Saturday, September 27, 2014

Corbett, Wolf, Money, and Schools in PA

My own governor, Tom Corbett of PA, is looking at an uphill battle in his effort to get re-elected for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is his education record.

Pennsylvania is a complicated state, and this is a complicated race for teachers. Corbett is opposed by Tom Wolf, a sort-of Democrat who comes from York (location of the latest rapacious charter incursion) and whose main qualification for the governor's office is that he's a rich businessman. His previous government experience was working for Governor "Smilin' Ed" Rendell, a Democrat who viewed teachers about as fondly as he viewed the gum stuck to the bottom of old gym shoes. The Pennsylvania State Education Association endorsed Wolf's opponent in the primary but is now solidly backing Wolf, because politics.

Wolf's York connection turns out to be doubly important, because many of his buddies (including his campaign treasurer, who also works for the family business) are directly involved in the report that recommended converting York schools to a 100% charter. Activist Colleen Kennedy put that together back in May. David Meckley, the Corbett-picked "recovery officer" heading up the push to replace an entire public school system with charters (yes, I know I'm repeating myself, but it's so hard to believe that I want you to be sure I didn't suffer a massive typo) is also part of a multigenerational successful York family, and a friend of Wolf's.

Now Wolf has finally come out to specifically reject that plan. Maybe it's just good politics, and maybe it's a quid pro quo for the PSEA endorsement, but you'll excuse me if I don't get out my checkbook and start putting "Wolf for Governor" signs in my yard. The PSEA liked Ed Rendell, too, but once in office he was a lousy governor for education. PSEA likes to play the "let's earn a seat at the table" game, a point I've bitched about to PSEA officials, and I generally get a response of "Well, it could have been so much worse." Which is true, I suppose. I mean, you can add "and then I was diagnosed with cancer and hit by a truck" to the end of any news and make it worse. Doesn't mean I want to be friends with someone just because he punches me in the face slightly less hard than my enemies.

All of which is a way of saying that I'm not pre-disposed to automatically accept anybody's rhetoric about education in this election.

The big talking point is the $1 billion that Corbett took out of education spending. You would think that sort of accusation would involve pretty cut and dried facts. You would be wrong.

If you want a long, thorough, fact-laden unraveling of the issue, with lots of interactive charts, I recommend this piece (oddly enough, from the York Daily Record). But we can get the rough cut from this article and its attendant chart at

The yellow pieces of bar would be the part where Smilin' Ed decided to use stimulus money to finance cuts to the education budget. The light blue part would be the part where we try to rescue PA education pensions from the economically disastrously incompetent skullduggery of the banksters. The short explanation of the argument is that Corbett would like voters to notice the yellow parts; he would also like voters to count the pension spending as education spending. This is deliciously ironic, as it involves an elected official officially arguing that anything that is for the good of teachers is also for the good of schools and education. (Do not hold your breath waiting for this argument to be applied anywhere else.) 

Meanwhile, Wolf would rather that voters not notice the yellow parts, but would like them to NOT count pension costs as education costs. 

Each campaign is actually peddling its own slightly massaged version of the truth. Because, politics.

There are other financial issue adding to the murk. It used to be that after a student switched to charter schools, some of the money that followed him there was shuttled back to his real public school. Under Corbett, that shuttling stopped. Add the complete lack of cyber-charter oversight in PA, and you get a state where running a cyber-school is faster, easier, and safer than just printing money in your garage. Meanwhile, the funding formula is bleeding public schools dry.

Not that public schools can do much about it. Under Smilin' Ed (who was all about property tax relief), school districts lost the ability to raises taxes in any given year by more than a smidge without a referendum. (Among other unintended consequences, this means that I am filling out my budget for the 2015-2016 right now). And because of a decade of can-kicking (maybe if we just wait, the market will suck less again), all of these districts have staggering pension bills coming due soon.

Let me also throw this in-- we have one of the hugest ranges of district types in the country. We have super-urban Philly and Pittsburgh, but we also have West Forest County schools, where half the geographical area of the county is served by a single building that includes about 400 students, K-12. Our funding system sucks, but I guarantee you that whatever system you devise, it will be royally shafting some district somewhere in the state.

The past two administrations in PA-- one GOP and one Dem-- have been disastrous for education. As noted by, PA ranks 13th in spending per pupil, but 21st in per pupil spending that comes from the state. Local distracts are hurting. 

I wish I could paint a clearer, more pleasant picture of good guys and bad guys, but Pennsylvania is another state facing some difficult choices. Make no mistake-- Corbett is dreadful in general and terrible for education in particular. But it would take a hell of a whiz to get us sorted out, and I'm disinclined to see Wolf as that whiz. We're in trouble, and we're going to have an election, and afterwards, we're still going to be in trouble. That's about all I'm sure of.

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