Fund Our Schools

Like a breath of fresh spring air in the middle of the winter, Gov. Tom Wolf this week talked about his plan to restore funding to our schools. After touring an elementary school on Wednesday morning, he announced a proposal to impose the 5 percent natural gas extraction tax that he promised during his campaign. He estimated it would raise about $1 billion in the first year and said the “lion’s share” would be dedicated to education – which would put the figure close to what Gov. Corbett cut from our schools.

Gov. Wolf explained, “We have to make sure that we’re funding schools adequately, and this is a source of funding that’s fair for Pennsylvanians. … We have the natural resources to actually do something about the problem here.” [Post-Gazette, PowerSource, 2-12-15] Further underscoring the fact that he really does get the problem, Gov. Wolf noted:

The commonwealth ranks 45th in the nation in percentage of state funding for public education, and as a result, we have seen larger class sizes, fewer teachers, and vital program cuts. These cuts have made it more difficult for students to get a strong education in Pennsylvania’s public schools. This is the right thing to do for our children and our economy and to move Pennsylvania forward. [PAhomepage.com 2-11-15]

While these words are welcome relief after four years of draconian cuts that continue to harm our kids and schools, Gov. Wolf faces an uphill battle in the legislature. Although the extraction tax is modeled on neighboring West Virginia’s – and every other mineral rich state in the nation taxes these resources – the Marcellus Shale industry has been crying foul and lining up its many supporters in Harrisburg.

Before Gov. Wolf announces his proposed budget on March 3rd, it’s crucial that our legislators hear from us. Fortunately, our colleagues at OnePittsburgh are making that easy: please GET ON THE BUS to Harrisburg to rally for a fair budget and get the money back for our schools. Pittsburgh will send at least three buses to join the hundreds of others converging on the Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 26th. It’s fun and all the details are taken care of: you just have to GET ON THE BUS. Click here to register.

We know these bus trips matter and that they work. As we’ve discovered walking the halls of the capitol building, our legislators hear from a steady stream of paid lobbyists (some of whom had the brass to mock out loud a bunch of us moms and kids when we were there back in June). We won a major battle getting Gov. Wolf into office, but if we want the money back for our schools, we still need to win over our legislators. Someone’s gotta go to Harrisburg – can you?

It’s Education, Stupid

Is it any surprise that Governor Tom Corbett is woefully trailing his opponent, Tom Wolf, in the polls? The latest numbers released last week show Tom W. ahead of Tom C., 49% to 31%. With 60% of registered voters saying that Pennsylvania is “off on the wrong track,” survey respondents continue to name education as their number one concern. [Franklin & Marshall poll, Sept. 2014] In fact, education is now far ahead of “the economy,” which has traditionally been voters’ primary concern (going back to at least 2006 in these polls).

Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign against incumbent President George H.W. Bush featured the famous line, “It’s the economy, stupid.” In Pennsylvania this election cycle, “it’s education, stupid.” (Now, my mother taught me not to call people stupid; so please note, I am not calling you stupid, dear reader, I know you get this point – which is exactly the point!)

In fact, I said this very thing last week when I appeared on “Get to the Point,” a PCNC Friday night talk show. I had the chance to sit across from Bob Bozzuto, the Executive Director of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, and Katie McGinty, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate and now chair of the Fresh Start PA campaign supporting Tom Wolf. And for an hour, I did my best to steer the conversation back to education, education, education.

Jessie Ramey on "Get to the Point" with host Lenny McAllister, Katie McGinty of Fresh Start PA, and Bob Bozzuto, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Republican Party

Jessie Ramey on “Get to the Point” with host Lenny McAllister, Katie McGinty of Fresh Start PA, and Bob Bozzuto, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Republican Party (September 19, 2014)

Yesterday, we took this message directly to Gov. Corbett himself. Or at least we tried. The governor was in Pittsburgh for a rare visit, but not to meet with educators or students or parents. Rather, he was in town to meet with Marcellus shale corporate executives. Yes indeed. He reserves his elbow rubbing for the people who line his campaign coffers with huge donations to make sure he doesn’t tax their industry (which would help pay for our public schools). [Post-Gazette, 9-25-14] OnePittsburgh rolled out the “People’s Red Carpet” welcome outside the convention center to demonstrate who he is walking over.

Just to further prove how out of touch this governor is with Pennsylvania families, on Monday at his first debate with Tom Wolf, Gov. Corbett said that nurses, social workers, librarians, guidance counselors, and paraprofessionals don’t count. He was referring to the 27,000 educators who have lost their jobs since his historic budget cuts in 2011. Specifically, Gov. Corbett stated: “That’s a false number. Those aren’t all teachers. Those are people that worked in the system, that were part of the administrations. They weren’t all teachers.” [CSPAN archive] These were 27,000 adults our children had in their lives every day, working with them in their classrooms, helping them succeed in school, and we’re not supposed to count them as lost educators?

Election day is November 4th and it can’t come soon enough. Between now and then, Pittsburgh’s own folk legend, Anne Feeney, will be traveling around Pennsylvania with her “Crush Corbett Road Show.” Anne asked Yinzercation to create a flyer with information about the governor’s record on education, which she will be distributing on her concert tour. In closing, I leave you here with a copy, as the facts speak for themselves.

Corbett_CutsHurtKids_flyer

Still no Budget

When I left for Alaska ten days ago, parents, teachers, and community members from across the state were still camped out at the Capitol building keeping a vigil for a better budget. The group from Pittsburgh included many ActionUnited volunteers, who worked around the clock.

Volunteers keeping vigil at night with glow-in-the-dark signs!

Volunteers keeping vigil at night with glow-in-the-dark signs!

Delivering coffee to the Governor's mansion.

Delivering coffee to the Governor’s mansion to tell him to “Wake up and smell the coffee: you are hurting Pennsylvania’s children!”

ActionUnited volunteers from Pittsburgh stayed in the capitol around the clock

ActionUnited volunteers from Pittsburgh stayed in the capitol around the clock

Having just returned to the lower-48, I fully expected to see news of a final state budget. Oh, but no. In case you haven’t been paying attention, or have been off-line in the wilderness like me, here’s the current situation.

The Pennsylvania legislature has passed a budget – full of problems – but the Governor has yet to sign it. He is currently holding out because he did not get the pension reforms he wanted. Yet if he doesn’t get his signature on the page before Friday, the budget will go into effect without his stamp of approval. [Patriot News, 7-8-14]

Unfortunately, either way, we’re looking at mostly more bad news for public schools. The budget passed by the legislature once again flat funds the basic education line, which provides the bulk of support to school districts. It does increase special education funding by $19.8 million, which is most welcome after six years of flat funding in this area. However, as Ron Cowell of the Education Policy and Leadership Center points out, “it’s important to note that special education costs to districts have risen more than $400 million during that time.” [Post Gazette, 7-5-14]

The budget sitting on the Governor’s desk also includes a slight increase in education funding through block grant programs. These generally come with strings attached and are less helpful to districts that are desperately struggling to provide basic educational programs. The increase is also $141 million less than what Gov. Corbett initially proposed back in February.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment with this unsigned budget is that it relies on unicorns to pay the bills. We just finished the 2013-14 fiscal year last week short by a half-billion dollars. Sharon Ward of the PA Budget and Policy Center explains that legislators “magically wiped away that inconvenient truth through creative accounting.” Then for the new budget, “lawmakers used one-time transfers, overly rosy revenue projections, and accounting tricks to close a $1 billion projected revenue gap.” For instance, this budget assumes that there will be revenue from new gas drilling on public lands – but that will depend on the outcome of a case still winding its way through the courts. It also assumes there will be revenue from a Philadelphia casino that hasn’t even been built yet! [Philly.com, 7-9-14]

This kind of magical thinking is a recipe for disaster. Overall, Pennsylvania collected less in revenue in 2013-14 than it did the year before. Yet the new budget for 2014-15 counts on adding $1 billion more than we managed to take in this past year. [PA Budget and Policy Center, 7-7-14] Where are we really going to get this money?

Having just returned from mineral-rich Alaska, it’s astonishing to me that Gov. Corbett will not even consider a severance tax on Marcellus shale. Every other major gas producing state has one. Our local guide in Juneau proudly pointed to the Alaska Permanent Fund building and explained that every person in that state gets an annual check, usually between $1,000-$2,000, drawn from oil revenues.

Meanwhile, school districts in Pennsylvania are forced to raise property taxes yet again. Last week, just after the House passed the current budget, the Shippensburg school district voted to raise local taxes to make up for the shortfall in state support it had been expecting. [Philly.com, 7-9-14]

Alaska was gorgeous. But I would like to be able to stay here in Pennsylvania and send my children to properly funded schools. We may not have glaciers, but we do have eagles again, right here in Pittsburgh. Now if only we could fund public education.

Sit-In or Call-In

Guest post by Kathy Newman.

We all know sitting is bad for us, right? But right now there is a group of Philadelphia parents, teachers and students sitting-in at Tom Corbett’s Harrisburg office, demanding that the Governor and the State Legislature pass a decent budget for education this month.

Our Philadelphia colleagues are in Harrisburg sitting in the Governor's office!

Our Philadelphia colleagues are in Harrisburg sitting in the Governor’s office!

They're not going anywhere until he gets the message.

They’re not going anywhere until he gets the message.

People power at the Capitol!

People power at the Capitol!

You might not be able to get to Harrisburg to join the sit-in, but there is something you can do. And you can do it sitting down. Five-to-ten minutes of phone calling and emailing on Monday, June 30th, from the comfort of your favorite chair, will make a real difference in this year’s budget negotiation.

It’s hard to believe that a few simple phone calls can make a difference. But our friends at Education Voters say that when lawmakers hear from parents across the state about education they do a better job of putting education first when they are finalizing their budget deals.

The truth is that some of our more sympathetic Democratic lawmakers will have more power than usual in this budget cycle, and a call from you (and you and you and you and you) will remind them that, for many of us in the state, education is a critical issue.

What’s at stake right now? This week the PA House passed a budget that eliminates the $241 million increase in state funding for proposed Ready to Learn Block grants and replace this with a paltry $70 million increase in Basic Education Funding. Under the House budget, PA school districts would lose about 70% of the increases in state funding they were expecting to receive this year and that they were relying on to balance their budgets. That’s a loss of over $2 million for Pittsburgh Public Schools alone.

The House budget is irresponsible and unacceptable.  It does not call for a shale tax or a cigarette tax.  Instead, it relies on the sale of state liquor stores (which the Senate has so far not supported), gimmicky sources of one-time funding, and the suspension of selected tax credits to balance the budget.

Though it’s the end of the month, and the budget was supposed to be locked up by now, budget negotiations are just beginning. While the budget is still fluid and negotiations are taking place, advocates must speak out loudly and with one voice in support of responsible funding for public schools this year. If we do not speak up now, public education will likely receive little more than scraps in the budget this year.

As with previous Call to Action for Education days, we are asking for broad participation from all organizations and individuals across the Commonwealth.  It is incredibly important the legislators in Harrisburg see that people are paying attention.  Communities are using these call-in-days to help spread the word about what is happening to our schools, so please join us again!

WHEN:  Monday, June 30, 2014

WHAT:  Call to Action for Public Education – It’s time for a fair budget for PA’s students!

HOW TO PARTICIPATE:  Mark your calendar and plan to ask your own network to take action

Mark your calendar today for Monday, June 30th – and do 3 things in 10 minutes to make a difference! Click here for your legislators’ phone numbers. Click here for tips on how to make a good phone call.

  1. Call your State Senator.
  2. Call your State Representative.
  3. Call Gov. Corbett’s office at (717) 787-2500.

Ask them to:

  • Support the adoption of a shale tax, cigarette tax and any reasonable measure to raise revenue and close tax loopholes.
  • Support an increase in the Basic Education Funding line that is equal to what was in the proposed Ready to Learn Block Grant.
  • Support and advocate for state funding for charter school reimbursement to be restored.
  • Support SB 1316/HB2138, the special education funding and accountability reform bill.  (Additional information about this bill can be found atwww.educationvoterspa.org)

When you are done with your call would you mind heading over to the Yinzercation facebook page and reporting on your calls? If you tweet, you can also promote the day using #educationpa and #pabudget. Thanks to everyone who is sitting and calling in for fair education funding!

Where’s the Money?

Governor Corbett seems to be having trouble finding the money to pay for our children’s education. So we’ve put together this helpful list of potential state revenue sources to help him out. Because there is money that could help us restore the devastating budget cuts to our schools (now totaling $2.3 billion), but it’s just not going to our kids.

Possible State Revenue Sources

  • Close tax loopholes: the Delaware loophole costs our state $500 million in missed tax revenue every year and more than 20 other states have already closed it. The “89-11” real estate transfer scheme cost Pittsburgh schools alone millions of dollars before it was tightened last year. What other loopholes can be closed right now? [See “Corporate Grinches”]
  • Impose a severance tax on Marcellus shale: most states with major mineral resources like ours have a severance tax, not just a mere impact fee. This could yield $334 million per year. [Post-Gazette, 12-27-13]
  • Get rid of the new bonus depreciation rule: the Corbett administration adopted this federal tax incentive in 2011 and it quickly cost far more than the $200 million it was anticipated to drain from the public and now could cost up to $700 million. [See “We Have a Priority Problem”; PBPC, “Revenue Tracker” report, 3-9-12]
  • Keep the capital stock and franchise tax: Gov. Corbett wants to eliminate these by next year as a gift to corporations. But if lawmakers freeze the tax at 2012 levels, the state could raise around $390 million. [PBPC, “Budget Analysis,” 5-29-13]
  • Eliminate sales tax exemptions for millionaires: helicopters and gold bullion top the list of hard-to-swallow exemptions. [PBPC, “Kids or Tax Breaks,” 3-19-13]
  • Tax cigars, chewing tobacco, and loose tobacco: unlike other states, Pennsylvania does not tax these products. Doing so could generate $56 million per year. [Post-Gazette, 12-27-13]
  • Cap discount to businesses that remit state sales tax: a Post-Gazette analysis suggests that “big stores like Wal-mart, Target and other would be most affected” and would save the state $44 million. [Post-Gazette, 12-27-13]
  • Rescind the new Voter ID bill: it solves no actual problem in the state, has been declared unconstitutional by a Pennsylvania judge, will be expensive to legally defend, and will cost taxpayers an estimated $11 million to implement. [PBPC report, 5-10-11]
  • Fix the cyber-charter funding formula: Taxpayers and school districts could be saving $365 million per year – that’s $1million per day – if cyber charter schools received funding based on what they actually spent per student. [PA Auditor General, “Charter School Funding Special Report,” 6-20-12]
  • Shut down the EITC programs: they cost us $150 million per year by funneling corporate tax money that should have gone to the state for our budget needs into the hands of private schools instead, with zero accountability to the public. [See “EITC No Credit to PA”; Keystone Research Center, “No Accountability,” 4-7-11]
  • Reduce high-stakes-testing: The new School Performance Profile system, largely based on student test scores, cost us taxpayers $2.7 million to develop over the past three years and it will cost an estimated $838,000 every year to maintain. [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] This does not include the five-year, $201.1 million contract Pennsylvania made with Data Recognition Corporation to administer high-stakes-tests to our students. [PennLive.com, 12-1-11]
  • Stop the charter-school “double dip”: due to an administrative loophole in the law, all charter schools are paid twice for the same pension costs – once by local school districts and again by the state: by 2016 this double dipping will cost taxpayers $510 million. [Reform PA Charter Schools]
  • Stop handing money to international giants. The new sweetheart deal with international giant Dutch Royal Shell will cost taxpayers $1.675 billion. That’s billion with a “b.” [Post-Gazette, 6-4-12]
  • Make choices to fund schools, not prisons. While the state has slashed funding for public schools in 2011 and 2012, it has not done so for prisons, and has actually increased the 2013 Department of Corrections budget by $75.2 million ($63 million of which is for correctional institutions). [PBPC, “Final Budget Analysis,” 7-9-13]

There you go. I think we just found hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to adequately, equitably, and sustainably pay for public education. You’re welcome.

Pizza and Silver Bullets

This governor is full of metaphors. He’s very fond of comparing the state budget to pizza, saying helpful things like, “we had an 8-inch pizza and now we’re down to a 6-inch pie, but we … have an increase in demands.” [Delco Times, 5-30-12] Back in March, he explained to an unhappy audience of University of Pittsburgh students that public education accounts for 40% of the state budget: “Pennsylvania looks at education as its No. 1 priority … When the pizza pie goes from an 8-inch pie to a 6-inch pie, you still have that percentage, but not enough money.” [Pitt News, 5-31-12]

And in perhaps the most ironic twist on his folksy analogy, Gov. Corbett stood in front of a Porsche at a Lehigh Valley facility and repeated the gastronomic comparison. The Morning Call reported, “Corbett said the recession has reduced the size of the state’s economy from and 8-inch to a 6-inch pie, making less revenue available for the growing needs of its citizens, devoting larger and larger slices of the state budget to education and social welfare programs.” [Morning Call, 5-15-12]

I don’t know where Gov. Corbett buys his dainty pizza, but here in Yinzer Nation our standard pizza is a good extra-large 12-slice with a couple toppings. Preferably washed down with a beer in front of a Steelers game. And if we had a Porsche, we would not be eating pizza in it.

But Gov. Corbett chose his 8-inch to 6-inch analogy, so we’ll stick with that for a moment. By his cheesy logic, Pennsylvania’s economy shrank by a full 44% in the recession [see math note below]. Now there’s a number you don’t hear him – or anyone else – tossing around. Really? Almost half?

There’s no denying that our state revenues are down. But what the governor is trying to do with his incredible-shrinking-pizza metaphor is to make this solely a problem of existing revenues while refusing to look at alternatives – some of which don’t involve raising a single dime in taxes. We’ve got extra toppings we could be throwing on this pizza to feed the needs of all of our citizens, yet Gov. Corbett won’t even talk pepperoni. Here are some ideas for rolling the crust back out to a real size pizza:

  • Close the Delaware Loophole: costs our state $500 million in missed tax revenue every year and more than 20 other states have already closed this loophole.
  • Impose a severance tax on Marcellus shale: most states with major mineral resources like ours have a severance tax and not having one has cost Pennsylvania over $314 million since October 2009 alone.
  • Get rid of the new bonus depreciation rule: The state itself estimates that more than half of the current budget gap is due to a huge shortfall in corporate tax revenues – to the tune of $260 million. (See “We Have a Priority Problem.”)
  • Keep the capital stock and franchise tax: Corbett wants to eliminate these as a gift to corporations, costing the state $200 million in revenue every year.
  • Eliminate sales tax exemptions: helicopters and gold bullion top the list of hard-to-swallow exemptions. And what about smokeless tobacco?
  • Rescind the new Voter ID bill: it solves no actual problem in the state, will most certainly face expensive legal challenge, and will cost taxpayers an estimated $11 MILLION to implement. (See “There Goes $11-million for Our Schools.”)
  • Fix the cyber-charter funding formula: Taxpayers and school districts could have saved approximately $86 million in 2009-2010 if cyber charter schools received funding based on what they actually spent per student. (See “Trouble Seeing the Money.”)
  • Shut down the EITC program: it costs us $75 million per year by funneling corporate tax money that should have gone to the state for our budget needs into the hands of private schools instead. (See “EITC: No Credit to PA.”)

Now that’s a lot of dough! But in a meeting Wednesday night with newspaper editors in the Eastern part of the state, Gov. Corbett insisted his number one priority is serving up smaller and smaller slices of pizza. In a sign of how effective our movement has become, the Delco Times commented, “Perhaps no place is that priority being debated more hotly than in the education arena.” After repeating his pizza metaphor, Gov. Corbett explained, “I don’t want to be doing this to school districts. I don’t want to have to do this every year, but we can’t give them money we don’t have.” [Delco Times, 5-30-12]

At least in this conversation, he didn’t try to blame school districts for the problem or suggest they spend their emergency reserves. (See “Insane, Irrational, Irresponsible.”) It would seem the governor’s office has backed off that tactic after our massive statewide protests last week, which garnered national media attention. But he returned to an old trick, trying to pit some needs against others, saying, “So if I’m going to propose increasing money for education, who do we take it from?” We call this “The Old Divide and Conquer Tactic” and we’ll have none of it, thank you very much.

Then the Governor pulled out another metaphor. Responding to a question about the possibility of increasing taxes on Marcellus shale drillers, he huffed, “everybody wants the silver bullet, the thing that will solve everything.” Actually, Governor Corbett, there are at least eight bullet points on my list above, and none of them is silver. Realistically, we expect you to use a combination of these strategies to address the current funding crisis in our public schools.

We don’t need extra topping pizzas or silver bullets. We need a political commitment from Republicans and Democrats alike to support our public goods. Here’s a tiny start: in one hallelujah moment, Gov. Corbett admitted to the editors, “We also need to look at charter schools, particularly cyber-charter schools, and how that money is spent.” Now see? That’s one of the (non-silver) bullet points we’ve been talking about.

———–

Math note: Area of an 8 inch circle = 50.27. Area of a 6 inch circle = 28.28. The difference is 21.99, or 44%. In my original post I fell prey to the common misconception that the drop from 8 inches to 6 inches was a simple 25% reduction, forgetting that we are talking about the area of a circle. Many thanks to John Zimmerman for pointing this out. Governor Corbett and I can both attend a remedial math course at our local Community Colleges, assuming they survive these latest state budget cuts.

The Old Divide and Conquer Tactic

“We are reducing the funding in education because we do not have the money — it’s that simple,” Governor Corbett said Monday. He was speaking about the cuts to public higher education, but he could have just as easily been speaking about the draconian cuts to pre-K and K-12.

We’ve heard precious little about the state education budget crisis from Governor Corbett himself. Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis and others have been quoted frequently of late trying to explain how, in their view, the $1 BILLION reduction to public schools has actually been an increase. (To which we say, “Enough with the Spreadsheet Debates.”) But now Gov. Corbett appears to be trying a new (very old) tactic: divide and conquer.

Saying the state simply doesn’t have the money, he asked, “Where would you have me take it from? Would you have me take it from social services? Would you have me take it from law enforcement or from the functions of government?” (Post-Gazette, 3-13-12) Pitting social services against public education, Gov. Corbett suggests that we can have one, but not both – when the proposed budget, in fact, cuts both to the very bone. This is not about choosing one over the other, this is about revenue priorities that put corporations before children.

Governor Corbett asks incredulously if we should find education money by taking funding away “from the functions of government.” I would like to remind him that funding public education is a function of government. In fact, it is the only service mandated by the Pennsylvania Constitution, which says specifically that it is the state’s responsibility to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” (Article 3, Section 14)

It’s time for the Governor to stop saying, “we don’t have the money,” and start asking, “where can we find the revenue?” Here are some suggestions we’ve been hearing from the people of Southwest PA:

  • Close the Delaware Loophole: costs our state $500 million in missed tax revenue every year and more than 20 other states have already closed this loophole.
  • Impose a severance tax on Marcellus shale: most states with major mineral resources like ours have a severance tax and not having one has cost Pennsylvania over $314 million since October 2009 alone.
  • Get rid of the new bonus depreciation rule: The state itself estimates that more than half of the current budget gap is due to a huge shortfall in corporate tax revenues – to the tune of $260 million. (Read more in “We Have a Priority Problem.”)
  • Keep the capital stock and franchise tax: Corbett wants to eliminate these as a gift to corporations, costing the state $200 million in revenue every year.
  • Eliminate sales tax exemptions: helicopters and gold bullion top the list of hard-to-swallow exemptions.