What Will It Take to Get Equitable School Funding in Pennsylvania – a Statewide Teachers Strike!?

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What if every public school teacher in Pennsylvania refused to come to work on Monday?

What if instead they took to the streets with signs and placards, bullhorns and chanted slogans.

Maybe:

“Hey! HEY! Ho! HO! This Unfair Funding Has to Go!”
Or:

“What do we want!? FAIR FUNDING! When do we want it? YESTERDAY!”

The problem is that from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and all places in between, the Keystone state has the most unequal school funding system in the country. And no one in Harrisburg seems able and/or willing to do a damn thing about it.

Nor is anyone going to do much again this year.

Gov. Tom Wolf didn’t mention it once last week during the Democrat’s first budget speech to the legislature after being re-elected.

Don’t get me wrong. He’s not exactly ignoring the issue. His newly proposed budget asks for a $200 million increase in education funding.

But that’s far from what’s needed to heal the billions of dollars schools lost during the massive budget cuts of Tom Corbett, the former Republican governor, nor does it address the underlying inequity of how we fund these schools in the first place.

Sadly, failing to fix education funding gaps is par for the course in Harrisburg.

Every year Democrats complain about the problem, suggest repairing it, and then are denied everything but an incremental increase by the Republican-controlled legislature.

Every year, that is, until this one.

This is the first time Democrats have seemingly given up on solving the problem and just proposed the incremental increase that they suspect Republicans will approve.

It’s a pitiful situation to accept as status quo.

One could argue that it’s the electorate’s fault. After all, if they keep voting for Republicans that make it clear they don’t support equity in education, that must represent the will of the people.

Except it doesn’t. Fair funding is popular among voters everywhere in the Commonwealth. And it’s one of the reasons they elected and re-elected Wolf. However, when it comes to state government, legislative districts are so gerrymandered, the will of the people gets ignored.

In November, Democrats got 381,000 more Pennsylvania votes than Republicans to represent them in the state House. But Republicans still kept the majority.

So what can you do when your voice is smothered by red tape?

You can turn to the Democratic governor who is the only thing stopping the opposition from gutting schools even further. You can ask him to push lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to get off their collective asses and do their jobs.

But Wolf does not seem ready to spend his political capital in this way.

According to an Associated Press article by Marc Levy:

 

“For his part, Wolf’s office says he remains open to a discussion with the Legislature on making school funding fairer. However, someone else may have to carry the torch.”

Just who could this “someone else” be?

As usual, it may have to be the Commonwealth’s teachers.

As in every state, when governments and communities can’t or won’t do right by their children, educators step up.

We buy classroom supplies, we feed the hungry, we dry the tears, and when all else fails we put our jobs on the line and strike until school boards, legislatures and governors do the right thing.

Some have suggested that’s what’s needed here.

There have been at least nine large-scale teachers strikes across various states in the last 12 months. This includes actions in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, and – most recently – Los Angeles, California, and Denver, Colorado.

They began in Republican dominated states but have spread to those governed mostly by Democrats.

The Denver strike ended Thursday morning with an agreement between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools. After three days on the picket line, teachers may be returning to their classrooms having achieved their goals.

In today’s climate of dark money and political gridlock, collective action seems the only way to get anything done.

Perhaps we need an army of the state’s 123,000 educators to walk out of their classes in unison demanding fair funding for our most vulnerable students.

Such a move would be unprecedented. To my knowledge, teachers strikes in the Commonwealth have always involved educators and staff at one of the hundreds of districts, not a unified action of teachers throughout the state. A movement on this scale would require cooperation and buy in from the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT). And union bosses are rarely motivated to endorse such measures without being forced to it by grassroots pressure from members.

Moreover, it would put teachers unions in a dangerous position. Each district contract has a no strike/no lockout clause guaranteeing that membership won’t walkout during the life of a contract. Where we’re seeing these major nationwide strikes either the contract has expired like in Denver and Los Angeles or they’re so-called “Right-to-Work” states without these explicit worker protections.

It’s doubtful the state could actually fire and replace the more than 100,000 teachers in its employ, but the worst case scenario for a state-wide strike in Pennsylvania would be the invalidation of all existing contracts, the loss of arbitration, grievances, collective bargaining and even putting retirement at risk.

That’s a lot to ask of educators – though creative organizers could find ways to avoid or mitigate the risk – for instance with a sick out or mass demonstrations on weekends or holidays.

I – for one – am sick of watching my middle school students overstuffed into classrooms with crumbling infrastructure and meager resources while a few miles down the road the rich kids have small classes and schools that look like palaces. I’ll bet there are a lot of teachers and parents who feel the same way.

Perhaps it’s time for us to take to the streets.

Perhaps it’s long past time.

When I say the state is the most inequitable in the country, that’s not hyperbole.

It’s according to several studies done over multiple years by groups like the Associated Press and the U.S. Department of Education.

More than any other, the Keystone State gives a boost to rich kids and a boot to poor ones.

Why?

You have to understand where the money comes from to educate kids in America.

Public schools have basically three revenue streams – the federal government, the state and local neighborhoods.

The federal government pays about 10% of the cost across the board. The problem in Pennsylvania is that the state isn’t meeting its obligation thereby forcing local neighborhoods to shoulder most of the cost.

Pennsylvania state government pays a ridiculously low percentage of the bill – 38%.  That’s the 46th lowest in the country. The national average is 51%.

In rich neighborhoods, this is no problem. In middle class communities, it’s not much of one. But in poor communities, there isn’t enough money to make up the difference. Their kids have no choice but to do without.

So kids from rich communities get everything. Kids from middle class communities get most of what they need. And kids from poor communities get whatever scraps are left at the bottom of the barrel.

It’s trickle down economics – Pennsylvania style.

And it’s an intolerable situation!

According to an Associated Press analysis of 2016-17 state data on school district spending, middle class districts spend as much as $673 more per student than poor districts. Rich districts spend about $4,300 more per student.

 

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According to the U.S. Department of Education, poor schools in the Commonwealth spend 33 percent less on their students than rich ones. That’s a significantly larger difference than the next-closest state, Vermont, where the spending difference between rich and poor schools is only 18 percent. Three other states — Illinois, Missouri and Virginia — have gaps of 17 percent.

 

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We can’t keep kicking minorities and the destitute to the curb. We can’t keep giving the rich and middle class every opportunity to succeed while depriving the poor of that same chance.

Wolf, the Democrats and a few Republicans have tried several times to fix the problem.

First, they attempted large increases in education funding to catch up to where funding would be if the Corbett cuts hadn’t happened coupled with the rising costs caused by inflation.

In 2015, the governor proposed a $400 million increase but funded it with a tax increase on the rich that almost all Republicans refused.

Then he tried to bring the state share of education funding up to 50% by using a more equitable tax plan. He proposed cutting property taxes in poorer districts and replacing them with higher state taxes elsewhere. However, Republicans saw it as an opportunity to completely eliminate property taxes and cut school funding even further. It ended in a stalemate and another incremental education increase.

If the legislature wouldn’t approve the necessary spending increases to heal the cuts it made under Corbett, Wolf at least wanted lawmakers to approve dividing the money up more fairly among the state’s 500 school districts.

A funding formula had been approved four years ago to reflect changes in school district attendance and wealth that had been ignored for a quarter century. This would result in more support for poorer schools and less for wealthier ones.

And there’s the sticking point. Lawmakers wouldn’t approve a plan that would provide less funding to 70% of the state’s districts – but neither would they increase school spending to make up the difference.

You’d think that such legislative gridlock might make voters lose hope. However, there is a mass movement of people at the grassroots level demanding change for our children.

Most notably, the parents of six school children, six school districts, the NAACP and a rural schools group are suing the state over education funding.

The lawsuit – now in its fourth year – is scheduled for trial before the state Supreme Court in 2020. So at best, relief is still a ways in the future. Many are hoping justices will order the legislature to dramatically increase its investment in public schools. But the outcome is certainly not a sure thing.

Could striking teachers in red and blue states be showing us in Pennsylvania the solution?

Might it be time to raise our teacher voices in the purple states, too?

And is there a path to equity through collective action that doesn’t hang teachers out to dry?

 


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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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.

The Most Important Election You’ll Probably Skip

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The future prosperity of your state may be decided this November.

Will your public schools receive adequate, equitable and sustainable funding?

Will you be permitted to choose medical marijuana to treat certain ailments?

Will your state enact sensible gun reforms to keep firearms out of the hands of the criminally insane?

Will your voice be heard in future elections?

All this and more is on the table and YOU get to cast the deciding vote.

But more likely than not, you won’t show up.

Why? You’re too busy worrying about the upcoming Presidential election.

With both Democratic and Republican Presidential Primaries approaching in February through June, 2016, most people just don’t have the energy for another general election before the end of 2015.

However, most states will ask residents to cast a ballot on Nov. 3 for all kinds of important initiatives. There will be municipal, school board, gubernatorial and state legislative elections in a few states; as well as numerous citizen initiatives, and a variety of other local offices on the ballot.

Yet if history is any guide, most people will stay home while vastly important decisions are being made by the few who trudge to the polls. On the one hand, that means the results are bound to be unrepresentative. On the other, it means if you show up, your vote will have more weight than ever!

Either way, the course for the future of your state will be quietly and discreetly set for years to come.

Take my home state of Pennsylvania.

We’re holding a historic election with three state Supreme Court seats up for grabs. The last time this many seats were open on our highest court in the same year was 1704, and the body was still called the Provincial Appellate Court.

This is huge because it will determine who gets the final say on a plethora of contentious political issues.

For instance, four years ago, Republicans controlled every branch of Commonwealth government and redrew the state’s legislative districts to gerrymander in a GOP majority. They redrew district lines to ensure that conservatives got elected to public office by making boundaries around areas that have pockets of people who generally lean Republican.

With that foundation in place, the GOP ran the state into the ground. While most taxpayers didn’t agree with the corporate tax giveaways and draconian budget cuts to public services like children’s schools, there wasn’t much we could do about it. The redrawn district boundaries were such that legislators were free to do whatever they wanted without fear of reprisals from constituents.

Voters gave the GOP Governor the boot, but almost all of his good soldier legislators stayed in place. This was only possible because Republicans controlled the state Supreme Court. When those gerrymandered districts were challenged, the court backed the legislature. So, in practice, continued Republican control of state Senate and House districts was due not to voters but to the state Supreme Court.

Currently, Republicans hold the balance of power in the highest Commonwealth court by 3-2 with two vacancies. This election could rewrite that balance of power.

If Democrats win two or more seats in this Supreme Court election – thereby replacing two Republicans and one Democrat – it could change everything! Democrats would have a majority.

When redistricting comes up again in 2022, if Democrats want to re-draw the lines more fairly (or in their favor), a Democratic-controlled Supreme Court could make that possible.

Moreover, the new court would almost certainly rule on cases that will have a dramatic impact on the lives of everyday Pennsylvanians.

Perhaps the most hot button issue in the state is education funding. Republicans have been waging all out war on poor Commonwealth schools. For the past 4 years, the legislature slashed public school funding by almost $1 billion – an ideological divide that still rages between the newly elected Democratic governor and the legislature where Republicans remain in control.

Several lawsuits demanding more equitable school funding are winding their way through the state court system. These cases are bound to end up in the state Supreme Court. So if voters still care about making sure all Pennsylvania children have a fair shake at an education, voting for Democrats to retake the court may be the surest option! If recent history is any guide, Republicans sure won’t do it!

Other issues such as the death penalty and gun laws are likely to appear on the docket. Moreover, without opposition, it’s feared a GOP court could easily allow Tea Party legislators to enact so-called Right to Work and other union busting initiatives. A Democratic court could stop such shenanigans cold.

For decades, Pennsylvania politics have been like a game of tennis – power going almost exclusively from one party to another. Neither major party has held the governor’s office for more than two terms since 1955. Democrats broke the Republican Party’s hold on the state House in 2006 only to give back the chamber during the 2010 elections. So the Supreme Court remains the ultimate arbiter.

Voters will have the choice of 3 of the following candidates for Supreme Court Justice: Democrats Christine Donohue, Kevin M. Dougherty and David N. Wecht; Republicans Anne Covey, Michael A. George and Judith F. Olson; and independent candidate Paul P. Panepinto.

In my opinion, the Democrats are the strongest candidates – especially Wecht who is vowing to ban gifts for judges, tighten anti-nepotism policies, and broadcast court proceedings on television. Dougherty has strong union ties and clearly respects collective bargaining rights. Donohue is a strong supporter of personal rights including holding corporations accountable for fraudulent behavior and eliminating bias against LGBTs.

Of the Republicans, Covey is the most reasonable and has shown a willingness to reach across the aisle. The others are your typical extreme right Tea Party conservatives. Panepinto may be running as an independent, but I see little to distinguish him from the GOP candidates.

Choose carefully, Pennsylvania. Whoever you decide to support in the Supreme Court race, it will have a long-term impact. State Supreme Court justices hold 10-year terms! And three more justices will be replaced by 2018.

Whether you live in Pennsylvania or anywhere else in the US, it is vital that you get off your duff on Nov. 3 and vote. Focusing exclusively on Hillary vs. Bernie is not just myopic, it’s dangerous. Even if your candidate wins the presidency and does a fabulous job, the forces of stagnation and corporate greed could net tremendous gains in these other elections.

Unless we turn up.

Unless we vote.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.