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Pennsylvania’s Tea Party Governor at War with Public Schools

Americans have gotten a pretty good look at what happens when you turn state government over to people who hate government – in Wisconsin, for example, or more recently North Carolina. Another Tea Party governor who hasn’t gotten the attention he deserves (although he did win the championship in Progress Now’s March Badness competition this year) is Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett, who has sacrificed the interests of Pennsylvanians with a far-right ideological agenda that includes voter suppression, his own transvaginal ultrasound bill, and a reluctance to tax or regulate fracking operations in the state’s Marcellus shale formation.

In Salon this week, writer Aaron Kase spells out another casualty of Corbett’s anti-government agenda – the Philadelphia public schools. The Philadelphia school system, which is under state control, is facing a catastrophic opening, with the city borrowing $50 million to give the district so that schools can open on September 9.

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.

The article explains that the school district has been in crisis-management mode in recent years, laying off thousands of teachers and other employees and applying one financial band-aid after another. Governor Corbett could help if he wanted to, but he doesn’t.

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.

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.

Behind this of course, is the kind of anti-union, anti-public employee, pro-outsourcing agenda pushed by other Tea Party-connected governors.

Leering over the whole mess is the controversial charter school movement, which siphons $675 million from district schools. The charter experiment has been a mixed bag, with some performing well, others proving mere vehicles for graft and corruption. Critics see them as a way to divert public money into politically connected private hands, and even more important, a way to break the teachers union because they aren’t bound by district collective bargaining rules.

It’s not hard to see the same forces at work here as those taking apart public sector unions in Wisconsin and trying to confiscate Detroit city employees’ pensions in Michigan. Indeed, the district leadership met Thursday to unilaterally suspend the school code to get around teacher seniority and automatic raise rules as they use the $50 million to rehire some of the employees laid off earlier this year.

Last summer an editor for the Harrisburg Patriot News slammed Corbett for interpreting his Tea Party-supported election as a mandate for far-right activism:

But his biggest flaw is that he misread Pennsylvania. Flash back to 2010 when Corbett ran for office, and the tea party was at the height of its glory. Corbett interpreted his victory as a shift to the right….

“He’s tried to govern as an ideologue in a state that has historically had moderate to centrist governors,” political analyst Michael Young says.  “He’s [an] antagonist and hostile to government, to legislators and to state employees. It reflects a deep, ideological bias, and that just does not fit the Pennsylvania electorate or milieu.”