Monday, August 19, 2013

The Circle Goes Round And Round

Grover Norquist, who has probably harmed the USA more than everyone the past 30 years, is famous for two things:  the Taxpayer Protection Pledge and a quote assuring us of the purpose of the Pledge.

It was in 2001 that Norquist infamously asserted "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

He hasn't quite gotten there, but is making serious progress.  And in Pennsylvania, the nation's least popular governor, Repub Tom Corbett is doing his best to make Norquist's boast a reality.

There are few roles of government more important, nor affecting more people, than the public school system. In Pennsylvania, home to a burgeoning charter school system, the GOP chief executive understands that once public education is starved of funds, the quality of education deteriorates rapidly, adding to public frustration toward the system.  In Philadelphia, Salon's Aaron Kase recognizes "a public school system in its death throes," in which

the school district is facing end times, with teachers, parents and students staring into the abyss created by a state intent on destroying public education.

On Thursday the city of Philadelphia announced that it would be borrowing $50 million to give the district, just so it can open schools as planned on Sept. 9, after Superintendent William Hite threatened to keep the doors closed without a cash infusion. The schools may open without counselors, administrative staff, noon aids, nurses, librarians or even pens and paper, but hey, kids will have a place to go and sit.

The $50 million fix is just the latest band-aid for a district that is beginning to resemble a rotting bike tube, covered in old patches applied to keep it functioning just a little while longer. At some point, the entire system fails.

Things have gotten so bad that at least one school has asked parents to chip in $613 per student just so they can open with adequate services, which, if it becomes the norm, effectively defeats the purpose of equitable public education, and is entirely unreasonable to expect from the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

The needs of children are secondary, however, to a right-wing governor in Tom Corbett who remains fixated on breaking the district in order to crush the teachers union and divert money to unproven experiments like vouchers and privately run charters. If the city’s children are left uneducated and impoverished among the smoldering wreckage of a broken school system, so be it.

To be clear, the schools are in crisis because the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania refuses to fund them adequately. The state Constitution mandates that the Legislature “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education,” but that language appears to be considered some kind of sick joke at the state capital in Harrisburg.

It’s worth noting that the state itself runs the Philadelphia School District after a 2001 takeover. The state is also responsible for catastrophic budget cuts two years ago that crippled the district’s finances. And in a diabolical example of circular logic, the state argues that the red ink it imposed, and shoddy management it oversees, are proof that the district can’t manage its finances or its mission and therefore shouldn’t get more money.

Make no mistake, on the aggregate the district does not perform well. Only slightly more than 60 percent of students graduate from high school, with less than 60 percent proficient in reading and math. But put that in the context where 80 percent of students come from disadvantaged backgrounds while administrators struggle to cobble together enough cash to even open doors, let alone provide a safe, rich and comprehensive educational experience.

Particularly noxious lawmakers are fond of spouting the ridiculous notion that money can’t help struggling schools, as if more and better-trained staff, better equipment and diverse programming wouldn’t make a difference in kids’ educations and their lives.

The timing of this meltdown is unfortunate, as if there were ever a good time for the euthanasia of public schooling. According to the 2010 census, Philadelphia grew in population for the first time in 60 years, changing direction from decades of decline. Most of that growth came from immigrants who will rely on public schools — or not, as the case may be. Another area of growth was in young families, who will face a choice, once they have school-age children, to stay in the city or flee to superior suburban schools as previous generations have done.

Nearly the entire burden to keep the district afloat has fallen to the city, which raised property taxes each of the two previous years specifically to funnel extra money that the schools weren’t getting from the state. This is in one of the poorest and most highly taxed cities in the nation.

The floundering district is both a symptom and cause of the city’s predicament, creating a vicious cycle of people who can afford to bail moving to the suburbs, leaving a crippled tax base, with the result being less money to fix the schools and ever-higher taxes imposed on those who stay.

The state of Pennsylvania has the cash, or at least a relatively painless way of raising it. Kase explains

Unlike the city, the state could come up with the necessary cash without excessively burdening its finances. Pennsylvania has the lowest severance tax of any state drilling for Marcellus shale gas, with plenty of room for an increase. The state had a modest surplus at the end of the last budget year. The governor has no trouble coming up with money to build new prisons, which will serve as future homes for all too many children of Philadelphia who are being failed and tossed aside by adult leadership, if you can call it that.

But sending the school district enough money to continue educating, however inadequately, the children would defeat the purpose.  Clearly,

The pattern has become clear: defund the schools, precipitate a crisis and use that as an excuse to further attack the schools, pushing them closer and closer to a point of no return. The $50 million to open the schools this year is just the latest and most immediate example of three years of brinkmanship.

Educating the children is the biggest expense of city government and one which captures the attention of all parents. But it works throughout government, as Mother Jones' Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery wrote in late 2011:

Public transit cutting routes and upping fares? Parks shuttering Little League fields? Bridges going unmaintained until they fall into rivers? Firefighters letting homes burn because the owner hasn't paid a $75 fee? Cops watching a man drown because they can no longer afford water-rescue training? (Those last two? Really happened.) Do this long enough, and pretty soon the snake starts eating its own tail: We underfund public services, therefore public services don't work, therefore we underfund them.

After that, of course, people become even more irritated at the inability of the public sector to provide basic services and thus demand further cuts as the cycle repeats.  The anti-tax, anti-government fanaticism of Grover Norquist is playing out across America as planned.

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