Posts Tagged legislation

The Worm in the Education Apple

There is an old saying in politics that “perception is reality.”  That is how former Governor Tom Corbett got blamed for cuts in funding to public education that never happened.  To this day many Pennsylvanians believe he took an axe to education funding when in fact he left office with more state dollars being spent on K-12 education than at any point in the commonwealth’s history.

To drive the point home, Governor Tom Wolf campaigned promising to be the education governor.  He has done more to damage public education than any governor in recent history. This reality has been cloaked in the perception that he is pro-education.  In fact Wolf is really just pro-union, propping up a system that fails both students and taxpayers.

It is true he has proposed historic increases in education spending – and the higher taxes to fund that spending.  But, the proposed increases in both taxing and spending are so large they have proven politically impossible to implement. The untenable nature of these increases are such that even in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of the state capitol some Democrats have refused to go along.

The chances of Governor Wolf getting Republican support for more reasonable increases in k-12 public education spending are high if, as demanded by GOP leadership, reforms to cost drivers are included.  But the governor has adopted a “my way or the highway” attitude which gridlocked the process and produced a historic budget stand-off.

In the process of fighting that battle, the so-called education governor pushed school districts across Penn’s Woods to the cusp of closing due to the lack of state dollars flowing into their coffers.  Worse, many had to borrow money to keep their doors open, incurring costs that took dollars away from students.  His administration, willing to spend money to keep state bureaucracy operating, turned down appeals from school districts for relief.

Even if Governor Wolf were to push his education spending increases through the legislature precious few dollars would ever be spent benefitting students.  That is because the state’s pension system has become fiscally unsound. Its investments are under-performing projections and too generous benefits are draining the system faster than current employees add new dollars.  At the school district level, property taxes are rising to cover costs and the preponderance of any new state dollars directed to education must go to prop up the system as well.

June a year ago the legislature passed significant pension reform.  It was immediately vetoed by the governor who parroted the union line that the system is fine, just underfunded.  Thus an opportunity to at least partially address a major cost driver was missed.  The end result: fewer dollars available to directly benefit students.

Governor Wolf has also been waging a war on charter schools.  Even more so than traditional public schools, charters operate with minimal cash flow.  The epic budget battle resulted in teacher lay-offs, and even the closing of some charter schools.  More will likely close as the governor implements administrative policies aimed at forcing charter schools out of existence.  These policies are designed to deny parents and students valuable educational choices in an effort to preserve the union-dominated monopoly of public schools.

The latest example of Governor Wolf placing union interests over student interests involves legislation that would replace the seniority-based system for determining teacher lay-offs with a merit based system.  In other words, instead of “last in, first out” the best teachers would be retained.  At present, the legislation is on Governor Wolf’s desk – and he has vowed a veto.

Unless you are doing Common Core math, when you add all these factors together what you get is a governor whose every action has harmed students and made the state’s system of public education even more fiscally fragile than it was when he took office.  All of this is being done to prop up the very labor unions that financed the governor’s election.  For taxpayers, and for students, it is a very large worm in the education apple.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.


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Crunch Time

It is crunch time in Harrisburg.

The next 60 days will likely be the most productive – or unproductive – period of legislating under the capitol dome this year.  From budgets and taxes to liquor privatization and pensions, a wide range of controversial and difficult issues vie for legislative attention.

Most importantly, the state constitution requires a budget be adopted by the close of business on June 30th.  Lawmakers don’t always fulfill their constitutional obligation.  Under former Governor Ed Rendell the commonwealth went eight straight years without passing a budget on time. It has been a source of pride for Governor Tom Corbett that his three budgets were done by the deadline, but revenue shortfalls and election year politics threaten that streak.

But this year, budget aside, June 30th looms as a very important date.  That is because the General Assembly traditionally adjourns immediately after passing the budget for a two and a half month summer vacation.  Last year, even with the governor’s top three legislative agenda items unresolved, the legislature left town.  When lawmakers return in mid-September the General Election will be just six weeks away.  With every member of the state House and half of the state Senate up for election, you can bet the mortgage nothing controversial will get done during the Fall session.

For decades the legislature would return to session for two weeks after the General Elections in a so-called “sine die” session to complete business.  However, such sessions have fallen into disrepute because they were often used so members who lost or were retiring could cast politically difficult votes knowing they would never again face the electorate.  As part of the meager reforms that took place during the backlash over the infamous middle-of-the-night pay raise vote, sine die sessions have either not been held or limited to routine administrative business.

Depending on the outcome of the gubernatorial election, this year could test the resolve of leaders to not call a sine die session.  Despite its control of both chambers the GOP has not been able to agree on key issues.  Should the Democratic nominee win the governor’s race, then the last chance to forge an agreement on such issues and get them signed into law will come in November.  After that, Republican dominance would end.  If, however, Governor Corbett is re-elected, sine die becomes irrelevant and legislative battles will wait until the new session convenes in January.

Adding to the drama is that each major issue is complicated by associated issues.  The budget, for example, also depends on the outcome of a Democratic push to enact a severance tax on Marcellus Shale drillers and lavish election-year spending on education.  Under the House-passed bill privatization of the state’s liquor stores would inject much needed cash into the system, but the Senate has yet to come up with the votes to pass that legislation.

Meanwhile other big issues are at play.  After decades of talk and debate there actually are two property tax reform bills gaining traction.  The problem is the bills take significantly different approaches to shifting property taxes to other forms of taxation triggering an internal battle over how to proceed.

And then there are key labor power issues.  Most notably there is a push for Paycheck Protection, or outlawing the automatic deduction of labor union dues from government workers’ paychecks.  That bill appears to have enough votes for House passage. But, organized labor has a stronger foothold in the Senate GOP caucus, so the fate of the bill is up in the air.  Governor Corbett has pledged to sign the legislation.

Illustrating how difficult it is to get anything accomplished in the current legislative and political climate is that a bill which would eliminate loopholes in state law that actually allow stalking, harassment and the making of threats to use a weapon of mass destruction during a labor dispute remains unresolved.  Polls show nearly 90% of voters want to make such actions illegal.  Both the House and the Senate have passed a bill to do so – but the Senate added some language that the House has yet to agree upon.

The failure to pass a law with such widespread support calls into question the ability of the legislature to deal with more complicated issues like pension reform.  The sad fact is it will take an enormous effort by the governor and legislative leaders to accomplish anything of substance given the political climate in which they are currently operating.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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PSEA & The Art of the Bargaining Chip

By Lowman S. Henry

One of the most common rhetorical techniques used by politicians to disguise the true nature of a proposed policy is to give legislation a name implying something totally different.   For example, the health reform measure popularly known as Obamacare is officially entitled the Affordable Health Care Reform Act of 2010. It is about government control, not health care; and the results have been anything but affordable.

So it was that the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association – which is really a teacher union, not an education association – audaciously claimed that: “Using public school students as a political bargaining chip is a bad idea.” Mike Crossey was talking about Governor Tom Corbett’s plan to dedicate new revenue generated by the privatization of the state’s antiquated liquor store system to grants for public education.

The PSEA’s suggestion that “using public school students as a political bargaining chip is a bad idea” is the public policy equivalent of a Jedi mind trick. For the cinematically-challenged that means to claim something is other than what is actually standing in front of you. The fact is the PSEA has shown a remarkable willingness to use as a bargaining chip whoever and whatever is necessary to achieve its union power goals.

The PSEA bludgeons local school boards, taxpayers and parents by going out on strike if they don’t get what they want in contract negotiations. The degree to which students are held hostage is evidenced by the fact that Pennsylvania perennially leads the nation in the number of teacher strikes. If Mr. Crossey and the labor union he leads truly were appalled at the thought of using students as bargaining chips, they would support legislation aimed at making teacher strikes in Pennsylvania illegal.

And, students are not the only ones the PSEA will hold hostage to achieve its political goals. The union opposes the right of parents to decide for themselves which public, private or parochial school their child should attend. PSEA wages war against other forms of school choice such as the establishment of charter and cyber charter schools. As a result, hundreds of thousands of students are trapped in failing schools. If Mr. Crossey and the labor union he leads truly were appalled at the thought of using students as bargaining chips, they would support legislation that empowers parents with full school choice rights.

Not only does the PSEA hold the threat of strikes over the heads of taxpayers, but they force taxpayers to subsidize the collection of union dues via payroll deduction. This adds administrative cost to school district budgets, dollars which could otherwise be dedicated to student education. If Mr. Crossey and the labor union he leads truly were appalled at the thought of using students as bargaining chips, they would collect their own dues rather than have taxpayers foot the bill.

The current instance of PSEA caterwauling about the governor’s plan to dedicate new revenue from a privatized liquor system to education further illustrates its commitment to union power over serving students. Their true concern here is not education dollars; it is preservation of the jobs of their union brethren in the state store system. Unions now represent less than 12% of all American households; those are mostly in the public sector. The PSEA’s true goal here is to prevent further erosion of union membership and lucrative dues dollars.

Governor Tom Corbett has been subjected to a steady barrage of bashing by the PSEA for so-called cuts to public education. State dollars have, in fact, remained rather constant. The “cuts” have come from federal stimulus dollars that were temporary. So, the real blame for the “cuts” lies on Barack Obama and the federal government, not Tom Corbett and state government. The Corbett liquor privatization plan finds a way to help replace some of those lost dollars.

You would think the PSEA would applaud such a move, but then again you would have to believe that that an organization built on using students as bargaining chips would actually care about their well-being.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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