Sunday, February 26, 2012

Undermining Public Education, Hobbles Our Hope for the Future

Undermining education undermines jobs
As the presidential campaign gears up and every candidate is sure to use the word "jobs" in every sentence they speak, I am sometimes struck by the acknowledgement gap that exists between the words "jobs" and "education."

Education, particularly public education, is a dirty word these days.

Depending on who you listen to, education is either the primary cause of Pennsylvania's budget deficit, a financial black hole into which the public's money is recklessly and unthinkingly flung, the refuge of lazy teachers who get every summer off; or, in some extreme cases, "factories" where "weird socialization" occurs.

To which I say, even if all of that were true, and I doubt it is, that does not do away with the need for the function.

Why can't we agree to fix public education, instead of "throwing the baby out with the bath water," or trying to starve public education into some kind of stasis, so we then can blame it for not adequately educating our kids.

The educator bubble?
I will be the first person to say that sometimes it seems that educators live in a bubble, separated from the real world where the rest of us have been paying a heavy share of their own health benefits for more than a decade and go years without a raise.

At the same time, not many of us can say we've spent any time in their world, struggling to deliver a mandated curriculum to a room packed with 20 to 30 6-year-olds, several of whom have severe learning disabilities but are nevertheless judged by the same standardized tests which have become the only measure for the value we place on education.

What got me started on all this was, first, this article in The Atlantic about how complicated manufacturing jobs have become in America and the need for an educated work force to man the factory jobs for which a high school education is no longer adequate.

Then I saw this article in Sunday's Washington Post and I really got riled.

Today's manufacturing machines are complex
We keep talking about how manufacturing jobs have left the U.S. for Asia, Mexico and elsewhere, and it's true they have.

The U.S. has lost nearly 4 million manufacturing jobs in the past 10 years.

(And how is China preparing to receive those jobs? A massive public education effort.Would that we had that much foresight.)

But significantly, the Post also revealed that a recent report for the Manufacturing Institute found that as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs in this country are going unfilled.


A shortage of skilled workers.

Factory floors these days look more like laboratory clean rooms than grease and metal-filing filled machine shops, with high-tech computers doing the work once done by 10 un-skilled laborers.

Lament it if you will, but we won't be going back -- ever. Time to adjust to the present and plan for the future.

Here's the thing, those machines need at least one skilled workers to run, program and maintain them. Add to that the fact that many of the workers who remain and run these machines are aging and we may soon find even more jobs leaving for overseas, not because it's cheaper, but because the workers there are better educated.

So what's our plan?

Apparently, cut public funding for public education.

Have we not learned yet that it's cheaper to educate our citizens, then to imprison them or support them indefinitely on Welfare?

The Post article quotes 27-year-old Greg Rowles who got a job paying between $18 to $28 per hour because he "took some classes at the local community college."

Pottstown's Western Campus of Montgomery County Community College is among the 50-fastest growing in the country, but when it comes time to prepare for a future of high-tech manufacturing jobs, what is our plan?

Cut community college funding.

In a Feb. 7 article I wrote for The Mercury, MCCC President Karen Stout lamented this short-sighted approach as is proposed on Gov. Tom Corbett's budget.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett
In his budget address, Gov. Corbett said: “Maintaining our commitment to the technical professions and practical trades keeps a bargain with today and builds for tomorrow. As our energy sector expands and manufacturing revives, Pennsylvania needs a trained work force ready to meet the demand for workers."

This will apparently be achieved with a  4 percent cut to MCCC's budget, on top of last year's cut of 10 percent.

“On a per-student basis, we’re looking at the same level of state funding that we received in 1994,” Stout told me.

Like the Post story, Stout said that manufacturers here in Montgomery County need qualified workers.

A Feb. 17 lasagna dinner raised $1,187 for West Campus scholarships
" I was meeting with CEOs of manufacturing firms in the Upper Perk area and they were explaining how important the work we’re doing is to those companies, and the jobs it will create, but we can’t keep offering new programs that adapt to the needs of the job market with these constant cuts to our funding,” said Stout.

The cuts will, in all likelihood, lead to an increase in tuition costs and a need for more lasagna dinners like the one shown here to raise more money for more scholarships.

Which brings me to another aspect of how we're sabotaging our best chances of growing our way out of this recession.

Rich kids are doing better than poor kids in testing
The third spoke in this tirade of mine was this Reuters article, which also ran in The Atlantic, which looks at new research showing that "the difference in test scores between affluent and underprivileged students has grown 40 percent since the 1960s."

The achievement gap between rich and poor students is now twice the gap between white and black students.

More worrisome is information that indicates when it comes to college-completion rates, the rich-poor gulf has grown by 50 percent since the 1980s, according to the Reuters report, which was based on this more detailed report in The New York Times.

Poor kids are now 50% less likely to finish college than rich ones
So what are we doing to level the playing field for poor families? Why making it even more tilted in favor of affluent families of course.

As The Mercury reported last year, Pennsylvania's lopsided method for public education funding discriminates against the Commonwealth's children based solely on their zip code.

Poor communities like Pottstown are getting the scraps. Under Corbett's proposals, state funding was to be cut by $600 per student last year in Pottstown, leading to the painful contemplation of cuts to music and art.

But in places like affluent Lower Merion -- where two new high schools, one complete with an indoor pool, had just been completed -- Corbett wanted to cut funding by a mere $83 per student.

This year's spread, shown below in a chart I made for this story in Sunday's edition of The Mercury, is less extreme, but the pattern remains the same.

So let's put all this together.

Children, the workers of tomorrow, from low-income families have less chance of doing well in school and even less of a chance of completing college; so we cut the funding to their primary and secondary schools; this while the increasingly well-paying manufacturing jobs left in the U.S., will require even greater education; this while we cut funding to community colleges, the cheapest and most applicable college education to allow those poor children to access those jobs; and therefore make it even less likely those children can afford the education they need to get those jobs, and perhaps improve the odds for success of their children, the next generation of American workers after them.

Someone please explain to me how this is a sustainable plan for long-term success.

Maybe I'm missing something, but I just don't see it.

Tell me how the above ensures the future success of all Americans and the continued success of our nation.

And don't tell me what you don't want to pay for.

I didn't want to pay trillions for the Iraq war, but that's the price we pay for living in a Democracy.

I agree, no one wants to pay for failing schools. But why can't we figure out how to make them successful schools?  Is it really that hard?

Shouldn't every politician prefer to pay for schools over prisons? Shouldn't we the taxpayers?

So enough fulminating, the real question is, what to do about it?

The answer, I believe, is to fix what's wrong with public education, not torpedo it and hope "the market" will get the job done. That's the easy way out.

(The market works for some things. I believe that now. I've seen it. But it is not a panacea for everything that ails us.)

Admittedly, fixing what's wrong with public schools  -- and I take a moment here to point out that there is a lot that is right with public schools -- is hard, complicated and politically explosive work.

But we don't elect our public officials to make easy choices do we? If that were the case, we could leave it all in the hands of Pottstown Borough Council.

It will require sacrificing some sacred cows.

In all likelihood, it will mean lower pensions for educators, more contributions toward their health benefits and consolidation of school districts, perhaps to the county level as is done in Maryland.

It will also require a state funding formula closer to the one implemented by the prior administration which is based on the "costing out study," which looks at a district's actual costs in determining how much aid it should receive and uses that to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students.

It could be funded by (shudder) a tax hike or a revenue source from, say, a natural resource we have in abundance and now being harvested at bargain basement prices.

But we have to do something other than let public education die on the vine. The founders realized this and saw the need for an educated population to make this republic work.

Until the founding of the United States, society had two models to choose from: either elites ran everything and enjoyed all the benefits, or, as was the case before that, there was chaos and all that mattered was who was strongest.

The founders tried to walk the line between those two, envisioning "the best" of the nation naturally assuming leadership (which, admittedly, to them, meant white, land-holding males); but they also pictured "the best" leading an educated populace, one that could understand the issues facing the nation and come to logical well-reasoned decisions (and votes) about how to face them.

To accomplish this, they favored a radical plan of raising public discourse and decision, by educating the public, at the cost of the public.

Thomas Jefferson proposed an extensive system of free public education in Virginia, and, as president, submitted to Congress in 1806 a proposed amendment to the Constitution to legalize federal support for education.

"Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right," Jefferson said.

John Adams
His fellow signatory on the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, put it, as he had a tendency sometimes to do, more bluntly: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

Even Pennsylvania's founders enshrined it in our own Constitution.

Article III, Section 14 of the Pennsylvania Constitution requires it: "The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth."

Raise your hand if you think there is anything "thorough" or "efficient" about their efforts to provide for public education these days.

Seriously, raise your hand. I realize this is a volatile subject, post your thoughts on what should happen to public education. Maybe you think I'm totally off base on this. I invite you to say so civilly here.


  1. Superbly researched piece, Evan, and well stated. Now, if only you can get Corbett to listen ...

  2. Evan, you are spot on. Pottstown's children are no less valuable than children from more affluent communities, but that is how they are treated. I believe that it is because they don't have a financial voice that the injustice is not only allowed to continue, but actually encouraged by our current Government. Even if you take out human compassion, empathy, and concern for our fellow man; as you have rightly pointed out, it is certainly less expensive to educate our citizens then to imprison them or support them indefinitely on Welfare – but that is long term thinking. Although this Governor has money to spend on prisons, there isn’t any money for public education – you really have to ask about who is paying for his priorities.

    Long term, strategic thinking would mean school district consolidation, at the County level to start, so that the educational funding could be fairly and equitably distributed. Pottstown’s children can and do succeed on the bare bones education we can afford to provide. But if Pottstown’s children had the same opportunities as Upper Merion … they could FLY.

  3. Blogger's Note: The following comment is a letter to state legislators written by Stephanie Carmody, a Harleysville resident who previously served on the President's Task Force.

    She sent me a copy and granted my request to post it here ( in two parts so it can fit) as a comment.

    Representative Bradford and Staff:

    I had crafted this email to send to Representative Godshall and his staff. After receiving your recent letter regarding the postponing of the redistricting, I decided to send it to you, unaltered, and copy him on it. The more the merrier.

    This problem is not, exclusively, my problem or one region's problem it is a problem which impacts anyone living and working in Pennsylvania. Frankly, I believe the ball is being dropped by many elected officials and little forethought is being given to making meaningful change to improve the future of the average PA resident.

    Since I needed to add this forward to the original message I have decided to include this link to a well-written opinion by a respected local reporter and have included him in this email. I urge you to reference it and take the time to consider his point-of-view. I am in complete agreement with his thoughts and he has probably said things better than I could hope to.

    Please enjoy the reading.

  4. Blogger's note:
    The second half of Mrs. Carmody's letter (apparently it will require 3 parts -- and I thought I wrote long...):)

    Original message below:

    Dear Sir & Staff:

    I am writing to you today to express my concern for the Education Funding System in PA. For some time, now, PA has been getting bad press about being one of the most expensive states in the country with regard to education funding/taxation. As a concerned resident I must make you aware that educational opportunities are important to all the children in the Commonwealth, for K-12 and beyond. I, personally, believe that the door closes more and more each year to those families in the middle class, particularly. This group of people isn't in a position to afford things outright, nor are they eligible for other programs those in more dire economic situations qualify for. We are also the group that is hurt, most noticeably, by rising property taxes and cuts in the State Budget to our school districts. It is apparent to me that the system is flawed, funding is short on every level and change is required to move forward to maintain quality without over-burdening many PA taxpayers.

    All costs are on the rise and many wages remain stagnant. I believe the job done in Harrisburg is difficult and worthy of compensation but it is a civil service, first and foremost. To continue on with current wages and benefits is unsettling and not helping maintain a balanced budget, causing cuts in other areas identified as "too costly". This is a time when we all need to "pitch in" and dig deep to prioritize. It is my hope that all elected officials see that "business as usual" can't be the practice for tomorrow's challenges.

    The only thing that I can support is a complete "shake-up" to the way PA runs and maintains public schools. Property taxes are making the dream of home ownership a burden to many. People can afford the actual loan and interest payments but when school taxes are at such high levels it takes choice away from hard working people or forces them into financial distress - making choices between paying a tax bill or getting necessary medicines or medical procedures, even purchasing grocery items. I know that I would likely put more money back into my local economy if I had more to spend, rather than have it escrowed for school taxes. This would provide a more equitable distribution of payments made to sustain schools based on household consumption (with appropriate sales taxes in place) - my family of 5 consumes more in goods and services than the retired couple down the street and that would mean my share into the system represents my 3 school-age children more fairly than an arbitrary mileage tax rate assessing the value of my property. I think the state should consider other states that have moved to County run/funded school systems. From an educational standpoint this would provide more continuity in the education/resources offered to the children - consider the inequality between such districts as Pottstown and Lower Merion.

    (See below for Part 3)

  5. Blogger's Note:
    And this is part 3:

    Sir, I respectfully request that you support change in Harrisburg to make the lives of Pennsylvania's taxpayers, and potential future taxpayers, better and that we all share a more "common wealth" through restructure in education taxation/funding.

    I write to you as a former resident of Pottstown, a graduate of SAHS, a former resident of the Orlando, FL area and current resident of Harleysville with a single income and 3 children. My husband and I made a choice many years ago to live off a single income and have a return to family-centered values and this choice is constantly compromised by rising costs and payments - families like us need your help. With a daughter who will be attending the HS in the fall (as a 9th grade student) we worry more and more about higher education costs and what changes will occur in public education programs as her younger siblings follow in her footsteps. As a 17 year member of the SASD school board I'm certain you are acutely aware of this constant struggle and how it impacts the public school system. By constantly attempting to "throw money at the problem" or "pass the buck back to the local elected officials" we are only performing "patch work" and not correcting the problem or troubleshooting for the future - example, PSERs payments increasing to the local districts, exponentially.

    Sir, I shake my head everyday wondering who will come knocking on the budget doorstep next.

    Now I hear that PA gas prices will become some of the highest in the nation due to the refineries closing down. PA is becoming resource-poor and too costly for many to stay - both commercial and residential investors. This state was once a state with innovative thinkers and achievers and now, in my opinion, too stubborn to model after others to regain ground and, again, become the trend-setter instead of a follower or like the person in next-to-last place.

    Bottom line, for me, is that we need a big boost and I think Property tax reform (moving toward County funded/run schools) would be a good start. Thank you for your time and service. It is my hope that PA finds the "common wealth" once more.

    -- Stephanie Carmody