Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Assault on Education

Shortly after the Republican victory in November, I posted Put Up or Shut Up Time for the Republicans since the Republican narrative during the fall campaign was that they could balance budgets strictly by cutting spending without increasing taxes. But since they were unwilling (or unable) to specifically name programs they wanted to cut, it would be interesting to see what they would finally come up with.

On the federal level, the proposed cuts were for a grand total of about $61 billion out of a deficit of about $1.5 trillion including cuts to Planned Parenthood which critics feel
has nothing to do with saving money.

Planned Parenthood, like other health care providers, provides a range of services for women. Every year, Planned Parenthood screens millions of women for cervical cancer, breast cancer and sexually transmitted diseases. The organization offers flu shots, diabetes screening and a host of other health services to women who might not otherwise have the means to get them. Nearly half of Planned Parenthood's clients qualify for Medicaid.

But Planned Parenthood also provides access to safe, legal abortions, and that has earned it the lasting enmity of those who would make that procedure illegal. The budget bill passed by the House would cut all funding, including Medicaid, from Planned Parenthood, likely putting it out of business.

While the Republican controlled House can pass just about any bill cutting any spending they wish to target, they know it is little more than a symbolic gesture since the Democratic majority in the Senate and the Democratic president will never let bills like this become law. But it sure makes for a great opportunity for conservatives to appeal to their base!

But it’s a far different story at the state level where Republican governors and legislatures that are in control can more easily pass spending cuts that suit their ideological views. And it seems like the most prominent target of the cuts is education.

The most visible story is in Madison, Wisconsin where the governor not only demanded pay cuts from its teachers, but also most of their collective bargaining rights. The interested reader can check out my previous posting, Making Sense of the Wisconsin Standoff.

But here in Pennsylvania, Republican Governor Tom Corbett has proposed what the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette calls a
Brutal Budget that makes massive cuts in spending for education.

A governor's budget is more than a ledger; it's a blueprint of priorities. This year, in the hands of Tom Corbett, it's also a sharp and bloody ax swinging at essential programs, particularly education.

In issuing his first budget, Gov. Corbett made it clear he means to keep his campaign pledge to rein in state spending and his $27.3 billion proposal contained no new or increased state taxes. But gouging funding levels for state universities will undercut his agenda for creating and retaining jobs, and hitting school districts with the deepest cuts undoubtedly will trigger tax hikes at the local level.
This is all so wrong on so many levels. Of course, the governor's object is to balance the budget without raising any state taxes. But if the result is triggering tax hikes at the local level, doesn’t that count as a tax hike? After all, the money is still coming out of the taxpayers’ pockets.

The purpose of state supported universities is to provide educational opportunities to its residents without their having to pay very expensive private university tuitions. For many of not most people, college would be otherwise unaffordable. So while again there is no state tax hike, aren’t the resulting tuition hikes still money that will be coming out of the taxpayers’ pockets? And if college then becomes unaffordable for some, isn’t that too much of a price for those people to pay?

Perhaps the most insidious damage would come from the cuts to the local school districts. In general, public schools are financed by a combination of local property and state taxes. So the cut in state taxes will mean either an increase in property taxes (for those school districts that can afford it) or cuts in the classroom (for those that cannot).

At least in theory, public education is supposed to be the great equalizer providing an opportunity for upward mobility for those in the lower economic classes. But decreasing the state funding for education only puts more strain on poorer areas with a lesser tax base thus increasing the gap between the haves and have nots. And while it is often the poorer school districts that need to offer more money to entice the best teachers to teach there, it is the affluent school districts that will best be able to attract the best teachers.

And just to add insult to injury is the governor’s refusal to impose a so-called severance tax on the expanding Marcellus Shale drilling in Pennsylvania – the only major drilling state in the country not to tax this industry. But the governor needed some way to thank those who so generously funded his campaign!

Indeed it cannot be denied that many states are in financial difficulty. And unlike the federal government, state governments cannot resort to deficit spending to solve shortfalls like the federal government can. But while some states have perhaps not spent some of their tax dollars wisely, far and away the leading cause of the state deficits is the recession. After all, people out of work pay little or no taxes. The same goes for companies that shut down or move away. And with all of the people out of work comes an additional strain on government services to provide a safety net.

With the present Congress no longer willing to provide funds to fill the holes in the state budgets, cuts on the state and local level will be inevitable which will not only cause more pain but result in the loss of even more jobs. The lesson to be learned is that no matter what the anti-government protesters and politicians say, slashing government spending in a recession will do nothing to make things better — and a whole lot to make things worse!

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