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Tom Corbett's Very Bad Week

Last week, the Pennsylvania governor faced fierce protests from citizens who refuse to stand by as public education in their state is destroyed.
 
 
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It was worse than a bad hair day -- last week, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett had a bad education week. Wherever he showed up, people protested. As he spoke to the Chamber of Commerce in Reading on Monday, over 100 people stood outside chanting. Bryan Sanguinito, president of the Reading Education Association, put it bluntly: “We’re here to let the governor know that he’s not welcome here in Reading because of what he has done to our students and to our schools.” Reading, which is teetering on the edge of “distressed” school status, is laying off 170 more teachers this year.

Tuesday, Gov. Corbett’s office refused to accept letters from school children in Pittsburgh, and was greeted with a rally at his front door in Harrisburg. (See “The Governor Must Listen.”)

But Wednesday took the cake. Pennsylvania literally took to the streets, protesting Gov. Corbett’s education cuts with large demonstrations in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh. In Philadelphia, several thousand people marched through the streets chanting, “Save our schools!” Organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the parade included a sea of bus drivers, janitors, and other school workers who have been uniformly pink slipped by the state in its effort to privatize the Philadelphia education system. Fourteen people were arrestedin a peaceful sit-down demonstration designed to get the Governor’s attention.

At the very same time, several hundred people marched through the streets of Pittsburgh to Governor Corbett’s downtown office. After denying entrance to a small group of moms and kids on Tuesday, it was no surprise that the governor’s office refused to accept a message from representatives of this group. Eleven protestors then sat peacefully in the street in a planned demonstration and were arrested for blocking traffic. These folks – parents, teachers, school workers, preachers, community members – chose to take a bold stand to send a strong message to the Governor. “We can’t afford to stand by and watch public education eroded,” the Rev. David Thornton of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Hill District, told the crowd. Governor Corbett “needs to understand that we are in this fight for the long haul because we care about our children and quality public education for all children.”

Meanwhile, in Harrisburg, over 1,000 people marched to the capitol building in support of the public schools in the state’s capitol. State budget cuts have exacerbated an already dire situation for the Harrisburg school district, which is one of our “distressed” school districts (along with Duquesne right here in the heart of Yinzer Nation). Parents from the Shippensburg and Chambersburg area marched along in solidarity and students delivered thousands of letters to legislators. 

And all day long on Wednesday, people across Pennsylvania participated in a state-wide call-in-day, phoning the Governor’s office and their state legislators. Parents at several Pittsburgh Public Schools made flyers with information about specific cuts to their schools and stood on the sidewalks handing them out to families as they dropped off and picked up their children, urging people to call their representatives.

Governor Corbett might have been shutting his eyes and plugging his ears all day, hoping this would all go away. But he could hardly ignore the massive protests from one end of the state to the other. By noon, he had his office email a statement to reporters repeating his tired claim that he has not cut money from education. How he can say this with a straight face these days in anyone’s guess, as overwhelming evidence to the contrary stares back at him.

And yet, Corbett’s spokesman Kevin Harley said it is “simply untrue” that the Governor has cut education funding. Sticking to his well-worn script, Harley insisted that Corbett merely refused to replace federal stimulus money. The problem with this claim is that the state had already committed itself to righting a historically unjust education budget and had started on a six-year plan that school districts were working under. While Gov. Rendell and Gov. Corbett chose to use stimulus dollars to pay for the plan, yanking the entire sum now has pulled the rug out from under our schools.

Here’s the back-story: The state uses a formula to distribute money to school districts. However, between 1991 and 2008, this formula did not distribute money adequately or equitably. Hundreds of school districts – especially the poorest – lacked the resources they needed to provide a consistently high-quality education to their students. And legislators had no way of knowing which districts had adequate resources.

To fix this problem, in 2006 the General Assembly called for a statewide study. Called the “Costing-Out Study,” it concluded that Pennsylvania was short-changing K-12 schools to the tune of $4 billion. (APA Report to the State Board of Education, December 2007). The legislature wisely responded by passing Act 61 of 2008, establishing a six-year plan to phase in increased state funding for public education. In 2009 and 2010, the state used the new formula – and also used federal stimulus money to pay for the increased funding (which, remember, it had already committed itself to). Then came the unprecedented cuts to public education in 2011. These disproportionately affected the poorest school districts once again, in large part because the state rolled back its funding to previous levels, rolling back all the progress it had made towards equity at the same time.

In other words, this was not a simple scaling back of the budget, but a wholesale betrayal of Pennsylvania’s own commitment to a rational and fair education budget. To claim that the state is merely reverting to previous funding levels, or simply not replacing stimulus money, obscures the fact that this budget re-installs historic inequities and restores a deeply flawed system.

Corbett’s spokesman, Kevin Harley, also repeated his distortion of reality, claiming that the governor has “added more” to Basic Education and that “Pennsylvania taxpayers now pay more toward Basic Education than at any time in the state’s history.” The fact is Gov. Corbett collapsed several line items into what’s called the “Basic Education” line item (which is just one of many in the education budget), inflating this single line item while actually slashing the overall education budget. Even Corbett admitted as much back in February, saying, “We reduced education funding if you look at it as a whole.”

The Governor’s office tried to go on the offensive on Wednesday, blaming the press, saying: “Political opponents of the governor will cling to this myth of a $1 billion cut so long as the media goes along with the fiction.” So who is the one propagating myths? The thousands upon thousands of Pennsylvanians who took to the streets and their phones this past week are not buying the Governor’s fiction. It’s time for him to try a different story – one from the nonfiction aisle – one with adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for public education.


Originally published by Jessie B. Ramey on Yinzercation, May 24, 2012.

Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D., is the ACLS New Faculty Fellow in Women's Studies and History at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a historian of working families and social reform and author of the award-winning, Childcare in Black and White: Working Parents and the History of Orphanages (University of Illinois Press, 2012). She is the founder of Yinzercation, a blog and website for a grassroots public education advocacy movement in Pennsylvania.