Rescue Me


Do you remember the song "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" It was very catchy. The song "How Do You solve a Problem Like Chronically Under-Funded Schools?" is less catchy (except for the Moody Blues version) but still raises an important question. After all, Maria was fine. She de-nunned herself and married Captain Georg Von Trapp. Sadly, marrying into fictional Austrian royalty is rarely an option for Pennsylvania kids whose schools the state has abandoned.

As anyone who cares about public education (plus the Corbett administration) knows, Pennsylvania has a lot of school districts in grave financial distress. You could blame it on the massive budget cuts this administration has pushed through, although, to be fair, you could also blame it on the rain, if you don't care about and facts, and you are a huge Milli Vanilli fan.

Grave financial distress manifests itself in some districts differently than in others. For example, some stop providing textbooks to their kids. Others stop providing music education, or art, or athletics, or field trips, or kindergarten, or all of the above.

Still others just pile more and more kids into fewer and fewer rooms, until there are 40-45 kids per classroom. Studies show that the learning in such large classes can rarely be described as "awesome" or "epic" or "learning." However, on the upside, there is never a shortage of kids available to play dodge ball, if only the school could afford a dodgeball.

One of our districts, Chester-Upland was literally at the point of closing its doors (not in the "Recess is over now, kids" kind of way, but in the "School? What school?" kind of way). Another 10 to 12 districts are on the precipice (a word kids who don't go to school won't be learning) of closing within the next few months. Only the intervention of a federal court, which required the state to provide more money, kept CU schools open until the end of the school year.

This brings us to the Distressed Schools "rescue" bill we passed out of the Senate Education Committee last week. When I say "we" passed it, I do hurry to say that I voted "no." But being in the minority, my vote on the Committee is about as decisive as my vote in the College of Cardinals. And you can tell how relevant that is when you see Pope Benedict. If it were up to me, I'd have picked a more liberal, more Jewish Pope.

In any event, this bill wasn't so much an effort to save public schools as it was an effort to impress the Koch Brothers. It provides no money, which would seem to be an obvious part of solving the problem of not having enough money. What it does do is essentially fulfill a long-standing right-wing wish list. This is a bit complicated so bear with me.

To begin, the bill sets up a "loan" fund for acutely distressed schools. Since they are distressed because we haven't funded them adequately for decades, it seems unsporting to "loan" them money we should have actually allocated for them in the first place. A "loan" implies that they have to repay it. And since they are broke, they wouldn't be able to do so. So they would theoretically have to take out another loan to pay off the first one. I've seen these ads on TV. Maybe Montel Williams is available to promote these payday loans to our schools.

But as bad as this is, it gets far, far worse. This highly immoral, fiscally insane "loan fund" has no actual money in it! So rather than borrowing money they can't pay back in order to be able to keep teaching their kids, school districts would have to borrow imaginary money. Imaginary loans do have the advantage of being easier to pay back, but they don't go nearly as far in terms of buying books or paying teachers.

Senator Jeffrey Piccola, the prime sponsor of this bill and Chair of the Education Committee, is one of the nicest guys in the legislature and a uniquely fair Committee Chair, in that he lets me talk endlessly at our meetings. But in response to the complaint that the loan fund has no money, he can only say that he is going to try to get 50 million dollars for the fund by negotiating with a governor and a House that have expressed hostility to the idea of providing any money ever to struggling schools.

Keep in mind that at best we're talking about 50 million dollars. The need is about $500-600 million. So even if Senator Piccola is successful, the loan will still be 90% imaginary. It will be just enough to pay Montel's fee.

Then comes the fun part. In exchange for no new money, the bill allows for the appointment of a Dude. It is actually complex, and there are two possible dudes, one called a "Recovery Officer" and one called a "Receiver," chosen differently in different circumstances. But either way, at the end of the process there is a Dude (it could be a female dude, but I am not going to risk guessing what the politically correct term for that is).

This Dude has the power to do a number of things. He can first void any contract or collective bargaining agreement. He can then impose new terms and conditions on all employees.

So for example, he can walk into a classroom and say "Hello Mrs. Pimple (not necessarily her real name) you no longer make $50,000 per year. You now make $35,000 per year. And you no longer have health care. And I'm setting your car on fire. And I'm going to keep calling you Mrs. Pimple, no matter what your name is." It's good to be the Dude. But its bad to be Mrs. Jones ("Mrs. Pimple's real name).

The Dude can also decide to turn the whole darn school over to a for-profit charter school. He can order cuts to all of the programs I mentioned above and more, and of course, he can fire Mrs. Jones/Pimple whenever he wants to.

There are some things the Dude cannot do. He cannot raise taxes. He cannot exempt local school districts from state laws that prohibit them from raising their own taxes. He cannot order the state to pay an additional dime. In other words, he cannot do anything that the Koch Brothers, or Grover Nordquist, or Governor Corbett, or the ghost of Ron Paul could object to. I know Ron Paul isn't technically dead. But have you seen him recently?

To summarize, the bill says no new state money shall go into our distressed schools at all. Even if there is eventually money in the loan program, the school district gets not one additional red cent. Because, at the end of the process, the school district must pay back all of the money. Which they don't have because we have never funded them properly in the first place. (I'm not sure where the term "red" cent comes from. Maybe it means "Communist Cent," which explains why we're not giving them out.)

So how do we balance the books? We put the entire burden or two groups of people. The first is teachers whose pay and benefits will be cut. I know what you are thinking... "Does this BLOG ever end?" I know what else you're thinking.... "What happens if teachers just quit?"

The bill solves that problem. It allows the Dude to hire non-certified teachers. So if someone's Uncle Nunzio likes to hang out down by the docks because "it makes the voices stop," he can now teach Oceanography in PA, preferably for minimum wage. Well-educated, trained professionals are way too expensive and far more demanding than Uncle Nunzio and his demons.

The other group to suffer will be students. Their programs will be cut, their education will be decimated, and their best teachers will probably go do something that pays more, like serving cotton-candy at the beach.

Toward the end of the debate, Chairman Piccola asked me rhetorically (the thought of me speaking again made one Senator chew off his own torso) what my solution would be. The answer is very simple. I'd actually invest the money necessary to provide all of our kids with a quality education. But we all know how relevant my opinion is. Just ask Pope Schlomo the First.