Wolf, legislators, and school advocates must stand together for Pa. education

     Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg (ShutterStock)

    Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg (ShutterStock)

    This is the moment when Pennsylvanians must stand strong for a stae budget that begins to fund education at levels that meet the needs of our children.

    We are heading into a critical time in the seemingly endless Pennsylvania budget crisis. This is the moment when Pennsylvanians must stand strong for a budget that is not only done but done right. And that means a budget that finally, after years of deep cuts and shallow restorations, begins to fund education at levels that meet the needs of our children.

    Many of us want to attain that aim. But to know how to get there, we have to understand the forces, inside and outside the Capitol Building, that oppose us. They would rather see devastating cuts to education rather than increase taxes.

    Education advocates vs. extremist forces

    Some of those who take this view believe, falsely, that much education spending is useless and wasteful. They don’t grasp, as most Pennsylvanians do, that the money we spend on education is vital not only to the success of individual children, but also to the success of the Commonwealth as a whole.

    They forget that the children of today are the workers and citizens of tomorrow.

    They don’t acknowledge, as most Pennsylvanians do, that the public schools we fund well are doing a good job. Nor do they admit that so many of our schools are poorly funded.

    They don’t recognize, as most Pennsylvanians do, that we cannot resolve our budget crisis by cutting “waste.” Whatever so far undocumented fat there may have been in our schools is long gone, as is a great deal of bone as well — music, art, and technology programs and, in many schools, guidance counselors and nurses as well.

    Some of the forces that oppose adequate and equitable funding for education have a darker agenda. Their goal is to use the structural deficit to reduce the state spending and local school districts’ budgets, not to attain efficiency, but to reduce the public workforce, which they think will drive down wages in the private sector.

    They oppose an increase in the minimum wage, even though it would save the state money. Their answer to our budget problem is to reduce public pensions even though they have never put forward a pension “reform” that would actually save on retirement costs. They helped create the structural deficit by pushing for massive corporate tax cuts that have not created the new jobs they promised.

    And they have undermined a bipartisan budget compromise that Democrats and Republicans forged in December. It passed the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 43-7 and would have passed the House with a bipartisan majority had the Republican leadership allowed it to come up for a final vote.

    Two good sentiments to save us

    It is important to recognize these extremist forces if we are to know what strategy to choose to bring the budget crisis to a close. For there are two sentiments found among good and decent people that we need to keep in check if we are going to reach an acceptable budget.

    The first good sentiment is the one that seeks to stand above our ideological disputes — that it’s time for a compromise. It hopes to restore the broad bipartisan consensus on education that for so long held sway in Pennsylvania. It blames both sides for the failure to reach agreement.

    This is a wonderful aspiration. But it neglects this political reality: a down-the-middle compromise was already reached by Gov. Wolf and the General Assembly, and then, under the influence of extremist forces, one side walked away. They are the ones who are responsible for the continuing budget crisis.

    We do need a to enact the bipartisan budget for this year and build on it for next year. But further compromise with the extremists who oppose education funding would betray our kids.

    The second good sentiment is one that is likely to become more prominent soon. It is the voice of school superintendents and school boards that have been fighting desperately and valiantly to keep their doors open. They have about reached the end of their ropes. And some of them are pleading for relief, no matter how small it is.

    It is hard not to sympathize with their plight. But to accept a tiny increase in school funding over last year in order to keep schools open would also betray our kids. And that goes for the Republican proposal put forward yesterday, which increases education funding slightly this year while increasing the structural deficit next year. No one wants children or parents to suffer or schools to close. But if we give in to the demands of the extremists who don’t want to fund our schools at adequate and equitable levels, the children of Pennsylvania will never get the schools they deserve.

    This is no time for surrender. Gov. Wolf, the Democratic and Republican legislators who believe in fully-funded public education, and advocates for our schools all need to stand together and demand a genuine compromise — one that takes critical steps towards providing our children with the schools they deserve.

    Marc Stier is the director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

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