Education and labor and the Pennsylvania budget


Stand at the May Day 2012 celebration. All photos are from that event.

The first question that must be dealt with is "Are Governor Corbett's budget policies driven by financial neccesity?" Let's look first at how the Republican Party in general handles budgetary questions. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, states that in order for the country to survive the financial pressures of trying to preserve the social programs of the New Deal and Great Society, i.e., Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the government must now engage in cutting back expenditures. Interestingly, the title to his talk with Steven Forbes is "U.S. Needs Prosperoty, Not Austerity." But as the liberal Keynesian Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) points out, "austerity – deficit reduction via decreased government spending --  is exactly what Ryan’s budget calls for."

The ostensible theory behind the budget cutting that Paul Ryan endorses, as well as Britain's budgetary polcies of the last several years, are based on Paul Krugman's theory of what he calles the "bond vigilantes," (Along with the related theory of the "confidence fairy") and well, that particular problem of bond vigilantes punishing governments by spiking up their borrowing costs as revenge for liberal, pro-citizen economic policies, seems never to have ever actually happened in the real world. In short, Ryan is very, very deeply concerned about what's actually an imaginary problem. The real problem is that solving this imaginary problem has serious and very real consequences in the real world. The Center for American Progress estimates that if Ryan's proposals were made law, 22 million people would seriously suffer. In contrast, Keynesian assumptions as to how the stimulus of February 2009 would work have been largely vindicated.


Now, there's no question that, as a direct result of Republican-initiated austerity policies (policies that President Obama has unfortunately agreed to), states in general are under a lot of financial pressure:

Over the last two years, the private sector has added 4 million jobs while the public sector has lost more than 500,000. That shrinkage of the public sector has been the biggest economic problems we've faced during that time. The problem is that state and local governments have faced a funding shortfall thanks to declining revenue, and because the stimulus—and subsequent jobs legislation—didn't do enough to help them bridge the gap, they were forced to shrink.

Some right-wingers have suggested to me that there's some meaningful distinction between public and private employees as far as the economy is concerned. This assertion never made any sense to me as both types of employees get paid using the same currency, the children that receive their dinners and new dresses and toy trucks neither know nor care about whether their father or mother is a public or private employee and both types of employees invest in 401(k)s and pay out monthly mortgages. So I'm not really sure where the distinction lies.

protest sign
Speech by Eileen Duffy I

As to how our particular state is dealing with the problem of austerity, as of March of last year, Pennsylvania had to fill a shortfall of $4 billion. Unlike the federal government, states can't deliberately engage in deficit spending and have to find ways to make up shortfalls. The Philadelphia Inquirer details proposed drastic and painful cuts to education in the state.

The plan - subject to public comment and SRC approval - would close 40 schools next year and 64 by 2017, move thousands more students to charters, and dismantle the central office in favor of "achievement networks" that would compete to run groups of 25 schools and would sign performance-based contracts.

Governor Corbett has also identified pensions to both teachers and state employees as a problem that needs to be solved. A major problem, however, is that Corbett has taken increased taxes off the table. Corbett is committed to a cuts-only solution. It's not like citizens haven't been speaking out about budget items that really could be sensibly cut. The Decarcerate movement protests that Pennsylvania really doesn't need new prisons, but there's no indication that Corbett is willing to pay serious attention to prison reform. The CLEAR Coalition points out that charter schools are no cure-all:

Payments to cyber and charter schools do not take into account the actual cost of educating the child, leading to overpayments. Closer oversight and payment reforms could save ... $175 million that could be directed to traditional public schools.

According to CLEAR, closing just three sets of tax loopholes could save over $1 billion, a full quarter of the shortfall. Their bottom line is that Pennsylvania could save $2.37 billion using their recommendations. The Morning Call of Lehigh Valley recommends scrapping the "voter identification law (aka voter suppression act)" for a savings of $11 million. They also point out that making "charter schools fiscally accountable" could save $110 million.

Speech II & III

A personal note on how the Republican Party deals withbudget matters is that I was a junior in college in Washington DC during Ronald Reagan's first year as President. I paid some attention to politics and was fully aware long before 1981 was even half over that budget deficits were, as an editorial writer at the time put it "a useful stick to beat Democrats with." The fact that Republicans couldn't possibly have cared less abou deficits was made explicit by David Stockman in his 1986 book "The Triumph of Politics," but I had already concluded the same thing many years before, through my own observations of how the Reagan Administration was simply shoveling money as fast as possible into weapons building, even into stuff as useless and as expensive as Star Wars/SDI/Missile Defense and even though the Soviet Union was already showing signs of severe and debilitating weakness when Reagan first entered office.


So yes, Pennsylvania is facing enormous financial challenges, but citizens of of this state should be very highly skeptical of the assertion that Governor Corbett is taking an honest approach to the state budget. There is a very strong argument that Corbett is using the $4 billion state budget deficit as a boogeyman in order to carry out a political agenda, that the sad state of state finances today is merely the ostensible excuse for hacking away at budgets that make an enormous positive difference to the lives of ordinary people. This is not to accuse just Governor Corbett, this is to point out that the Republican Party as a whole has been using this tactic for over 30 years at this point.

To explain how the budget fight is being used to hack away at the schools and especially at teacher's unions, here's a video by Brian Jones, where he explains it to a classroom. Jonathan Kozol also did a very good book on schols and budgets and politics called Savage Inequalities. The labor movement is concerned about the attack on state education budgets because, as Tom Cronin explained to me in an interview, the Pennsylvania State Education Association is one of the largest unions in the state and an attack on one union is an attack on all of them. Tom also recommended a piece by Noam Chomsky that examines the nationwide defunding of education.

Helen Gym, a mother of three children in Philadelphia schools, sees "Disaster Capitalism" behind the Governor's proposed school "rightsizing" and "streamlining." Disaster Capitalsim and the "Shock Doctrine" are terms used by the reporter Naomi Klein to describe a method of forcing through political changes that would otherwise be unacceptable. Young Philly Politics agrees that the changes proposed to state edcation budgets are driven by the desire to impose Disaster Capitalism upon Philadelphia students and parents and teachers and school staff because the alleged savings tha should theoretically come from the proposed reorganization only amount to a tiy proportion of the alleged hole. That makes no sense if the problem is a bad budget, but makes complete sense if the budget is simply an excuse to impose unpopular solutions. Primarily, Helen Gym notes that the charter schools that are highly profitable to cronies of the Governor are really no better than the profit-less public schools they replaced. Edison Schools, Inc., promised that privately-run schools would quickly outperform public schools. Their contract with Philadelphia was canceled because they failed to show any such thing.


Speech IV & V

Why would that be? Was the Edison School Corporation incompetent? I don't believe so. I believe instead that schools are so heavily labor-intensive that introducing market capitalism to schools makes a trivial difference to how much learning students get done. Adding a new device to an automobile can make an enormous difference to its profitablity. But going from movies shown on film projectors to movies shown via computers makes a trivial difference when imparting information to students. As nice as the change is for teachers, it doesn't make a meaningfully significant impact on the knowledge gained by the students. In education, capital investment matters, but one hits a ceiling very quickly. What counts for students is having a modest class size and clean, dry, relatively quiet surroundings and up-to-date books and other study materials. Spending money beyond that doesn't hurt, but one very quickly reaches a point of diminishing marginal returns on ones investment. The City Paper makes the extensive and detailed case that while charter schools are enormously profitable to their owners, they've produced an unimpressively mediocre record of actually serving the public and educating children effectively.

The right-wing Heritage Foundation made what they believed was the devastating critique that

This education spending spree [$110 billion by the Obama Administration alone] has failed to improve outcomes for students over the past four-and-a-half decades. But increasing spending—and increasing the number of education employees—is popular with the unions, which may explain why we’ve seen a hiring boom over the last several decades. And now, reality is setting in, and many districts are having to make cuts.

But are more education employees just popular with unions or do those extra workers serve a legitimate purpose in the  lives and educations of our young people? Might they serve purposes that have nothing to do with scores? The City Paper tells us that

Referrals for insurance assistance and family planning, in particular, often fall to nurses. One nurse said a girl recently walked into her office 24 weeks pregnant, having received no prenatal care until the nurse finally referred her. Another nurse, at a high school where one in four female students is pregnant or parenting, said it doesn't help that sex education is virtually nonexistent; girls often confuse cramps with stomach aches, and don't understand the workings of the reproductive system.

"The majority of our calls would be from school nurses," confirms Jaime Beck, program manager at CHOICE, which provides counseling and referrals for reproductive health in Philly. [emphases in orginal]

Non-teaching education workers serve functions that were unknown 45 years ago because Americans have identified more needs for schools to serve. Unions obviously benefit from having more workers on the job, but Eileen Duffy, a school nurse from the Occupy 440 Philadelphia School Nurses who leads a weekly protest outside the School Board (4:00-5:00pm on Wednesdays) tells us that school nurses have taken a very serious hit in the school budget (Philadelphia used to have 300 nurses on staff, there are now 160). A nurse is quoted as saying:

"It's a time bomb," one said, describing distribution of medication by nonmedical professionals, the increase in 911 calls from schools, the out-of-whack diabetics, and the compounding crises of Medicaid cutbacks, parents' loss of employer insurance and the reduction in school nurses.


Duffy herself says that:

she could be liable for incidents that occur when she's away, since she was tasked with creating an action plan for care in her absence.

It happens all the time: An asthmatic kid, for example, gets into a fight or has a panic attack and asks for his inhaler — the opposite of what he should have, since it will only accelerate his heart rate further. "A nurse would know that," one said.

Duffy noted to me in an interview that there are many needs that school nurses are dealing with today that simply weren't recognized as needs a few decades ago. Nurses are dealing with "Recent immigrant populations, poverty barriere, language barriers, possible post traumatic stress (from war torn areas) and cultural barriers- in terms of willingness to seek counseling, etc." 

The austerity policies that Pennsylvania is currently pursuing stem from the austerity policies that nationally, the Republican Party (With, unfortunately, the occasional assistance of Blue Dog Democrats and the Obama Administration) is pursuing. But even within the parameters set by Washington DC, it's far from clear that Pennsylvania's Governor Corbett is pursuing policies that help regular citizens. It appears instead that he's helping his wealthy cronies at the expense of PA citizens.