"There's something happening here.
What it is ain't exactly clear."
Even a casual reading of the proposed budget cuts emanating from the Warren County School District these days should make it apparent that the district faces a budgetary crisis of monumental proportions. A four-day school week, a contraction of course offerings, and the elimination of extracurricular activities are just the beginning of the cuts that have been proposed to help the district reduce expenditures by at least $7 million. And this year is just the beginning.
Clearly, something serious is playing itself out on the local stage.
Those developments will profoundly alter the shape of public education here for years to come. The cuts being discussed by our local school board eliminate far more than the proverbial "fat" which politicians love to rail against in moments of high-tea-party dudgeon. These economies cut into bone, muscle, and sinew.
Here in Warren County, where even Democrats are good Republicans, there has been remarkably little discussion of the dynamics that drive the district's current budgetary crisis. There's been some discussion of our dysfunctional inability to come to a decision on the future of our facilities, but that's a sideshow, a distraction from the real issue. The 800-pound gorilla is getting a free pass and an invitation to the tea party.
It's time for that to end.
The truth of the matter is that the Warren County School District and the 500 other districts throughout the state are being forced to pay the price for the profligacy of Pennsylvania's state government under the administrations of governors Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell. In 2001, Ridge, hoping to "buy" school reform measures he favored, agreed to increase pensions for state lawmakers by 50 percent. To dampen the outrage, he simultaneously agreed to increase pensions for state employees and teachers by 25 percent. Retirees left out of the initial deal clamored for their own deal and secured it the following year at a cost of $1.7 billion. In 2003, during his first year in office, Rendell was faced with the prospect of mandatory increased pension payments to make good on Ridge's largesse. Rather than bite the bullet, Smilin' Ed struck a deal with the state legislature to delay for ten years the payments necessary to sustain the pension systems.
The IOUs are coming due.
In response to that, the administration of Governor Tom Corbett, with the support of our Republican delegation (Sen. Joseph Scarnati, Sen. Mary Jo White, and Rep. Kathy Rapp), has crafted a budget whose main attributes seem to be passing the buck for the state's failures down to the local level, particularly the state's 501 school districts, which have seen state subsidies cut by an average of ten percent under the Corbett budget. Limited in their abilities to make up those losses by taxation restrictions, the districts are forced to resort to cuts like those the Warren County School District is contemplating. Anyone who stops to think about that should be outraged.
At the very time they were forcing local school districts to bear the cost of making good on Harrisburg's past spending sprees, Corbett and majority Republicans are refusing to tax the extraction of natural gas from Marcellus Shale despite the fact that natural gas extraction is taxed in 14 of 15 of the top gas producing states, including such conservative Republican bastions as George W. Bush's Texas, Sarah Palin's Alaska, and Dick Cheney's Wyoming. Anyone who thinks the energy companies operating in Pennsylvania are going to walk away from the Marcellus mother lode because of an extraction tax is simply not cognizant of how much those companies have already invested in Pennsylvania and how much they need that gas. Incidentally, it's worth taking a look at where the natural gas industry put its campaign dollars over $800,000 to Corbett alone.
But it gets worse.
The Republican majority plans to accelerate the phase-out of the state's capital stock and franchise tax, a levy on corporations incorporated in Pennsylvania. That phase-out adds to the egregious insult already written into Pennsylvania tax law which allows corporations to report income generated in Pennsylvania in low or no-tax states like Delaware. Fully 70 percent of the corporations operating in Pennsylvania pay no corporate income tax to the state. Seemingly, that percentage will increase as local taxpayers see their school property taxes get exponentially higher.
Finally, what does this mean for our children?
The United States, as the result of free trade agreements, is currently involved in one of the largest transfers of wealth in the history of the world. Economic activity once confined to the U.S. is now fueling economies in places like China, India, and Brazil. Those agreements likely prevented some potentially explosive conflicts later in this century, but they come at great cost to the developed world and its citizens. Here in the U.S., those agreements were sold to a skeptical citizenry with the assurance that, while the U.S. would lose some labor-intensive jobs, America would thrive on the basis of its knowledge-based economy. American know-how and education would ultimately carry the day, we were told by the likes of presidents George H. Bush and William Clinton.
There seems to be a problem with that concept.
Education in the United States has not kept pace with our economic rivals. The U.S. now ranks somewhere around 27th in the world by most measures of educational strength. The school year in China typically runs from the beginning of September to mid-July. Summer vacation is generally spent in supplementary classes or studying for entrance exams. The average school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the school week consists of anywhere from five to seven days, depending on the region of the country.
Meanwhile, we're looking at a four-day school week and cutting academic programs. Do we really fail to see our children's future being dealt away unless their parents can afford private schools? Where is the outrage? The handwriting is on the wall, clear as it can be. It's time to read it.
Jude Dippold is a former managing editor of The Times Observer.