Street Corner Soapbox: PA Nurses Crisis

Categories:      News & Politics
Wednesday, October 30th, 2013 at 8:00 AM

Crisis averted. Congress managed to find its way out of its gridlock, reopen government, and avert a debt default crisis. Barely.

There were many disturbing elements to the fight. Most of them brought on by House Republicans, who seemed oblivious to the real threat to the economy they posed. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling would cause the United States to default on its debt, despite the fantastically rosy – and ultimately ignorant – claims to the contrary offered by folks like our state's junior Senator Pat Toomey.

The worst part of it all, however, is that this is just a minor skirmish in conservatives' decades-long assault on government services. Highlighting government inefficiency (which exists) and incompetence (which happens), the aim isn't to improve government, to bring about better government, but to kill it altogether.

The effects are disastrous.

You don't have to look far for an example. Philadelphia, say, and the death of 12-year-old Laporshia Massey in September. An asthmatic, Massey felt ill at school, but went undiagnosed. That's because her school's nurse is in the building only two days a week, and wasn't there the day of Massey's illness. Massey remained in school. When she returned home, still sick, her father drove her to the hospital. She died later that day.

The obvious problem is that there are too few nurses in Philadelphia schools. Several years ago, the Philadelphia school district staffed one nurse for about every 750 students – much better than the ratio required by law of one nurse to every 1,500 students. That, of course, changed. Now the nurse-to-student ratio is at the state limit, and nurses are present at many schools only a day or two a week.

The problem is that, like school districts across Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia school district saw its budget slashed by the education policy of Gov. Tom Corbett. Worse still, Gov. Corbett's policies targeted the poorest school districts in the sate, including Philadelphia's – and Erie's.

That's because, when cutting education, Gov. Corbett did not do so on a per-student basis, but instead went after the districts that received the most state money. His administration cut grant programs and special aid to schools with students requiring the most attention. As a result, under the governor's policies, the poorest school districts in Pennsylvania lost more than $550 per student; the wealthiest, around $210.

And the cuts occurred when money existed to fund schools. In 2011, Governor Corbett cut $800 million from education, while raising spending on Pennsylvania's prison system by $180 million. Corbett's administration also dragged its feet on imposing a drilling tax on fracking – a policy common in states like Wyoming and Texas – which cost the state hundreds of millions in tax revenue. And the current fracking tax does little to help areas where no fracking occurs – like, say, Philadelphia.

According to Erie School District spokesman Matthew Cummings, Erie schools have a healthy ratio of students to nurses of about one nurse to every 750 or 800 students. In Erie, there are full-time licensed registered nurses in every school, and a nurse in every school building. “We escaped what happened in Philadelphia,” said Cummings. Still, Erie schools, too, have seen recent dramatic budget cutbacks in large part due to decreased state funding.

Education, as Nobel-winning economist James Heckman reminds us, “is a way to promote productivity and economic efficiency.” It's an investment in our future, both in economic terms and in those indefinable ways that mark the limitless potential and value of a human soul. The death of Laporshia Massey reminds us that much of government is essential.

Instead of trying to destroy it, shouldn't we be trying to make it better?

Jay Stevens can be contacted at, and you can follow him on Twitter @Snevets_Yaj. 

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