Pennsylvania's GOP Gov. Corbett a “no show” on schools

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PHILADELPHIA - Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, struggling to rescue his re-election campaign, made news here today. Headlines this morning announced that the Governor will propose a $200 million increase in education funding for public schools across the state in his annual budget address Feb. 4. However, the news met with more skepticism than approval.

The reports suggested that the funding would likely come from reductions elsewhere in the state budget rather than from new revenue. While the Governor's office was not releasing "any details of the proposal," sources speculated that $100 million would come from "reform" in the state and public school employee pension funds.

Such proposals have already been widely panned as "robbing Peter to pay Paul" schemes. A Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) spokesperson observed that the proposed increase would still leave the state's education spending around $700 million below the annual levels of 2010-2011, the year Corbett was elected.

Corbett's political stock appeared to take another hit before the morning was over when it developed that he had canceled a widely publicized appearance at the city's prestigious Central High School. The cancellation was announced to a crowd of several hundred demonstrators who had gathered outside on the school grounds to protest the Governor's appearance at an assembly program. Parent activist Helen Gym energized the crowd when she opened the rally by announcing that she had just learned that Corbett had "bailed" and had decided not to show up.

The protest rally was organized by a coalition of education and community groups and school employee unions. The coalition has conducted a high profile and sustained campaign to bring attention to the devastating program cuts which have followed in the wake of the state budget reductions during Corbett's one term in office.

A notable feature of the coalition has been the activism of local clergy and they were out in force this morning. Reverend Alyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle Church in North Philadelphia noted the diversity of the crowd saying, "We are demonstrating our ability to come together around issues. This is not a black problem or a white problem; it is not Christian, Muslim, or atheist problem." His message for Corbett:  "We want the billion dollars back. We have demonstrated today that we can pull people together who have the ability to vote you out!"

Coalition members distributed literature at the rally documenting the staff and program cuts to the three schools that Corbett was expected to visit during the day. None of the schools has a functioning library or any librarian to staff one. Central High, for example has cut its full time staff from 154 to 112, or over 20 percent since 2011. It has cut its counseling staff from eight to two, or 75 percent. And, as speakers noted, this was at one of the school district's elite special admission schools. Neighborhood schools have in many cases fared even worse, and nearly 30 have been closed.

Teachers union (PFT) President Jerry Jordan told the crowd that Corbett's actions in office had "gutted" the state funding formula established in 2008 designed to help poorer districts improve their educational programs. Several speakers echoed the theme that the problem is statewide and not confined to Philadelphia. The press has reported that a total of some 20,000 teachers and staff have been laid off statewide, and that many of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts had eliminated or scaled back counseling, athletic and early childhood programs.

Jerome Mondesire, head of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP told the crowd that his three grown children had attended the schools that Corbett was slated to visit and that his son had asked him, "Dad, what are you going to do about this?" His answer was to come and speak at the rally and urge everyone to make sure to work and vote in the November election.

A field of eight Democrats is vying in the May primary election to challenge Corbett in November. To date they have run constructive campaigns and have concentrated their fire on the Governor rather than each other.

Before the day was over, in a further blow to Republican hopes, the news came that a Commonwealth Court judge had thrown out the state's controversial voter ID law, ruling that it unfairly targeted elderly and low income groups who tend to vote Democrat.   

Photo: Ben Sears/PW

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