'PA public schools at Defcon-1' -- and are making national news

Categories:  News & Politics    Opinion
Friday, October 16th, 2015 at 1:09 PM

In case you missed it, I wrote about the effects of Harrisburg's budget impasse on Erie Public Schools in the last issue of the Reader. Fellow Contributing Editor Jim Wertz covered it, too, noting the hard costs of public education   and the "impossible decision" facing Erie Public Schools Superintendent Jay Badams.

Why so much commentary on one issue? Bluntly put: It's a big deal. A very big deal. So big in fact that it's garnering national attention.

The Atlantic interviewed Badams about those decisions in "The Tenuous Fate of Pennsylvania's Public Schools" feature. Because I love The Atlantic and appreciate its style of coverage of tone of conversation, I'll encourage you to read the piece for yourself. But I will tell you that my headline for this post came from the lede of Maressa Nicosia's piece:

"Pennsylvania public schools are now at Defcon 1—borrowing millions of dollars to keep the lights on, starting to ask teachers to work without pay, and even voting to shut the schoolhouse doors and send the kids home—all because an unprecedented state budget crisis has left them within weeks of insolvency."

First school district Nicosia turns to? 

"Funds are running out so fast in Erie, the state’s fourth-largest city, that the schools could shut down by November 1. The school board last month unanimously authorized this previously unthinkable option. If the money runs dry, Erie would consider requiring its 12,000 students to stay home for a week or two."

Read on and find that Badams isn't along. Many other school districts face the same crisis -- albeit to different degrees.

But time has a way of leveling that playing field, equalizing any marginal differences. Spend enough time, and there won't be any more money to spend.

What's more alarming is the amount being withheld in Harrisburg, collecting literal dust, as superintendents statewide go without the funding they need. 

"Legislators’ inaction since the deal was due June 30 has, so far, resulted in the withholding of some $2 billion in state-aid payments to districts," Nicosia writes. "By the end of this month, that number is expected to soar to $3 billion. Even in the Keystone state, where budgets are routinely delayed by weeks or months, this is uncharted territory, school officials say, and goes far beyond the usual faceoff between states and their school districts over funding allocations."

There's a certain feeling one gets in their gut when our self-soothing language becomes 'these delays, impasses are common' until to realize we're in uncharted territory here.

The reasons? There are many, chief amongst them, according to Nicosia, Pennsylvania's slow but steady post-recession recovery coupled with Corbett-era education funding cuts.

If you -- like me -- had that sinking feeling in your gut, hold on, because here's a damning spoiler alert in Nicosia's writing:

"Erie is worse off, financially, than almost every other district in the state—its tax base is eroding, 70 percent of its budget comes from the state and 80 percent of its students come from low-income families—but it is hardly alone in feeling Pennsylvania schools’ Dickensian-like pain."

Except nothing should've been spoiled for us, because we knew that already. 

So when some people claim it's not that bad or that we're crying wolf at rallies designed to show Harrisburg our community's solidarity, we're truly crying for Wolf -- and the PA congress -- to pass a budget, because none of the options facing any of the superintendents are good, reasonable, or fair options for teachers, students, and administrators.

Without a true spoiler alert, read Nicosia's feature especially for its ending. It puts into perspective our dangerous perception and valuing of education. And it makes you wonder what it will take for parents, students, and citizens to really what a mess we're truly in.

Ben Speggen can be contacted at bSpeggen@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @BenSpeggen. 

Erie Reader: Vol. 7, No. 21
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