What we are Fighting for . . . what we are up against
Published June 2011 Voice
For an hour under a blistering sun and sweltering temperatures unusual for a May afternoon, speaker after speaker strode to the microphone on the Capitol steps in Harrisburg.
This wasn’t a day for words from polished politicians. Instead those elected officials who sympathized with the protests over deep state budgets at the Clear Coalition rally stood in the background.
Those who spoke to the throng of 5,000 people were average, middle-class Pennsylvanians – teachers, cafeteria workers, and custodians from schools throughout the Commonwealth, and public employees who work with people with disabilities and mental illnesses.
Some of the speakers weren’t used to addressing public crowds, and didn’t quite get out the words exactly as they wrote them down beforehand.
It didn’t matter. They all wore their hearts on their sleeves.
“I am a teacher. I know what the governor’s $1.2 billion in cuts to public schools means for teachers, students, and parents,” said Kevin Deely, Easton Area EA president. “It means programs that work will be eliminated. It means class sizes will increase. It means property taxes will go up. But you know what? When I look out at this crowd today, I know that we can stop them. I know that we can make a difference.”
Like other speakers, Deely was only allotted a few minutes. But he could have taken the full hour or longer giving examples of the great public education system in Pennsylvania and those who work on behalf of students. Examples like these:
- Burgettstown High School teacher Sharon Baillie being named the American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences’ 2011 National Teacher of the Year
- State College High School teacher Gail Romig being among 85 teachers nationally to receive the prestigious Presidential Award in Mathematics & Science
- Benton High School teacher Doug McCracken, who, based on an essay written about his outstanding classroom ability, was honored in a special segment last month by WVIA public television in Pittston
- The significant gains in reading and math in recent years by Pennsylvania students
- More Pennsylvania students than ever—7 out of 10—going on to higher education
- Teacher mentoring programs such as those at the Bellwood-Antis and State College school districts, where under a program administered by Penn State University, college “interns” spend a full year in the classroom under the tutelage of existing teachers
- Full-day kindergarten and other early childhood education programs that 1st grade teachers across the state say gives students, particularly those from minority and low-income households, a great head start.
This short list of examples, which are included in stories throughout this issue of Voice, each reflect in some way “Solutions That Work”—research-based and field-proven programs that have and are increasing student achievement.
That is what PSEA is fighting for—using these solutions to make a great public school system even better, and to apply those solutions to the few struggling school districts in the state that clearly need targeted resources (see story on page 19). This battle costs money, however. See the section in this story subtitled “The Public Education Political Party” and the special insert in this issue on PSEA-PACE.
What we—and “we” means all PSEA members – are up against is this:
- A governor who wants to cut $1.2 billion from K-12 funding in the 2011-12 state budget despite a projected surplus this fiscal year, and potential revenues that could be gained by simply closing tax loopholes for huge corporations, and taxing natural gas companies now tapping Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale
- A governor and some key legislators, who, on top of the budget cuts, want to take hundreds of millions of dollars more of taxpayers’ money and give it to private schools for tuition vouchers for a few select students with no strings attached
- Financial backing to voucher proponents by a small circle of ideologically driven billionaires who have made taking taxpayer money and putting it into the private sector a personal crusade
- A governor whose budget cuts not only threaten jobs, programs, and class sizes, but also will cause significant property tax increases at the local level
- Legislative proposals threatening hard-won professional rights and our ability to collectively bargain
- And last but certainly not least, a governor who blames teachers unions for most problems in education.
“The unions have forced school districts to focus more on contracts and not curriculum,” Corbett recently said.
This and other attacks on our union have no basis in fact, but they continue unabated. In the United States, heavily unionized Northern schools far outperform those in the far-less unionized South. And Finland, whose education system is considered one of the best in the world, has a heavily unionized workforce.
In addition, the criticism of the governor’s public education cuts goes well beyond union circles.
But while the governor may not be letting the facts about student achievement get in the way of the distorted story he, voucher supporters, and blatant union busters are trying to sell, you have to give him credit for this: He is doing pretty much what he said he’d do during his campaign.
“I said it during the campaign, and I’m saying it now: elections have consequences,” said PSEA President James P. Testerman. “If our members feel like they are under siege, it’s because they are.”
Encouragingly, however, public opinion polls are showing majorities disapprove of the deep cuts to K-12 and higher education. Whether enough legislators will agree with their constituents and restore the funding by the time the final budget is passed remains to be seen.
But PSEA members must keep their collective feet on the gas right now in the form of contacts with elected representatives and pledging to promote and help finance pro-public education candidates in future elections.
“IF EVER—I again stress, IF EVER—there was a time to come off the sideline and get in the game it is now,” Testerman said. “I do not exaggerate one bit when I say the future of public education in this state hangs in the balance.”
Trickle down pain
Does this sound like any of you?
You are a teacher, an aide, a cafeteria worker, or a bus driver. You have a child in a public school, and another attending a state-related or state-owned university. The family budget is a little tight.
Gov. Corbett’s solution: A free ride for corporations, and let the magic of trickle down economics help the average Pennsylvanian. It’s not a new idea, and it’s not one with much of a track record. Remember “Voodoo Economics?”
What is trickling down is this: Your job security is threatened, if you still even have a job; class sizes are going to increase at your child’s public school, and extracurriculars and other programs are being cut; your child’s college tuition is going to rise significantly as a result of the governor’s proposed 50 percent cut in higher education funding; and even with significant program cuts, local school districts are going to be forced to raise property taxes.
And yes, teachers and education professionals pay taxes, unlike some major corporations who escape paying a dime thanks to loopholes the governor refuses to consider closing, and which powerful business lobbies fight to continue.
“Trickle down economics?” asks Testerman. “I’d say it’s trickle down pain.”
Wait, there’s more! There are also proposals afloat in the Legislature that would threaten your collective bargaining rights —proposals similar to what is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey and other states.
Again, elections have consequences.
While it may be a bad time to be a member of the low-income or middle classes in Pennsylvania right now, or to be a small business owner, it’s the right time to be a big corporation or a natural gas company.
The huge natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale have attracted the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania in a big way. Every state in the country with natural gas deposits, including neighboring West Virginia, levies an extraction tax on companies.
Gov. Corbett has indicated a willingness to perhaps support impact fees to help offset negative environmental and infrastructure consequences to local communities within the Marcellus, but an impact fee is not a tax and he refuses to consider allowing any revenue to go to the general fund.
“The local impact fee is fine, but what is really needed is an extraction tax or some combination of fees and taxes that both help local communities and provide taxpayers the benefits they deserve,” Testerman said.
The governor says he’s concerned a tax will drive companies away from Pennsylvania.
“Where are they going to go?” Testerman asked. “To the other states that already tax them?”
Similarly, the governor has ignored calls to close the infamous “Delaware loophole.” The loophole allows companies doing business in Pennsylvania to set up a holding company – often with nothing more than a post office box – to avoid paying the Commonwealth’s Corporate Net Income Tax.
The CLEAR Coalition estimates these loopholes cost Pennsylvania taxpayers anywhere from $400 million to $1 billion annually. Wal-mart, Comcast, and Best Buy are among the many corporations who escape paying taxes to Pennsylvania, a point touched on by speakers at the CLEAR Coalition rally.
“We pay our fair share of taxes,” said Steve Taylor, an electrician in the New Kensington School District and a member of SEIU. “All we are asking is that major corporations pay their fair share, too.”
Thanks to those who are paying their fair share, despite a still shaky economy and the free ride given to corporations, the state is looking at a revenue surplus for the current fiscal year.
Rather than help restore funding, the governor wants to save it for a “rainy day.”
The storm is here, you say? Well, there may be a torrential downpour over average Pennsylvanians and the public education system, but it’s sunshine and blue skies for corporations.
Criticism from other organizations
The teacher demonizing and union bashing now coming from the governor’s office, some legislators, and anti-union/anti-public education organizations is a bit disingenuous in that it overlooks the non-union criticism of the budget cuts.
The 30 member organizations of the Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign (www.paschoolfunding.org) represent parents, the clergy, school board members, school administrators, and school business officials, among others.
Prior to the CLEAR rally, the NAACP of Pennsylvania also held a rally on the Capitol steps to protest education cuts.
Visit the website of any newspaper in the state, do a search of budget-related issues, and see the concerns being raised by diverse segments of the community. Collectively, these stories also show the carnage that is being done: tentative 2011-12 school district budgets that plan on larger class sizes; curtail and eliminate extracurricular activities; cut programs like consumer sciences, arts, and music; and end supplementary support services to students in need.
Estimates from some school administrators are that the governor’s proposed elimination of Accountability Block Grants—available since 2004 and used heavily for early childhood education—in and of itself could cost 50,000 children across Pennsylvania to lose access to full-day kindergarten.
“The ripple effect has begun and all students will be affected,” Richard W. Fry, superintendent of the Big Spring School District in Newville, wrote in an op-ed in The Harrisburg Patriot-News. “There’s no way to let teachers go, increase class size, reduce academic offerings, and not feel the impact on the quality of education we provide.”
The Public Education Political Party
There is no getting around the fact that the anti-public education forces in Pennsylvania are powerful.
Among them are a circle of billionaires—Milton and Pam Schneider, Joel Greenberg, Jeffrey Yass, and Arthur Dantchik—who in a three-week period in April 2010 contributed nearly $1.3 million combined to the political action committee of the pro-voucher group, Students First (see below).
Some of the individual checks of $220,000 are more than four times the average teacher’s salary in Pennsylvania.
These same people also contributed millions during last year’s election, including contributions to Corbett’s campaign and key pro-voucher legislators of both parties, and they can be expected to keep reaching into those deep pockets in the future.
While grassroots political action is important – and PSEA members excel at it – the reality is that, as former California State Treasurer and national Democratic figure Jesse Unruh once proclaimed: “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”
Making the picture all the more problematic for unions and others who take up the cause of the middle class is a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling – Citizens United – allowing big corporations to directly fund political campaigns.
This issue of Voice contains a special insert on PSEA-PACE, and an envelope for members to make contributions to be used to support pro-public education candidates. Remember, members’ dues aren’t used toward political campaigns.
“The hard lessons some of our members are learning now about the consequences of elections is why PSEA works so hard to support pro-public education candidates regardless of party affiliation, as well as a pro-public education agenda in state, national, and local politics,” Testerman said. “Quality public schools not only provide a great future for our students, they contribute to the economic vitality of our state.
“Our political party is public education. That is what we are asking members to support.”