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Letter: Grading the State Budget on Education

A TEACH (Tell Everyone All Cuts Hurt) representative from Steel Valley School District takes a look at the state budget priorities.

Hey, Taxpayer,

While you were out trying to avoid heatstroke this summer, your state government actually did something.

The Pennsylvania Legislature passed another one of those pesky budgets determining exactly what your taxes have bought you this year.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t mind paying taxes if I get a good return on my investment. And what better investment than our children, our future? I’m speaking, of course, about public education.

So was this a good return? Let’s see:

GOOD NEWS

PA. BUDGET PASSED HIGHER THAN GOVERNOR WANTED: Last year, the Legislature cut $818 million from public schools—especially the poorest ones. This year, the Gov. Corbett wanted $94 million in additional cuts, but instead the Legislature voted to cut no more. In fact, the General Assembly appropriated $150 million more than the governor requested for education. In short, the House and Senate appropriated $100 million for the Accountability Block Grant keeping it flat funded with this year's budget. This money goes to helping districts pay for full-day kindergarten classes. The governor wanted to eliminate it. The Legislature also appropriated an additional $50 million line item for "financially distressed" schools. The only two districts in Allegheny County that qualify are Steel Valley and Sto-Rox.

CHARTER SCHOOL EXPANSION FAILED: The governor failed in a last-ditch attempt to win support for provisions to smooth the road to opening more privately run, taxpayer-funded charter schools. In short he didn’t want the decision on whether a charter school can open in your district to rest in the hands of your locally elected school board. He just doesn’t trust you enough. Instead, he wanted the decision in the hands of an appointed state board—I’m no Republican but that sure sounds like an expansion of Big Government to me. Anyway, the Legislature wouldn’t go with him on it. It's a victory for local control over government mandates. However, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said he is confident it will pass in the fall.

PENSION FUNDING BEGINS: The state has been underfunding the public employees pension system for 20 years, despite numerous warnings, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. This year, they finally added $300 million to the budget to pay for state-mandated contributions to teachers' pensions. Pensions are paid by the employee, the district and the state. While the former two entities have been keeping up their side of the bargain, the state has not. Yes, the hole previous administrations have dug will only continue to worsen, but it’s admirable this Legislature and governor haven’t turned a blind eye to the problem. However, one note of warning—some Republican legislators have tried to use this pension payment to spread lies about education funding. They claim the pension contribution should be called education funding and, thus, they can claim education funding has been increased this year. However, paying pensions is paying a bill we’ve already earned. It does nothing to help students in the classroom today. That would be like paying a late auto-body bill on your car and then boasting that you have more gas money. You may have put two gallons in the tank but it sure ain’t gonna’ get you to the promised land!

BAD NEWS

PA. BUDGET PASSED INSTITUTIONALIZING SERVICE CUTS: Yes, the Legislature voted to cut no more education funding this year. Yeah! The government isn’t going to be less supportive of public schools this year! It’s just going to institutionalize the almost $1 billion in budget cuts from last year. If you think that’s a victory, tell that to the toddlers who’ve lost the chance to attend full-day kindergarten. Tell that to the students who won’t have music lessons, won’t learn a foreign language, won’t take computer courses. Tell that to our students packed together in ever-expanding classes with an ever-shrinking pool of teachers left standing after the furlough axe is through.

Some people will say that’s just last year’s problem. Not true. Schools that had massive furloughs and program curtailment last year probably won’t change much this year. They’ll still be offering less. However, schools that survived last year’s famine did so by digging into their fund balances. Most of them won’t be able to do so again this year. So you can expect another round of downsizing our kids educations this year. Either that or a local tax hike. (Just an aside—do you think they’re doing this in China? Japan? Denmark? Finland? Do you think the rest of the world is letting its children fall behind, too?)

DISTRESSED SCHOOLS BILL:  If your school can’t survive on the new normal in lower state funding, the Legislature just voted to take it over and sell it off. HB 1307 amends the state Public School Code to allow for financially distressed school districts to be taken over by the state. The bill empowers the secretary of education to appoint a chief recovery officer to distressed school districts. The politically appointed chief recovery officer is then given broad powers to recommend converting public schools to charters, handing them over to education management organizations. In short, if your tax base isn’t enough to support your local district, the state will sell it to a for-profit company. There is no proof this will improve your children’s education—in fact, there is a growing mountain of evidence proving just the opposite. But this measure sure does help line lawmakers’ pockets with campaign contributions from those same for-profit companies. Ca-Ching!

SHELL OIL TAX EXEMPTION PASSED:
The Legislature passed a bill to give Shell Oil Co. $1.675 billion of our taxpayer dollars to do business in Pennsylvania. Everyone wants more jobs, but are we really profiting when we have to give more than $1 billion in tax breaks to get them? Will the number of permanent jobs created by such a measure outweigh the number of jobs we’ll lose by bankrupting the state and providing even less to our citizens and their children? That shiny new Shell plant is estimated to employ up to 10,000 people with several hundred full-time employees eventually operating the factory. Sounds nice until you consider that Pennsylvania schools eliminated or left vacant over 14,000 jobs last year alone, with thousands more teachers receiving pink slips now that the budget has been passed. Perhaps this seems like a good deal to the Legislature because it benefits the fracking business. The natural gas industry has contributed $1.6 million to the governor’s campaign coffers. From 2009 to 2010, Shell Oil donated more than $300,000 to Gov. Corbett. A $300,000 investment for more than $1.5 billion in tax breaks—now that’s a good deal!

EITC TAX GIVEAWAY EXPANDED AGAIN: It’s hard to believe the crocodile tears of legislators bemoaning the necessity of education cuts due to a lack of tax revenue when the next thing they do is take measures to reduce that same tax revenue. Why? So businesses can get more tax credits for funding private schools. It’s voucher-lite! A proposal to expand the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, a program for businesses that donate to private-school scholarships, also won approval after the House inserted it into the tax code. The measure will make $100 million in tax credits available each year, up from $75 million, while creating a related program with $50 million in credits targeted at students whose local school is among the state's 15 percent lowest-performing institutions. EISC will re-direct dollars away from revenue collections, therefore reducing the amount of revenue the Commonwealth has to use for programs and services. In addition, the proposal calls for an increase in the current EITC program from $75 million to $100 million next fiscal year and $200 million for subsequent years. That’s $450 million in tax credits over the next three years that will be taken out of our coffers, and directed to private schools, even as we cut current funding for our public schools, which serve the vast majority of our children.

So, in short, this budget season the Legislature could have done a much better job for our children. However, they could NOT have done much better for the corporations, campaign contributors and special interests they truly serve.
What’s their final grade? That depends on you.

This November, tell the Republican-controlled Legislature that you’re sick of the same sad story of selling out our children for their bottom line. Nothing could be more patriotic than putting the needs of our children, our future first.

Steven Singer
White Oak
www.svteach.wikispaces.com

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