Debated deep in the chambers of the Capitol Building, and signed by Governor Corbett into law near midnight on June 30th, the 2012-2013 Pennsylvania state budget has emerged into the sunlight over the past six weeks where the details sparkle. And not in a good way.
The implications of this budget – plus the Governor’s associated educational “reform” policies introduced this summer – are now quite clear. They threaten to continue sucking the lifeblood out of public schools. Yet there’s good news for our movement too: turns out our grassroots were planted in a patch of strong garlic and we’ve held some of the worst policies at bay. Here’s where we stand:
Flat funding = less funding. The new budget “level funds” K-12 education, essentially providing the same funding as last year’s budget. Our statewide outrage over Gov. Corbett’s proposed cuts to early childhood and Kindergarten preserved the $100 million block grant program. This is a major victory, but the flat funding effectively locks in the devastating $1 billion cuts the legislature made in 2011. And due to natural inflation, flat funding really means less funding, since school district costs for everything from electricity to toilet paper continue to go up.
16 districts get a little help. The legislature approved an additional $40 million to help 16 school districts in financial distress. The irony here, of course, is that many of those districts reached “distressed” status precisely because of state budget cuts. In Southwest Pennsylvania, the following three school districts will receive a total of $1.25 million in aid: Steel Valley ($559,026) and Sto-Rox ($440,974) in Allegheny County, and Jeannette City ($250,000) in Westmoreland County. I won’t sneeze at $1.25 million for those struggling schools, but to put it in perspective: the Governor and his allies in the legislature have slashed $172 million from school districts in this part of the state. So we’re still about $170.75 million short.
Cruel cuts elsewhere. Governor Corbett wanted to slash human services by 20%, but got away with 10% cuts to mental health, help for the homeless, and programs for people with intellectual disabilities. And he did nothing for public transit. These programs affect many families, their students, and ultimately our schools.
Corporations get more. What’s worse, these cuts come at the same time that the Governor and his allies continue to give away our public funds – our commonwealth – to private corporations. As expected, the legislature refused to halt the ongoing phase-out of the capital stock and franchise tax, costing us taxpayers another $275 million over two years. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center explains that this “is part of a decade-long pattern that will see the commonwealth spending $2.4 billion on corporate tax breaks in the new budget. That amount has tripled over the last 10 years and does not count the hundreds of millions of dollars lost annually to corporate tax loopholes.” And it’s mostly giant corporations that benefit from these tax giveaways, without any obligation to actually create jobs. [PBPC 2012-2013 Budget Analysis]
EITC gives away even more. The worst news by far is the “voucher in disguise” package that passed with this budget. Governor Corbett has succeeded in expanding the horribly misnamed “Educational Improvement Tax Credit” program, benefiting businesses that make donations to organizations that, in turn, make scholarships for students attending private schools. The giveaway funnels $100 million (up from $75 million) in public money to private and religious schools. And it creates a new $50 million program for students living in the attendance boundaries of “low-achieving schools,” as defined by the state. [See “2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?”] Even more depressing, the state has made sure there is scant public accountability for these giveaway programs with a 2005 law preventing the collection of any meaningful data on expenditures or student outcomes. And we’ve just learned that state Representative Jim Christiana, the Republican from Beaver who introduced the new EITC program, has received $170,000 from “school choice” super-PACs. [BeaverCountian.com, 7-30-12] We’ll be hearing a lot more about the influence of big money on our educational policies this fall for sure.
Charter schools expand. In another victory for our grassroots movement, we prevented Governor Corbett from pushing through his “state authorizer,” which would have wrested control from local school districts and allowed the state alone to authorize the formation of new charter schools. For now. The Governor has made it clear that this is a top priority for him this fall, so we can be sure to see it again. [Philly.com, 7-4-12] Corbett said he will also try again for legislation stripping the ability of local people to prevent the conversion of public schools into charter schools. [Delco Times, 7-1-12] And despite massive evidence that cyber-charter schools in particular are sucking up far more public dollars than it actually costs them to educate students, the legislature put off addressing the seriously flawed funding formula. [See “Trouble Seeing the Money” and “One Million Per Day” for details.] Yet within days of passing the budget, the state approved four new cyber charter schools, all with offices in Philadelphia, bringing the total number in Pennsylvania to sixteen. [Post-Gazette, 7-9-12]
Lax charter school regulations. Meanwhile, the FBI has been busy investigating the Beaver County based PA Cyber School the past few weeks, as we’ve learned about millions in public dollars flowing to a network of businesses run by colleagues of the school’s founder, Nick Trombetta. [Post-Gazette, 7-15-12] To its credit, the state did tighten up charter school ethics rules, so that board members and employees are now covered by state Ethics Laws, and the charters will be required to make their annual audits public. [PBPC Education Policy Changes] But it also exempted charter school teachers from new mandates that will require various measurements of student achievement to be taken into consideration when evaluating teacher effectiveness. [Post-Gazette, 7-5-12] And the current Charter School Appeals Board is being replaced with an administrative staff that will oversee charter schools; this means that charter schools denied a charter by local school districts can now appeal to the administration and, if successful, remain under the oversight of this state entity.
In addition, the House passed, but the Senate rejected, an amendment that would have excluded companies doing business with charter schools from our Right-To-Know laws. [Philly.com, 7-5-12] Lawrence Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition explains, “That means that taxpayers would not have the right to see the budgets, check registers, payroll records or other financial records for facilities that they are paying for. [We] would not have the right to know the salaries of teachers, administrators, superintendents, or, for that matter, CEOs paid by a management company. In contrast, these are all things that traditional school districts are required to provide by law.” [“Shameless…” 7-6-12] These are clearly efforts to do an end-run around real public accountability.
We have our work cut out for us. But we’ve built an incredible grassroots movement here in Pennsylvania dedicated to great public schools for all students, with adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding. We will keep fighting the demons of school privatization. Now if we could just enlist a few friendly werewolves…