As I've outlined elsewhere, Pennsylvania suffers from long-standing school funding issues. In recent years these have been exacerbated by pension funding issues and policies that allow charter schools to suck the blood right out of public systems. Put it all together, and Pennsylvania has the widest gap between rich and poor schools in the country.
But on top of all that, Pennsylvania is suffering from the flare-up of whatever chronic problem it is that has led to five budget impasses in the past ten years. We are on day one-hundred-and-oh-hell-you-have-GOT-to-be-kidding-me of Life without Budget. And in Pennsylvania, when we don't have a budget, people don't get paid. (Well, most people. In some manner that literally nobody is prepared to explain, the state has spent $27 billion of some money on some thing.)
This is not just a school issue. Right now you can't swing a cat in the commonwealth without whacking it into a service organization or government program that's having trouble meeting payroll and taking care of the citizens it was set up to serve. Senior citizens, the disabled, the unemployed-- all are looking at a patchwork of supports that appears to have been gnawed on by some very angry goat.
But every single school district in the state is getting hit. Back in August the teachers in Chester Uplands* made headlines by offering to work for free, but they were just the canary in this particular coal mine. Districts across the state are looking for ways to beg, borrow, and steal enough money to stay in business. Some have been pretty direct in their commentary-- the Erie School District asked the state to float them an interest-free loan of $47mill to keep the lights on. Districts have felt the need to announce how long they can last on cash reserves (fun fact-- in the last decade the state has passed regulations limiting how much money a district can park in its general reserve fund). Word on the street is that the state will NOT be reimbursing districts for the money they will be spending on the millions and millions of dollars they'll be borrowing to tide them over. Okay, it's actually about half a billion dollars.
In other words, on top of interfering with the stable operation of basic government services, this budgetary cockfight will end up costing taxpayers real money. Because if there's anything that taxpayers want to do, it's finance legislative logjams.
So this week, the legislature took some real action.
They went on vacation.
I'm not kidding.
Even as the State Auditor was holding a press conference about just how awful the budget crisis has become, the legislature was voting along party lines to take their two week vaca. And because our legislature is GOP-controlled, that means that our legislators have headed home to fiddle while the state burns (it also means our Democratic legislators could vote against vacation knowing that it wouldn't change anything except how they looked to the public). Or would burn, if anyone could afford matches and firewood.
Folks are loaded with creative ideas. Let's all refuse to pay taxes for the same number of days the budget is late. Let's cut legislator pay (the second-highest in the country) by a pro-rated daily amount for all the hundred-and-what-the-hell days they don't get their job done.
It is impossible from out here in the cheap seats to tell what is really happening, or not, because what plays out here is various acts of political gamesmanship. The legislature offers a "stopgap" measure which is essentially their original budget ideas for a shorter period of time. The governor vetoes it. All done with fanfare and an eye on the press releases. Pennsylvania residents can be excused for concluding that their elected leadership sucks.
And yes, I get that sometimes when negotiations are going badly, it's good to step back and clear heads. But this billion-dollar crisis is well past that point. Arguing about Titanic deck chairs is a waste of time, and "Let's take a second to clear our heads" is inappropriate when the burning house is collapsing around you.
But if you are a Pennsylvanian and this bugs you, I suggest you let your elected representative know about your displeasure. He should be easy to find. He'll be home for the next two weeks.
*corrected- I originally gave the incorrect district name here