Sunday, May 24, 2015

Corbett to Philly: Fix your own schools

Corbett's proposed public school "rescue package" is a destructive joke with troubling long-term implications. And more on the budget.

Corbett to Philly: Fix your own schools

FILE: Gov. Corbett draws applause at a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate. MATT ROURKE / Associated Press
FILE: Gov. Corbett draws applause at a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate. MATT ROURKE / Associated Press

Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed public school "rescue package," currently making its way through the legislature, is a destructive joke with troubling long-term implications. The $140 million, pledged just before the governor signed the state budget last night, falls far short of both the $304 million budget gap and the $180 million the School Reform Commission requested from city and state government.

It's also a shell game, so make sure to watch closely: the plan shifts the burden for funding city schools onto those who can least afford it. Much of the funding comes from optimistic projections of increased collections from city tax delinquents, and from an extension of the city's "temporary" 1-percent sales tax hike. The latter is simply the state giving the city the power to further tax its own disproportionately low-income population. This is patently regressive taxation, meaning that it takes disproportionately from the poor — in a city that already has a regressive wage tax, and in a state that has one of the most regressive tax structures in the nation. 

There is only $47 million in new state funding for city schools (less than half of what adds up to just $127 million in new funding, according to this Notebook/NewsWorks analysis, since $13 million Corbett had proposed previously was already included in the school district budget). Critically, $45 million of that is a one-time-only expenditure — and it actually comes not from Corbett but from the Obama administration.

The diversion of the sales tax also robs Philadelphia of the opportunity to use that money for other pressing needs, as Patrick Kerkstra pointed out last week in the Inquirer.

"What Corbett proposes is nothing less than a permanent increase in the city's share of the school-funding formula, while the state escapes with no new investment. That's a raw deal for a city that already has the second-highest tax burden in the nation.

Worse, by hijacking the city sales tax for school funding, Corbett is depriving Philadelphia of perhaps its best chance to tame the pension beast, which is ravenously consuming a bigger share of the city's budget each year."

The plan also requires a staggering $133 million in concessions from union workers, mostly from teachers who already make 19 percent less than their suburban counterparts.

Worse yet, the sales tax extension and the $45 million — the latter, again, is not even state money — will only be released if the Secretary of Education determines that the District has implemented "reforms that will provide for the district's fiscal stability, education improvement and operational control."

This is a nod to the folks who want to break Philadelphia's teachers union.

And so Corbett ends this legislative session with a festering schools disaster, and little else, to show voters.

Republican House and Senate majorities have not secured any of Corbett's "big three" agenda items. House conservatives, like their counterparts in Congress, are hostile to raising taxes to fund anything — including much-needed repairs to roads and mass transit. Business interests have eagerly cultivated the Tea Party insurgency, but they have created a Frankenstein. Right-wing House leadership opposes not only government spending on education or poor folks, but on stuff corporations want — like nice roads.

The push to privatize state liquor stores, opposed by labor advocates opposed to eliminating thousands of union jobs and by booze-wary social conservatives, is stuck in the Senate. And, the controversial restructuring of underfunded public sector pensions is going nowhere.

Corbett's policy frustrations raise the odds of his ultimate political failure: the governor's approval ratings continue to scrape bottom as he nears a re-election fight.

The budget Corbett signed last night continues the past two years' hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to public schools, universities, environmental protection, and programs that care for the poor, homeless, recovering addicts, and victims of domestic violence.

House Republicans are moving to block Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, which could cover 600,000 Pennsylvanians, which was included in the welfare code passed by the Senate.

There is, once again, more money for prisons.

Not so much for Philly schools and their doomsday budget, which has prompted the lay off of 3,859 teachers, aides, administrators and other staff.

And there's more.

Last month, City Paper revealed that self-described reform group PennCAN is secretly lobbying the governor to exploit the city schools crisis as an opportunity to attack the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers for political gain.

Notably, the state has controlled Philadelphia's School Reform Commission, which bargained the current contract with the PFT, for more than a decade. But in Harrisburg, the reflex is to blame Philadelphia and teachers.

And so the Harrisburg budget fiasco has once again drawn back the curtain on a political establishment profoundly hostile to the public good.

The Philadelphia Schools Partnership, which has a close working relationship with the Nutter Administration, is backing PennCAN's campaign to fight the union. 

This is not surprising, especially given that PennCAN, which supports school vouchers, got its start in PSP's office.

PSP is now, according to multiple sources, making robocalls urging Philadelphians to ask their legislators to support Gov. Corbett. PSP, according to one recipient, is asking voters in other districts to contact Rep. Jim Roebuck, one of Harrisburg's most outspoken supporters of school funding and opponents of the sorts of private-managment schemes advocated by PSP.

The group became a political force overnight thanks to $15 million from the William Penn Foundation.

Meanwhile, the old fair-funding formula targeting dollars to the most needy students instituted by Gov. Ed Rendell remains in the dustbin. The brave new formula requires Philadelphians and teachers to pay more than we can afford while wealthy businesses and nonprofits contribute basically nothing to solve the crisis. This is supported by Corbett, the SRC, Superintendent William Hite, business leaders, "reform" advocacy groups and, apparently, city leaders.

This afternoon, Council President Darrell Clarke's office rejected a comment from Comcast V.P. David Cohen that implied Clarke "was briefed on and endorses Governor Corbett’s response to the School District of Philadelphia."

Cohen, one of the state's most powerful political players and a former Rendell chief of staff, is now a top Corbett donor. Comcast received a $28.8 million property tax break from 2008 through 2013, thanks to the city's abatement program. It now stands to win more under the Actual Value Initiative, which shifts the property tax burden from commercial to residential properties.

Corporate leaders have vigorously opposed business tax hikes to aid city schools.

Last Friday, education historian Diane Ravitch and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, urging that he intervene.

"Philadelphia’s children will lose art, music, physical education, libraries and the rich learning environments they need and deserve. Everything that helps inspire and engage students will be gone. The schools will lose social workers, school nurses, counselors, paraprofessionals and teachers. Classrooms will be more crowded, denying children the attention they need. Sports and extracurricular activities will be gutted as well as after- school programs that help keep kids safe and engaged. And children will be denied the social, emotional and health services they need. All of these cuts, on top of the mass school closings, have a disproportionate effect on African-American students, English language learners and students from low-income families."

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