Patrick Kerkstra: School bailout could hurt city

Posted: June 26, 2013

Gov. Corbett has belatedly realized what's been obvious for years: The state's utterly inadequate funding of K-12 education is a massive political liability for him, one that could well sink his reelection.

The attention is welcome, even if the deal he is cooking up to bail out the city's schools is an atrocious one for Philadelphia taxpayers.

Corbett's epiphany that education matters was likely helped along by two new polls commissioned by organizations frantic to ensure that Philadelphia's public schools open in the fall with something more than a skeleton crew of teachers and a principal.

It turns out that 58 percent of Pennsylvanians favor raising the sales tax and delaying a corporate tax cut to generate an additional $1 billion for school funding, according to a poll of 600 voters performed by Lake Research Partners and commissioned by Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a children's advocacy organization.

Still more troublesome for Corbett are the results of a controversial survey commissioned by PennCAN, an education reform group that wants the governor to use the crisis to push through a handful of reforms that the teachers' union would never accept in normal times, such as taking seniority out of school staffing decisions and paying teachers partly for performance instead of experience and credentials.

That poll - first obtained and published by City Paper - finds that 70 percent of voters statewide believe that Philly's schools crisis is very much the governor's problem, and that 63 percent disapprove of Corbett's handling of public education across the commonwealth.

Those are very bad numbers for an administration that, to date, has deprioritized education and pretended that Philadelphia is part of New Jersey.

But PennCAN has an answer for Corbett's political woes. "Staging this battle presents Corbett with an opportunity to coalesce his base, focus on a key emerging issue in the state, and campaign against an 'enemy' that's going to aggressively oppose him in '14 in any case," the poll analysis reads.

That's some crass and divisive advice, but it's probably not bad politics for Corbett.

"This is a pragmatic organization that wants to get a deal done," said PennCAN executive director Jonathan Cetel. "It's a tough political climate for Philadelphia in Harrisburg, and we want to get support for the district and get meaningful work-rule reforms."

Many grassroots education activists loathe the reform agendas of organizations like PennCAN, but its message is having an impact in Harrisburg.

Corbett went public with a commitment to help the schools the day after the leaked poll appeared in City Paper. And he's putting together a deal that includes - you guessed it - teacher work-rule changes and a mishmash of funding for the district.

At the moment, the package includes about $100 million in one-time federal funding, $74 million in new city funds, and, going forward, siphoning off part of the city's (once-temporary, now destined to be permanent) sales tax for education.

You'll notice Corbett's bailout so far doesn't actually include a dime of additional state funding. This is a real problem.

What Corbett proposes is nothing less than a permanent increase in the city's share of the school-funding formula, while the state escapes with no new investment. That's a raw deal for a city that already has the second-highest tax burden in the nation.

Worse, by hijacking the city sales tax for school funding, Corbett is depriving Philadelphia of perhaps its best chance to tame the pension beast, which is ravenously consuming a bigger share of the city's budget each year.

The city sales tax - 2 percentage points on top of the statewide 6 points - is slated to go down a point next year. But even before Corbett eyed the money for education, city policy-makers were quietly hoping to make this "temporary" tax hike permanent, and use it for the pension fund.

They see it as a rare opportunity to, in time, conquer the city's worst fiscal challenge without the political drama and economic trauma of enacting a new tax. The idea, which was floated early this month by Temple's Center on Regional Politics (full disclosure: I've written on unrelated subjects for the center), was endorsed by a working group that includes not just city officials, but Republican lawmakers as well.

If Corbett has his way, that option is off the table for the city. It's a sucker's deal, but given the alternatives - genuinely calamitous conditions in public schools next fall - it's also one the city and its taxpayers will probably have to take.


Patrick Kerkstra is a freelance journalist and former Inquirer staff writer. He can be reached at Patrick@PatrickKerkstra.com, or on Twitter @pkerkstra.

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