are seeing across the country. And we need public workers. As we talked about yesterday, the vast majority of government workers are really teachers, firefighters, and police officers – and cutting those jobs has actually hurt the economy. (See “Economics 101.”)
“Fact” #5: “Gov. Corbett’s first two budgets will invest an additional $828 million in state support of public schools. It’s not that more money is needed. The public education system needs to refocus its efforts to ensure that students remain the No. 1 priority.”
Now that’s a whopper. Governor Corbett’s first two budgets actually slash $1 BILLION from public schools. Eller and his colleagues are usually very careful when they make this claim to say that they have increased funding for “basic education” – which is only one line item in the budget, while they have actually cut funding overall for schools. (See “Dishonesty Disguised as Generosity.”) But here he leaves out that caveat altogether. Where is he seeing an “additional $828 million in state support”? Governor Corbett actually allocated $372 million LESS last year alone for PK-12 education than the state spent in 2008-09, the year before federal stimulus dollars kicked in. (See “The Truth About the Numbers.”)
You can decide for yourself if Eller’s “facts” are lies, damned lies, or statistics. But to quote another well-known writer: the “truth will out.” (William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, for those of you keeping track of today’s literary references.)