Maria Panaritis: Austerity isn’t helping Europe or Pennsylvania schools

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is an austerity proponent. MARKUS SCHREIBER / AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is an austerity proponent. MARKUS SCHREIBER / AP
Posted: June 04, 2012

The Chamber of Commerce audience looked like deer in the headlights as Gov. Corbett’s secretary of revenue, Dan Meuser, droned through a Power Point presentation the other day in Montgomery County showing how Pennsylvania’s CEO was showering businesses with tax breaks.

Charts detailed a Corbett-designed austerity plan in its second year that is generous to business but that falls hard on the state’s public schools, which are buckling under enormous funding pressures as we speak.

No wonder the Souderton-area spectators hardly came up with questions for the man afterward. Slide after slide effectively outlined what, to my mind, was the horror of Corbett’s cutting millions of dollars in taxes for corporations while doing little to come up with enough state cash for public schools to cover their costs.

When Corbett came into office, he faced a $4 billion shortfall. The state had just lost $700 million in federal stimulus dollars used to help schools the prior year. His remedy: cut corporate taxes by $800 million through 2014, give schools millions less than they need, and call it education "reform."

"He’s got a plan," Meuser said of his boss, a no-nonsense law-enforcement lifer who strode into office on a no-tax pledge last year but who is making good upon that campaign promise by looting school district treasuries.

The smattering of attendees at the Indian Valley Chamber of Commerce lunch — an uncharacteristically small gathering, according to one person — sat quietly as Meuser laid out magical math behind a governorship whose economic policies are resulting in scorched arts programs, fired librarians, wiped-out athletics, and countless other program and staff cuts to schools far and wide.

"We are enhancing revenues," Meuser said, "without raising taxes."

That’s like a CEO purporting to boost sales without selling more stuff or raising prices. Neat trick. I wonder how that line would go over in a conference call with investors.

The math of the Corbett administration, quite simply, is a starvation diet for school districts. An austerity-driven policy that caters to ideologues and business interests in much the same way that austerity politics in Europe (near-failing, thus far) have pandered to banks and some voters at the expense of European unity and global economic health.

There is nothing innovative about a leadership style, either in business or politics, that chooses a close-your-eyes approach that threatens to take down your most precious asset along the way. Yet, here we have it, in Pennsylvania and across the pond.

Sure, you nip and tuck and even whack during tough times. But leaving schools with gaping budget holes? It’s not like Upper Darby School District, for example — cutting vocal arts, library and gym from elementary schools to cover a devastating shortage — can react by, say, expanding business into foreign markets the way a retailer or financial institution would.

Schools are a trust, not a retail corporation or a political football. And yet, here they are, as threatened by the austerity policies of Corbett and the legislature as the nations of the increasingly fragile eurozone are.

In Europe: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders of some of the continent’s stronger economies have pushed harsh policies on neighbor states to curry favor with bankers and voters. They view Spain, Greece, and Italy as less worthy of financial assistance than the banks to whom those teetering nations owe billions of euro. And yet, these policies are cracking the union and threatening economic stability from China to Chambersburg.

In Pennsylvania: Corbett has slashed hundreds of millions in taxes on businesses rather than retain and channel that much-needed revenue to the engines of economic growth that educate generations of entrepreneurs.

Put a blonde wig on Corbett, in other words, and call him Merkel. Because austerity by any other name is still austerity. And it’s a dangerous word.

Consider even well-off communities such as Souderton, whose school system has a decidedly stronger tax base than Upper Darby. It’s foisting unpopular program cuts and tax hikes on residents because of cuts to state aid and a decline in local revenue due to the economic downturn.

"Unfortunately, the reality of what’s happening to public schools is not the same as what was reflected up there," Bill Stone, director of business affairs for the 6,600-student Souderton Area School District, said after Meuser finished a presentation that had sought to paint a rosier picture of the governor’s policies than came across.

Souderton has excised seventh-grade junior-varsity sports and most freshman sports at the high school, Stone said. Plus, local officials raised taxes 3 percent to help cover a $3.7 million shortfall. People are not happy about that at all.

Upper Darby, meanwhile, is taking a knife to arts enrichment — the very soul of a modest district that has hatched countless artists and professionals through the years. And in Philadelphia, a scorched-earth budget was approved Thursday to jeers from an angered crowd being controlled by police.

Meuser told me separately that Corbett’s tax cuts are a "stimulus for job creation," a move to make the state more business-friendly down the road. "Without it, those kids graduating wouldn’t have jobs."

I mentioned to Meuser a story I had recently reported, in which Wegmans said it opened a major distribution center in Pennsylania instead of Maryland because it was such a "business-friendly" state, doling out millions in grants over GOP and Democratic administrations.

There are "success stories," Meuser offered. "Comcast is based here. My former company grew significantly over a 20-year period," he added, referring to Pride Mobility Corp., where he served as president.

Remind me then, why do we have to take a hatchet to our public schools?

Or should I just give Merkel a ring on that one?

Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com or on Twitter @panaritism. Read more of her columns on Philly.com.

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