Letter to the Editor: Cuts in Education Unacceptable
A reaction to the passage of the budget.
So this is how public education ends—not with a scream but with a whimper.
With apologies to Robert Frost, the above sentiment sums up the position of the thousands of parents, children and teachers in the T.E.A.C.H. Organization with regard to the farce played out two nights ago in Harrisburg—the passage of a 2011-12 state budget that unnecessarily slashes $1.1 billion from education, $860 million of which was lacerated from our public schools especially the poorer ones.
Gov. (Tom) Corbett made it clear these are not just “austerity measures.” He did this by accepting four new vehicles for himself, Lt. Gov. Jim Crawley and their wives at a total cost to the taxpayers of $186,000. He did this by accepting a $30,000 pay raise for himself while cudgeling teachers to take a pay freeze. He did this by raising his and the lieutenant governor’s combined budgets by $130,000. He did this by passing out up to $10 million in budget appropriations to Republican legislators uneasy with his 11th hour initiatives. That is not anyone’s definition of “austerity.”
But most of all, as the clock was running out, he did this by threatening to veto the budget that gave him everything he wanted unless it was passed in conjunction with measures to tighten tax code restrictions on local school districts. Unless raising local taxes was barred from districts trying to cope with massive losses of state funding, the governor—a governor who ran saying “I will ensure that the children of Pennsylvania have every educational advantage”—would refuse to sign it. Faced with a choice between principle or expediency, Republican legislators overwhelming chose the latter no doubt comforting themselves with the thought that they could claim this on-time budget a legislative victory despite their own reservations.
Given the governor’s outspoken stance in favor of school tuition vouchers to use taxpayer money to fund religious and private schools, given the governor’s stance on charter schools that fund private corporations with taxpayer money to educate our youth without any accountability or requirement to prove their results, it is clear this governor is out to "murder" public education.
With the help of most of the Republican legislature, he has brought about a situation in which many public schools—especially those in poor and distressed areas that rely more heavily on state funding to stay afloat —are bound to fail. But he has a solution ready at hand for the failures he is necessitating—school vouchers and charter schools.
When public schools raise class sizes, when they cut full-day kindergarten; when they institute pay-to-play initiatives for after-school sports; when they skimp on security guards, classroom aides and janitorial staff, the governor will point to the state’s private, parochial and charter schools as a solution. Make no mistake, this budget is the first nail in the coffin of our public education system.
Moreover, such drastic cuts are completely unnecessary. There is a surplus of $750 million that is only expected to grow. This “lean” budget contains more pork than a summer barbeque. It includes a $2.68 billion increase in prison funding while our public school children go wanting. It adds a new $2 billion Liberty Loan fund—a measure the governor calls a small business loan program but after Corbett spread around the green to fence-sitting legislators Thursday, can anyone doubt it is more than Walking Around Money (WAM)? But for all this sausage factory does, it also is lacking in practical common sense measures to raise money. During a time of “severe deficits”, it lowers business taxes. It does nothing about the Delaware tax loophole that siphons away $900 million annually for state coffers. It adds no tax on our abundant Marcellus shale. If this is what austerity looks like for the business community, I’d hate to see high times!
Finally, the measures Corbett points to as alternatives to public education have all been tried and found lacking. For instance, take charter schools. While some are clearly working well, the majority are not. An April 2011 study released by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes shows that students in Pennsylvania charter schools on average make smaller learning gains in reading and math than their traditional public school counterparts. They found that students at nearly half of the charter schools in the state made significantly lower learning gains in reading and math than their traditional public school counterparts and results at all Pennsylvania cyber charter schools—on-line only schools—were significantly lower. Moreover, A New York Times investigation raises questions about whether as series of 120 charter schools opened by a controversial Turkish religious organization are using taxpayer dollars to benefit their movement. The Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania in State College is one of these charter schools opened by followers of Turkish preacher and Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen. Is this really a good alternative to our system of public education?
Secondly, take school vouchers. They are not a bold new approach to education. They have been tried for years throughout the country with disastrous consequences. Milwaukee's voucher system, which allows low-income students to attend private schools using tax dollars, discriminates based on disability, according to a complaint filed a month ago by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation and Disability Rights Wisconsin. Schools receiving vouchers get to choose who they accept and they don’t choose those harder to educate that public schools must accept—for instance students with disabilities. Moreover, students receiving vouchers in Milwaukee score lower in reading and math than their peers in the public schools. In Washington, D.C., voucher students scored marginally higher in reading, but not in math. However, these scores are overshadowed by a USA Today investigation in late March that found these scores to be the result of cheating because of the statistically unlikely high number of test score erasures at D.C. schools.
The bottom line is that the measures proposed by Corbett are not proven to be successful—in fact, just the opposite. Unfunded federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind, a too robust reliance on standardized testing, test prep. and basic skills, however, have been increasingly shown to be a detriment to student learning. Education systems that have been pointed to as gleaming examples of student achievement such as Finland’s do not do them—nor do they engage in vouchers or charters. If legislators were really interested in school reform, they would remove these unfunded mandates that shackle our public schools from doing more real teaching.
Until that day we will continue to head backwards and the life of our system of public education is waning. We at the T.E.A.C.H. organization hope for a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of these budget cuts as was successfully initiated in New Jersey forcing the return of state monies to education. After all, the Pennsylvania Constitution clearly states, “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” Isn’t it time we do that? After all, election day is only a year and a half away. We will remember those who voted to steal education from children. We will remember you and we will vote against you.
T.E.A.C.H. is an organization made up of parents, children and teachers from across Pennsylvania. The name is an acronym for Tell Everyone All Cuts Hurt. For more information, please check out our website: www.svteach.wikispaces.com.