Reality check: schools and Harrisburg

Posted: August 05, 2014

LET'S TALK political reality.

One: The Legislature's an insular sect of me-first pols, too many of whom don't give a flying flock about Philadelphia or its schools.

Two: Schools will open on time.

Yes, Mayor Nutter, schools boss William Hite and others see today as one more day when the Legislature sticks it to the city.

Yes, lawmakers were to return to the Capitol from vacay and maybe authorize a $2-per-pack cig tax for schools.

And, yes, that's not happening.

So we get another sky-is-falling, schools-can't-open, fire-more-teachers response.

If this seems familiar, it's because last August, Hite said schools couldn't open without last-minute cash, then cash was found and schools opened.

Now, Gov. Corbett is asked to advance dough so the district doesn't go dark.

This, or something like it, certainly will happen.

Not even politically tone-deaf Corbett wants to run for re-election as regional and national media report that the largest district in his state can't start on time - especially since the district's run by a Corbett-controlled commission.

So Corbett and legislative "leaders" were to meet on Philly schools today.

Just rest assured that any agreement is but more salve on an open sore.

It's like war in the Middle East: won't end; most you can hope for are cease-fires.

Cig tax?

Maybe later this month, maybe September, maybe not.

Reason suggests that if a city wants to hike sin taxes on its citizens - no matter if it's a good idea - lawmakers who don't live in that city would simply say OK.

But reason has no seat in America's largest "full-time" legislature. And multiple crosswinds drive the issue.

There's the ever-blowing breeze of belligerence toward all things Philly, fanned by "fiscally responsible" GOP majorities, unaltered by ineffective Philly representatives.

The city's seen as a sinkhole where tax dollars vanish, are stolen or wasted. Same for schools, which cost plenty but shine little. And this is despite oft-heard concern "about the children."

Next there are gusts of greed in the fragmented Republican House.

Some members won't vote for any tax. Some won't help any district without helping their own. Some are committed solely to staying in well-paid, well-perked jobs or getting better-paid leadership posts.

House GOP Leader Mike Turzai, for example, wants to ascend to speaker after Speaker Sam Smith retires this year.

To do that, Turzai needs support of his caucus, which means pandering to every whim of its members.

Laughably, a Turzai/Smith letter to Corbett seeking early transfer of Philly funds claims that without such action "we fear that the education of thousands of Philadelphia schoolchildren will be in jeopardy."

In other words, we don't have the spine or skills to avoid "jeopardy"; how about you do it, guv? You're the one with a November opponent.

(Smith's leaving; Turzai's unopposed.)

Finally, there are zephyrs of zero trust in Philly schools.

More fuel for this is in a report released Friday by the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, specifically anticipating the cig-tax vote.

The report uses state and U.S. departments of education data and says: City enrollment in the past decade declined 25 percent, while revenue increased; student/teacher ratio declined 20 percent; 80 percent of students last year failed proficiency in reading and math.

Implied: Why give them more?

But district officials, including chief financial officer Matt Stanski, argue that unique district conditions aren't reflected in raw stats.

Student enrollment, for example, did decline in district schools but significantly increased in 86 charter schools, which the district funds. Stanski says that when both populations are counted, enrollment is up.

Student/teacher ratio data don't consider special-education and English-language classes in which ratios are 8-to-1 to 15-to-1. Ratios in regular district classes are 30-to-1 to 33-to-1, officials say.

And district data have proficiency failure around 55 percent - certainly not good, but not 80 percent.

Problem here, like everywhere, is that no one trusts or believes anyone, and data get spun and interpreted differently.

But believe this: When it comes to Harrisburg, it's almost never "about the children." It's almost always about ideology and me-first self-protection.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

 

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