The Commonwealth

We are the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Stop and think about that phrase, the official title of our state. We are a commonwealth, that’s common + wealth. It’s an old English term from the 15th century meaning a body politic (or a political community) organized for the “public welfare” and the “general good.” [Online Etymology Dictionary]

We are one of only four states in the U.S. that calls itself a commonwealth (Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Virginia are the other three.) Not only is the word in the title of our state, it’s in our constitution. In fact, the notion is at the core of Pennsylvania’s original constitution, which was written in a convention in Philadelphia from July through September of 1776 presided over by Benjamin Franklin himself.

The very first section of that original constitution is a “Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth or State of Pennsylvania” and closely resembles the Bill of Rights. Number five on the list: “That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or soft of men, who are a part only of that community.” [PA Constitution, 9-28-1776]

Government is for the common benefit. We hold wealth in common, to serve the public good. These are powerful old ideas that derive from colonial common law and helped shape the new nation. Look at how Massachusetts puts it in their constitution: “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.” [Preamble, MA Constitution]

Our legislators need to think about the meaning behind the very name of our state, as they race to ink a final budget in the next three days. Republicans revealed the details of the budget yesterday with mixed news for education. [Post-Gazette, 6-27-12] On the positive side, it is all but certain now that Governor Corbett will not get his way with his proposal to eliminate $100 million from the block grant program that many schools use to fund Kindergarten and early childhood education. That is a $100 million victory for our grassroots movement and you can be sure we would not have achieved it without the enormous statewide effort of ordinary folks like us who stood up for public education.

Our countless letters to the editor, op ed pieces, phone calls, rallies, vigils, advocacy events for children, meetings with legislators, bus trips to Harrisburg, research, writing, and consistent dialogue in social media kept this issue front and center when the administration wanted desperately to make it go away. We pierced Govenor Corbett’s claims about his education budget, we skewered his metaphors, and revealed the big money interests behind his attempts to privatize our schools. And we caught national attention: people from coast to coast were horrified to learn about the operatic tragedy of arts education unfolding in Pennsylvania; our articles were published in the Huffington Post among others; we were invited to the White House.

Yet we know that this new budget provides only level funding for public K-12 education. Last year’s massive cuts are carried forward and will continue to deeply impact our schools. And we know that Governor Corbett will continue to play games with rhetoric, claiming that he has increased funding for schools when he has merely moved line items around. For example, the Post-Gazette is reporting today, “The basic state subsidy for public schools would be set at $5.4 billion, an increase of $49 million over the current year.” [Post-Gazette, 6-27-12]

There is no actual increase for public education overall. In fact, we are almost sure to see the expansion of corporate tax credit programs this week, which will effectively divert hundreds of millions of public revenue dollars to private and parochial schools that could be used for our public schools. (See “2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?” for the latest details.) You will hear Rep. Christiana and others claim that their massive corporate giveaway doesn’t take money away from public education.

But if we remember that we are the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, we can see the absurdity of that statement. Our public revenue, our wealth, is for the common good; it is to be held in common, for the benefit of us all. Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues inked those powerful words 236 years ago and they are every bit as meaningful today.

—————

Yinzercation is going on vacation. Your faithful blogger will return, but for now, I leave you with these words: Public education is a public good.

That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or soft of men, who are a part only of that community, And that the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish government in such manner as shall be by that community judged most conducive to the public weal. [PA Constitution, 1776]

4 thoughts on “The Commonwealth

  1. I’m so glad you wrote this! I had a very similar aha moment when Rep Frankel used the word “Commonwealth” on Sunday. I was like, Oh, yeah, that’s what the founding fathers really meant!!!

  2. Your blogging has made a huge difference, keeping us informed and providing timely information for action. Thank you. I know the work is not done, but you do deserve a vacation.

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