PA Senate Regulates Union Political Spending But Not Corporate Political Spending

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In a display of blatant hypocrisy, the Pennsylvania state Senate voted yesterday to further regulate labor unions political spending but not that of corporations.

 

By a vote of 28-22, the Senate passed a bill blocking government agencies from deducting union dues used for political activity from employees’ paychecks.

 

Even though six Republicans joined all Democrats in opposing SB 166, it now goes to the state House for consideration.

 

Typically only about 10 percent of union dues are used in politics. These are voluntary contributions employees ask to be deducted from their pay for lobbying in their own interests. Like contributions to the United Way or other charities, it’s an issue of convenience for employees but poses no significant burden on employers.

 

However, businesses such as insurance companies, big banks and financial companies also are involved in politics. Shouldn’t their spending be subject to similar controls?

 

Apparently not, according to Senate Republicans.

 

Leading Democrat Sen. Jay Costa (D-Forest Hills) proposed an amendment to the bill that would have put similar regulations on corporations in the state. It was defeated by a party line vote of 16-34.

 

Costa’s amendment would have required corporations that are organized in the Commonwealth to get shareholders consent before spending any more than $10,000 a year on politics.

 

It was a common sense measure meant to ensure that CEOs and board of directors are acting in the interests of their shareholders. However, Senate Republicans turned it down while ramping up restrictions on working people.

 

State Republicans have made it clear that the problem is not political spending. It is political spending by labor unions. It is political spending that more typically goes to the opposition party.

 

They don’t care how corporations participate in the political process. They only care about unions, which historically vote against Republicans.

 

It is impossible to conceive that political considerations played no part in their decision. After all, corporations are much more likely to donate to members of the GOP than they are to Democrats. Republicans can talk about liberty all they want, but voters know this is all about protecting contributions to the GOP while weakening such revenue streams to Democrats. Otherwise, why not level equal regulations for both parties?

 

Getting money out of politics is a noble goal. But that’s not what this is. It is about getting the opposition party’s money out while keeping bags of gold doubloons for you and yours.

 

The measure could just as easily sail through the House, which also has a hefty Republican majority. Pennsylvania is one of the most extreme examples of gerrymandering in the country, with many more Democratic votes being cast yet having a GOP majority in the legislature. However, it is doubtful Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf would sign this bill even if Republicans ram it through. So it’s prospects of being enacted are dim.

 

The measure would force unions to collect any dues or contributions on their own to fund get-out-the-vote efforts, lobbying or voter registration drives. Fortunately, it would still permit union deductions for non-political activities such as collective bargaining and grievances.

 

The bill is sponsored by Sen. John Eichelberger, (R-Duncansville) one of the most virulent anti-education lawmakers in the state. Eichelberger hasn’t seen a measure that harms school children, teachers or unions that he hasn’t written, himself, or at least supported. He is the architect behind Senate Bill 229, a measure that would strip teachers of sick days, bereavement leave and sabbaticals. The bill would make teachers bargain with their individual districts for any kind of leave.

 

Eichelberger is infamous for getting into verbal and digital confrontations with teachers at Altoona Area High School.

 

In one particular battle, a teacher allegedly yelled at the fiscally conservative state Senator for jogging during working hours, between 9 am and 5 pm. He also berated Eichleberger – a vocal critic of teachers’ pay scale – for the lawmaker’s own large salary.

 

A salary database on Open Pagov.org states the Altoona teacher makes just over $43,000. Eichelberger’s salary is $85,339, according to a state website.

 

For his part, Eichelberger wrote a letter to the district superintendent complaining that teachers were sending him derogatory emails during school hours.

 

The state Senator has turned this spat into public policy positions. Both he and Senate Republicans got a pat on the back from their corporate masters at the far right Commonwealth Foundation for the passage of the union regulation bill.

 

Once again, Republicans have targeted teachers, nurses and public safety workers, while championing corporations. No wonder union members rarely vote for the GOP.

Betsy DeVos and the Cowardice of Republicans

Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing

“If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you, too?”

If you’re a Senate Republican, the answer is apparently “YES!”

Otherwise, why would all but two such lawmakers vote to confirm Betsy DeVos, the most unqualified candidate for Education Secretary in U.S. history?

During a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), DeVos showed herself to be hopelessly out of her depth.

She wouldn’t commit to protecting students with special needs.

She wouldn’t commit to keeping guns out of school campuses (because of rampaging Grizzlies).

She wouldn’t commit to holding charter and voucher schools to the same standards as traditional public schools.

She didn’t know the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was a federal law.

And she couldn’t explain the difference between proficiency and growth, two extremely common education terms.

Yet only Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) joined all Democrats to vote against her. It took Vice President Mike Pence to cast the deciding vote and break the 50-50 tie – the first time that has happened for a Cabinet position.

This is a classic example of money speaking louder than people.

DeVos is a Republican mega-donor. She’s given $200 million to GOP candidates over the years – including many of the Senators who voted to confirm her.

Constituents flooded Senator’s phone lines in the past week, demanding they vote against DeVos. The progressive network CREDO Action received over 1.4 million signatures on a petition opposing DeVos ― the most a petition from the organization has ever received.

In a satirical move, Katherine Fritz, a Philadelphia teacher started a GoFundMe page to “buy back” Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-PA) support of DeVos. Though the stunt generated more than $71,000, Toomey still voted for the woman who gave him $60,500 in campaign funds.

Sen. John McCain (Arizona), known as a maverick, also voted along with the crowd. He has the courage to speak up against Donald Trump’s advocacy of torture – having endured it, himself, as a POW during WWII – but when it comes to our nation’s children, he chose to hide behind his party.

At least the Democrats showed a little bit of life, having held the Senate floor for 24 hours straight before the vote. Ostensibly this was to pressure another Republican to join their side, but they had to know it was merely a stunt. If Republicans refused to listen to their own constituents for this long, another 24 hours probably wouldn’t have mattered that much.

To be fair, Democrats deserve a lot of the blame for what happened – for everything that happens under President Steve Bannon – I mean Trump. It was their hubris, political weakness and willingness to go further and further right that gave us this disaster. Not only couldn’t they defeat the least popular Presidential candidate in history this November, they paved the way for much of the corporate education reform we can expect from the DeVos administration.

Both of President Barack Obama’s Education Secretaries were clearly more knowledgeable and qualified than DeVos. But they all think public schools should be run like businesses. They all think the way to improve public schools is to make them less public – more charter schools, more Common Core, more standardized testing. They’ve all given up on committing to quality schools and instead push choice – as if choice and quality were somehow the same. They aren’t.

When Democrats don’t show a strong contrast to Republicans, Republicans win. After all, why would someone vote for a Conservative-wannabe when they can just as easily have the real thing?

However, there is a ray of hope.

This fight has shown that a considerable grassroots network exists to both fight Trump and to champion public education.

What the Trump administration is doing is not at the behest of the people of the United States. He is a rogue leader who only gained power because of antiquated election laws, gerrymandering and the appalling weakness of corporate Democrats.

Already the grassroots has pushed the Democrats to wake up and actually fight for things again. Admittedly, it’s been too little too late. It remains to be seen whether the party has enough life in it to pose a real resistance to the Trump status quo.

But if it can’t, the people will not be contained. We will start our own third party from the ground up.

The pushback against DeVos shows that the resistance is out there. It shows our strength.

We just need to turn that into real victories. We have two years until the midterm elections and four years until we send Trump packing (assuming he doesn’t implode first).

If I were one of the Senate Republicans who voted for DeVos, I would not feel at all safe about my chances for re-election.

Why Are So Many Democrats Behind Backdoor School Voucher Expansion in Pennsylvania?

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Democrats are supposed to be liberals, progressives.

 

That means upholding the Constitution and the Separation of Church and State.

 

So why are so many Pennsylvania Democrats sponsoring an expansion of the state’s de facto school voucher bill?

 

A total of 11 out of 84 sponsors of HB 250 are Democrats. The bill would expand the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs.

 

The Commonwealth already diverts $200 million of business taxes to private and parochial schools. That’s money that should be going to support our struggling public school system.

 

The new bill would add $50 million to each program for a total of $100 million more flushed down the drain.

 

Pennsylvania has a budget deficit. We’ve cut almost $1 billion a year from public schools. We can’t afford to burn an additional $300 million on private and church schools.

 

 

We expect Republicans to support this regressive nonsense. Especially in gerrymandered Pennsylvania, they’ve gone further and further right to please their Tea Party base and avoid being primaried.

 

But the few Democrats left in the House and Senate are likewise in districts that would never vote Republican. You’d expect them to get more and more progressive. Instead, even here we see them taking steps to the right!

 

Democratic sponsors of the bill are almost exclusively from the state’s urban centers – Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

 

They are:

 

Vanessa Lowery Brown (Philadelphia County)

Donna Bullock (Philadelphia County)

Dom Costa (Allegheny County)

Daniel J. Deasy (Allegheny County)

Michael J. Driscoll (Philadelphia County)

Jordan A. Harris (Philadelphia County)

William F. Keller (Philadelphia County)

William C. Kortz II (Allegheny County)

Joanna E. McClinton (Delaware & Philadelphia County)

Harry Readshaw (Allegheny County)

Mark Rozzi (Berks County)

 

These corporate tax giveaways are based on the premise that our public schools are failures and that students must be rescued from them. The Commonwealth has developed a list of approximately 400 “failing schools” and created a voucher-like system allowing students living near them to take public taxpayer money to go to private and religious schools. Students can also go to another public school in a different district, if they will accept them. However, few public schools take part in the program because school boards know it’s just another attempt to weaken their districts.

 

How does the state define a “failing school”?

 

Partially it’s based on standardized test scores. Districts with the bottom 15% of reading and math scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) and Keystone tests are supposed to earn this label. However, the state has been notorious for including districts that actually are making academic progress.

 

Since low test scores are highly correlated with poverty, that’s the real indicator. If you live in a poor enough district, you’re probably eligible.

 

What about charter schools?

 

It’s funny you asked. Though they often have subpar test scores, they rarely are included on the state’s list of “failing schools.” They even exclude most of the state’s execrable cyber charter schools. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. But somehow that’s generally not failing enough to earn you a voucher-like tax credit.

 

How can we tell that students at private and parochial schools are doing better than those in public schools?

 

We can’t.

 

The scholarship organizations have no auditing requirements and almost no reporting requirements. Moreover, private and parochial schools don’t have to take the federally-mandated standardized tests! So there’s no way to do an apples-to-apples comparison!

 

But here’s the best part. The EITC law prohibits state administrators from requesting any information related to academic achievement. You’re not even allowed to ask!

 

However, the law goes out of its way to remove regulations on how these tax dollars are spent. For instance, schools taking these tax credits can spend as much as 20% of the money to cover pure administrative costs.

 

Yet the public schools are still responsible for many of the costs of students living in their attendance areas but who use these de facto vouchers. For instance, there’s no limit to how far away an EITC student can go with their publicly-subsidized scholarship. But the student’s home district is legally obligated to provide transportation for up to ten miles.

 

Vouchers have been repeatedly defeated on every referendum held on the subject in the entire country. One of the reasons people have been up in arms against Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Education Secretary has been her support of vouchers.

 

What do voters have to do to tell legislators that they don’t want school vouchers – no matter what you call them? What do voters have to do to show that they support our public school system – a system that despite being underfunded and weighed down with corporate education reforms remains one of the best in the world?

 

And when will Pennsylvania’s Democrats start acting like Democrats on the subject?

Pennsylvania: No School Property Tax for the Rich, Poor Still Pay

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Eliminating property tax to fund public schools sounds like a great idea!

Until you read the fine print.

Because what Pennsylvania legislators are proposing won’t actually eliminate property taxes – unless you’re rich.

And it won’t ensure students get the funding they need.

And it will limit school boards’ local control.

But it will benefit the rich and big corporations, which is really the only reason we’re talking about it – AGAIN.

Let me break it down for you.

First, the bill being shopped around is called the Property Tax Independence Act or SB 76. It would get rid of all property taxes used to fund public schools and replace them with increases in sales and income taxes.

Somehow these increases would need to generate an additional $12 billion a year in revenue so that we can keep funding our schools at the present level. That’s some tax increase – and guess who’s going to pay the bulk of it – YOU.

Guess who’s not going to pay much of it – the huge corporations who used to pay property taxes on all those commercial, industrial, oil and gas properties.

This is a huge giveaway to big business, and it’s a substantial hike for regular Commonwealth citizens like you and me.

But that’s not all!

If you live in a poor school district, you’ll still have to pay property taxes. That’s right – if your district is in debt, you’ll still get a property tax bill to pay it off.

Considering that the state cut almost $1 billion a year in school funding for the past 6 years and that most districts have had to go into debt, increase taxes or both, you’re probably not going to see your property taxes go away anytime soon.

They might go down up to 40%. Or they might not go down at all. AND you still have to pay higher sales and income taxes.

But here’s the best part.

Pennsylvania has the dubious distinction of being the national leader in unfair school funding.

We spend 33% more money on our rich students than on our poor ones. That’s the greatest disparity in the entire country!

And that’s saying something in a nation where spending more on wealthy kids is the norm.

However, this new bill won’t do anything to change that. In fact, it will lock-in that disparity.

Rich districts that today spend $23,000 per student will still spend $23,000, and poor districts that today spend $8,000 per student will still spend $8,000. But instead of your tax dollars going to the kids in your community, they’ll go to the state to be distributed everywhere. This means folks living in poor neighborhoods will probably be paying higher taxes so that they can fund the wealthiest kids. Likewise, rich parents will probably pay less while the difference is made up from taxes collected from the poor.

Call me crazy, but that just isn’t fair.
Finally, it takes away a lot of the local control from your local school board.

At present, if your local district has needs, your board can meet them by raising taxes. But under this bill, the only entity that can do that is the legislature.

I know, I know – your taxes are already too high. But the issue is who is more suited to making that decision – Harrisburg or your own community?

This bill is nothing new. Legislators have been trying to sneak it through for years.

Back in 2015 it passed the House but was defeated in the Senate when the Lt. Governor cast the deciding ballot against it. In 2013, it almost passed as an amendment to another bill, but the nonpartisan Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office ruined it by projecting a $1 billion shortfall within four years if it were passed.

However, the makeup of the Senate has changed. Now we have two new members who campaigned promising to pass this legislation, so it might actually squeak through.

The bill is being shopped around by state Sen. David Argall (R-Schuylkill/Berks) who authored it along with the Pennsylvania Coalition of Taxpayer Associations.

This group claims to be a simple citizens organization made up of 87 nonpartisan tax-conscious advocacy groups. But a quick look at the names of these organizations includes multiple uses of terms like “patriot,” and “freedom,” and “liberty,” and “conservative,” and “tea party.”

Nonpartisan, my butt!

Moreover, the stated goal of the group is just to pass this legislation.

That’s not a group of concerned citizens. It’s almost a PAC!

The organization has even endorsed candidates – some of them noted progressive Democrats like state Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-West Chester) and James Brewster (D-McKeesport), who both voted for the legislation in 2015.

To make it even more complex, the authors of the bill have a point. Property taxes are a terrible way to fund schools. They ensure that some districts will be better funded than others based on the local wealth of the community.

However, this bill does nothing to fix the inherent problems for children or poor and middle class communities. It compounds them.

Ironically, Gov. Wolf proposed a compromise solution two years ago with his first budget. He suggested reducing residential property taxes by $3.8 billion, targeting the biggest cuts for the neediest taxpayers and neediest schools. Moreover, he proposed increasing funding to the most impoverished districts so they could catch up to the well-funded ones.

But Republicans, who control both houses, refused to even consider it.

So here we go again. We have another Trojan Horse proposal. A good idea has been twisted and bastardized so that it serves the wealthy and private enterprise while doing irreparable harm to children and the poor. And even though it is an example of far right ideology, it has received bipartisan support.

Gov. Wolf is set to propose his new budget sometime this month. Sen. Argall is expected to reintroduce SB 76 during the subsequent budget negotiations.

It is a piece of zombie legislation that no matter how fetid and rotten just refuses to die. But this time, it just might bite us.

PA Legislature Plans Taking Away Teachers’ Sick Days

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Dear Pennsylvania legislators:

So now you want to take away teachers’ sick days.

Sabbatical, sick days, bereavement leaves – the Senate Education Committee voted 7-5 to strip them from the law and make teachers bargain for them with their districts.

So the next time I get sick, you don’t want to guarantee I can take the day off. If my mother dies, you don’t want to protect my right to attend her funeral.

The full legislature still has to vote on it, but that’s pretty cold.

Which brings me to my first question: Why do you hate public school teachers so much?

Seriously. What did teachers ever do to you? Did we give you a bad grade when you were kids? Did we give you detention? What did we ever do to earn such animosity?

You obviously must have something personal against teachers.

It’s understandable. Even though the majority of Pennsylvanians voted for Democrats, most of you are Republicans. You have gerrymandered the state so that you artificially have the majority, and as such you must espouse the most radical positions possible. Otherwise, you’ll be primaried by someone even farther right – a Tea Partier, a plutocrat, an anarcho-capitalist, a fascist.

We see the same thing playing out nationally. Hello, Donald Trump!

So it’s no surprise that after stripping public schools of almost $1 billion every year for the past five years, after tens of thousands of teachers have been laid off, after you’ve given away millions of dollars to private corporations to run fly-by-night charter schools or through tax credits to religious schools – well, it’s no surprise that you feel the need to continue the war on teachers.

It’s paying off for you big time.

Not so much for our school children. They have had to deal with increases in class size, narrowing of the curriculum, reductions in extra-curriculars, cuts in tutoring – just about every deprivation imaginable.

I wonder – do you realize that every attack against teachers is also an attack against students? Making sick teachers come to school won’t improve kids’ educations. Forcing educators to choose between work or seeing their loved ones off to their final resting places won’t boost test scores. Do you understand that or do you just not care?

Follow-up, if I may: do you realize that most public school teachers are women? Does that factor in at all? Which do you hate more, the gender of most teachers or the fact that we are unionized?

Oh, and Pennsylvania School Boards Association, don’t think we’ve forgotten you. We know you requested this mess, Senate Bill 229. Instead of standing with your teachers to fight for fair, equitable, sustainable funding, you’ve decided to ask the legislature if you can stiff teachers to make ends meet. We’re there for your kids everyday, and this is how you thank us. That’s gratitude.

It’s what we get for being one of the last workforces to be unionized. We have the temerity to demand fair treatment. You can’t just do whatever you like with us, you have to actually sit down with us at the bargaining table and talk.

Legislators, we know it’s something that infuriates your base. No, I don’t mean the people who vote for you. I mean your real base – the corporations, millionaires and billionaires who pay your real salaries – the unlimited and shadowy campaign contributions that, let’s be honest, are really nothing less than legal bribes.

We shouldn’t be surprised that you have prioritized taking away legal protections for teachers’ sick days. It is quite in line with what you want to do to the profession. You no longer want highly qualified teachers making a middle class income who then can stay in our schools for their entire careers. You want lightly trained temps who use teaching as a stepping stone to a job that pays enough to live.

After all, if we afford teachers the status of professionals, they might actually be able to jump all the other hurdles we’ve put in front of them and educate the poor.

That would be terrible.

Despite all the standardized testing, Common Core, value-added measures, budget cuts, and constant propaganda about “failing schools,” they might actually teach these kids to think. That’s the last thing you want.

A thinking public might see how much you’re screwing them over. They might actually rise up and fight. They might refuse to accept the status quo that you are so desperately trying to protect.

That’s your real endgame. And though it makes me sick, I suppose I will no longer be able to take off.

I’ll just spend the day, coughing and wheezing with the children.

Yours,

Steven Singer

The Gadfly on the Wall