Harrisburg on Philly schools — smoke, mirrors and a sorry replay

 (AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

Let them eat smoke. Let them frolic before mirrors.

That’s the message Harrisburg sent the schoolchildren of Philadelphia last week.

Now, I am glad that Gov. Tom Corbett bestirred himself to do something to help the Philadelphia school system inch back from the abyss. But the $140 million number he put on the deal he brokered was a purely political tally, full of double-counted funds and maybes treated as facts. It would have left an accountant scratching his head.

Even after being inflated by fol-de-rol, the number remained far short of what was needed to avoid dire cutbacks. You don’t have to be a union official to get this point: Laying off teachers is never, ever a good thing. (For one thing, layoffs are as likely to target the really fine teachers as the sour time-servers whom maybe you could do without.)

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Here’s the most amazing thing: Lawmakers (and we’re talking both parties here) refused to let Philly levy a cigarette tax on itself to help kids learn. Why?

Some are ideologically opposed to the notion of raising any tax anytime, anywhere, anyhow. They’re like a store manager who would rather see the store go out of business than to ever raise a single price.

For others, it’s not philosophy; it’s self-preservation. They fear the election-time attack ad that would count this cigarette tax vote as one of (cue in contemptuous voice of doom on the sound track) “67 times he betrayed taxpayers.

It’s not just the politicians. Too often, I hear ordinary people grouse that they don’t see why they should have to pay to educate “other people’s kids.”


Call me self-righteous if you must, but … :

Enabling all kids to get a decent education is the job of all of us. If you don’t understand that, something is wrong with your moral wiring.

For my entire adult life, I’ve been a journalist in Pennsylvania. By now, I’ve watched this movie – part tragedy, part farce – unspool in Harrisburg a few dozen times. It always leaves me heartsick and … pissed off.

What happened last week is not nearly good enough. It’s not just Philly’s kids being harmed; the city is the mine canary here. The same woes are seeping into school systems across the state.  The chronic short-changing of the state’s constitutional duty to provide at least half the cost of a solid education for every child in the state has put hundreds of school district on the fiscal brink.

The rationales politicians use to defend this inadequate status quo are defective, arithmetically and ethically. This bad system doesn’t just harm kids; it harms our Commonwealth’s economic vitality, cultural vibrancy and civic peace.

Next year, we get another chance to do better. We, as voters, are the ones who put those fannies in those seats in the State Capitol.  If your representatives in the General Assembly can’t give you a straight answer on how they plan to reverse the trend of school systems cutting services and laying off educators, find one who can, and give him or her your vote.

For decades, I’ve watched the Harrisburg education follies in horror.  But I’ve never seen the damage be this severe or widespread. Maybe that will be what it takes to ring the bell, to wake up the masses.

Like Cubs fans, I prefer to live in hope rather than sink into a slough of despair.

Maybe next year.

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