November 5, 2013

No Suficientes Libros

Voice cover story image - Nov 2013Voice: November 2013

Anita Young was thrilled with the large amount of interest in her Spanish classes this year.

But when she tried to get the 20 extra textbooks needed for a Spanish I class at Huntingdon Area High School, Huntingdon County, there was no money in the school district budget, which like those in districts across the state has been wracked by Gov. Tom Corbett's nearly $1 billion in school funding cuts.

So, students in her Spanish I class are sharing textbooks – one book for every two students. In Spanish, it's “No Suficientes Libros'' – not enough books.

“This makes it pretty difficult to have students complete independent work,'' Young said. “Spanish is something that has to be practiced, and the students do not have the opportunity to practice at home with their textbook.''

Her students, she said, “are getting the short end of the stick.''

That's because the large end is being held by corporate leaders whose companies are beneficiaries of tax breaks and tax loopholes supported by Gov. Tom Corbett at the expense of public education.

It is doubtful that people like Gerald Storch, board chairman of  Toys ‘R' Us who stepped down as the toy conglomerate's CEO in May after earning more than $13 million in compensation the past two fiscal years, has any wants or needs for lack of resources. 

Or Exxon/Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who earned $40.3 million last year. Or Walmart head Michael T. Duke and his $20.7 million in compensation last year. Or Francis Blake, Home Depot CEO, who earned $11.1 million in 2012. Or Peter Voser and his $5.1 million compensation as chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell.

To use an old Pennsylvania farmer's expression, it's pretty safe to assume these men are living much higher on the hog than teachers, ESPs, the parents of public school students, and the majority of taxpayers, who whether they realize it or not, are helping to subsidize corporate bottom lines in the state. Those healthy bottom lines are the basis for the salaries listed above.

“There's a school funding crisis in Pennsylvania,'' said PSEA President Michael J. Crossey. “Bad choices caused it, big corporations are benefitting from it, and our students are suffering because of it.

“There was no crisis until Gov. Corbett took office. But he created a crisis because he needed the money to line the pockets of corporate interests who are his political supporters.''

Tough odds increasing

Like all good teachers, Young is adjusting to provide the best she possibly can for her students.

“I have tried as many other resources as possible, and I photocopy what I think is essential without infringing on copyrights,'' she said. “But it is hard to explain to students.''

In the northeast section of the state – many miles and demographics away from Young's rural district nestled amid the central mountain – Tim Kearney is a fifth-grade teacher in the Allentown School District, which like other urban districts across Pennsylvania has been hit the hardest by the governor's putting corporate interests ahead of public school students (see story page 21).

Similar to other urban districts, Allentown has larger percentages of students with special needs, and children from more impoverished backgrounds.

Kearney said students who need more individual attention are now in larger classrooms; tutoring programs have been severely cut or eliminated; intervention specialist positions have been cut; summer school programs are gone; extracurricular activities and after-school programs have been sharply reduced; and arts and music classes have been cut back.

“While some parents might be able to compensate for cuts by having their children play in their yard after school, sign up their children for after-school clubs and programs, and enrich their child's life, others simply do not have the time, money, knowledge, and resources to overcome these cuts,'' Kearney said. “I teach in a district where every child gets free lunch due to the high poverty rate. These are high at-risk students in a district lacking an adequate tax base to compensate for any federal and state cuts in funding.''

Kearney eloquently outlines the problems affecting urban districts. But poverty doesn't stop at city limits, and smaller districts also have at-risk students whose odds against them have gotten stacked higher under the Corbett administration.

That is exactly what has happened in the Sharon City School District in western Pennsylvania, where state funding cuts have forced district officials to eliminate programs for at-risk students.

“We have kids from backgrounds that are incredibly poor,'' said Sharon City guidance counselor Gary Revale. “Budget cuts have taken away the programs and connections our kids need.''

The big end of the stick

One of the reasons Peter Voser is so handsomely compensated is that the company he heads, Royal Dutch Shell, is the world's second-largest company with $25.1 billion in earnings in 2012.

It would seem like its subsidiary, Shell Oil, wouldn't need the help of Pennsylvania taxpayers to build an ethane-cracking plant in western Pennsylvania to support its operations in the Marcellus Shale.

Yet the same governor who has cut nearly $1 billion in public education funding has offered Shell $1.7 billion in tax breaks to do so.

The same Shell Oil, who like Exxon/Mobil, the world's largest company with $44.9 billion in earnings last year, is getting a pass on paying natural gas extraction taxes in the Marcellus Shale.

That's because a special Marcellus panel appointed by Corbett and composed primarily of members of the natural gas industry – major political contributors of the governor's – recommended against such a levy even though every other state in the country with natural gas deposits taxes extraction.

Emphasis is added on every other because what is the governor's “reasoning'' for not imposing a tax? He fears drillers will go to other states.

As illogical as the Marcellus free pass is, it's not the only massive financial perk multi-billion-dollar corporations receive.

The “Delaware Loophole,'' through which companies can avoid paying certain Pennsylvania corporate taxes by establishing a holding company with nothing more than a post office box in Delaware, is going strong under Corbett.

Despite repeated calls to close the loophole, and legislative proposals to do it, Corbett turns away and allows companies like Exxon/Mobil, Toys ‘R' Us, Home Depot, and Walmart to shield profits in Delaware.

“Lawmakers can stop the school funding crisis and restore the governor's funding cuts, if they make the right choices,'' PSEA's Crossey said. “If we tax corporations fairly, there will be more than enough revenue.''

Studies estimate that a Marcellus tax similar to the one levied by neighboring West Virginia would bring in $24 billion over the next 20 years. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center estimates the Delaware Loophole deprives Pennsylvania coffers of $500 million to $600 million annually.

The bottom line, to use corporate parlance, is that Pennsylvania taxpayers are subsidizing highly profitable international corporations, while the schools in their communities have been forced to cut programs, and eliminate nearly 20,000 education jobs.

“It is unacceptable for students, senior citizens, and middle-class working families to suffer, while big corporations are protected from paying their fair share of taxes,'' said Brad Siegfried, an elementary teacher in the Philipsburg-Osceola School District, Clearfield County. “We all recognize that Pennsylvania faces one of the most difficult economic periods in decades, but we must not balance the state's budget with more cuts to essential services or reductions in critical investments in public education.''

Still there for students

Not far from where Siegfried teaches, Mark Condo has seen the same impact of state funding cuts in his district.

The history teacher in the Central Mountain School District, Clinton County, has seen 30 teaching positions lost since Corbett took over as governor in January 2011. The results are similar to districts statewide – larger class sizes and fewer programs.

The remaining teachers have sacrificed for the sake of the students. The Clinton County EA, of which Condo is president, took a one-year pay freeze.

And in the face of that, teachers are reaching into their own pockets.

“Teachers are buying a lot of supplies with their own money,'' Condo said.

In the Bethlehem School District, teachers say they refuse to just lay down and let state funding cuts defeat public education.

Yes, biology teachers report outdated lab equipment and building libraries have closed, but educators are using their spare time and their own money to come up with innovative and creative programs to try to fill the void.

“We get by,'' said Bethlehem elementary teacher Amy Wastler, but she quickly adds that students “aren't learning as they need to learn.''

Allentown's Kearney noted that teachers went into the profession to “make a difference'' and that the lack of resources – at the expense of serving corporate interests – is incredibly frustrating.

“It hurts me to see it getting harder each year with budget cuts,'' he said. “We aren't asking for the world. We're asking for improvement in our students' world. We aren't asking for unlimited funding. We're asking for funding to give our students unlimited freedom to reach their goals, dreams, and full potential – funding so they can get a good head start, and early education, art, physical education, music, library, and other things that used to be considered a given when we talked about school.''

Not alone in fight

As educators wage a valiant fight against the historic funding cuts and unprecedented attacks on public schools, they can take heart that they aren't alone.

PSEA's Partners for Public Education (www.partnersforpubliced.org) has had great success in organizing coalitions of educators, parents, and community members to advocate for public education, particularly the restoration of funding.

Other organizations, including some that aren't always ideologically aligned with PSEA on issues, are also rallying – literally.

A cross section of public education advocates took to the state Capitol steps this fall to urge legislators returning from their summer recess to make restoration of public education funding a top priority.

“Some school districts have closed libraries, some school districts have changed their transportation pattern, they've cut athletics,'' said Mark Miller, vice president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and a school board member in the Centennial School District, Bucks County. “The sizes of the classes are going up, extracurricular activities are going down.''

Another member of a school board, Maura Buri of the Upper Merion School District, Montgomery County, said she sees the impact of the funding cuts from both the perspective of a school director and as the mother of three public school students who are now in larger classes.

“Our special needs kids are not getting the services that they need,'' Buri said. “Some programs are required by law, and it makes us cut other programs just so we can meet the requirements.''

The raw numbers back up Miller's and Buri's comments (see Center Section, page 16):

 

  • Seventy percent of school districts increased class sizes in 2011-12, the first academic year to feel the wrath of Corbett's budgets; 51 percent increased class sizes last year; and 47 percent this year
  • Thirty-five percent of districts cut tutoring in 2011-12; 32 percent in 2012-13; and 22 percent in 2013-14
  • Forty-four percent of districts cut important courses in 2011-12; 43 percent in 2012-13; and 30 percent in 2013-14.

 

“And the governor and his allies claim there isn't a public education funding crisis in Pennsylvania?'' Crossey said. “There is and it's of his making. Compare the numbers from school districts to the bottom line numbers of big corporations.''

In an op-ed in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, three members of pro-public education organizations noted that Corbett's predecessor, Gov. Ed Rendell, had implemented a funding formula based on need, and that was working well in both making funding more equitable statewide, and providing the resources that were spurring student achievement.

“Pennsylvania had a funding formula in place, but in 2011 Gov. Corbett tossed it out,'' wrote Susan Gobreski of Education Voters of PA, Lawrence A. Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition, and Susan Spicka of Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley. “Pennsylvania's public school children are paying a heavy price for the failure of Gov. Corbett and our state Legislature to perform the ONLY service mandated by the Pennsylvania Constitution, which clearly states: ‘The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.'''

What does the Corbett administration's report card show on that front?

The three noted that in 2011, a year into Corbett's term, the state was providing only 34 percent of all funding for public schools, while local taxes accounted for 53 percent.

That puts Pennsylvania 47th out of 50 states in public school support.

Benjamin Franklin and other framers of the state constitution would surely give that an “F.''

All In

In addition to recognizing the value of education in helping craft Pennsylvania's constitution, Franklin made another wise observation in the days surrounding adoption of the Declaration of Independence:

“We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.''

As another Corbett budget proposal looms early next year, and the crucial 2014 election year approaches, there is a prompt analogy with Franklin's words, and what PSEA members and pro-public education allies face.

Stick together and fight to ward off this assault on public education and change the political environment, or face another four years of twisting in what will be savage winds of a second Corbett administration.

PSEA has started a new member advocacy program: All In.

Members need to go All In by emailing, phoning, and making personal contacts with legislators to restore funding in the 2014-15 budget – the same legislators who will also face voters next year.

Members need to go All In and reach out to friends and family members to become Partners for Public Education.

Members need to go All In by contributing to PSEA-PACE, which will support pro-public education candidates in 2014.

As Ben Franklin said:

“Energy and persistence conquer all things.''  

 

 

 



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