Cruel Cuts: Philadelphia Public Schools Pay The Price For Pa.’s Expanded Neo-Voucher Program

Americans United opposes vouchers because they are frequently a taxpayer bailout for religious schools, but we are also proponents of a strong public education system in this country. That’s why it’s important to remember that when voucher programs expand, it often comes at the expense of public schools.

For the second year in a row Philadelphia’s public schools are struggling to open on time, and it appears deep budget cuts – including money siphoned for a voucher-like program – are to blame.

After multiple reports questioned last week whether or not Philadelphia’s schools would open on time this year, a $32 million budget cut now has the schools on track for their scheduled start in September.

Reuters said many feared all district schools would be unable to open without drastic moves, including massive layoffs. But that won’t happen thanks to the budget cut, which Superintendent William Hite called the “least harmful” of his options. (To save money the district will cut back on cleaning and repairs, not fill vacancies for police officers and stop bus service for high schoolers who live less than two miles from school, Reuters said.)  

Even with that large savings due to a reduction of services, CBS Philadelphia reported that the district still faces an $81 million budget gap.

Sadly Philadelphia schools are no stranger to serious financial shortfalls. Last year the district had to borrow $50 million to cover part of a $100 million budget gap just so it could open on time.

Some of the city’s financial problems can be blamed on rising pension and healthcare costs, Reuters said, but much of the funding shortfall comes courtesy of Gov. Tom Corbett (R) and his allies who have pushed a type of voucher under the guise of “school reform.”

It seems Corbett set his sights on dismantling public education in the Keystone State as soon as he took office. In 2011, he slashed the state’s education budget to the tune of $1 billion. He then cited high public school dropout rates and poor test scores statewide as an excuse to set aside more money for Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which offers tax savings for those who donate to “scholarship” programs (code for vouchers).

“We have to think and act smarter,” Corbett said, according to an Oct. 2011 blog post on the Allentown Morning Call’s website. “I know we can do better…we have to have the will to do better.”

But to Corbett, “doing better” meant making public schools worse by robbing them of badly needed funds and transferring that money to charter schools and private schools through tax credits. Corbett wasn’t able to achieve his voucher goal in 2011, but he got his way in 2012, adding another $50 million to the EITC – which is the very amount that Philadelphia public schools were forced to borrow last year.

Of course Corbett doesn’t blame the problems in Pennsylvania’s most populous city on budget cuts. Instead, he went after teachers unions.

“We need to have the public sector teacher union in Philadelphia step up and make concessions,” he said in July.

Perhaps because the situation in Philadelphia is pretty desperate, Corbett agreed to advance the school district $265 million and said he hopes a proposed cigarette tax will raise some badly needed revenue starting Oct. 1; however the future of that tax in the state legislature is uncertain, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.  

Corbett wouldn’t have to give out large loans or raise taxes if he hadn’t cut $1 billion from state education funding in the first place. But it seems Corbett cares much more about crippling public schools, breaking unions and expanding neo-vouchers than he does about bettering education for the children in his state.

Americans United opposes vouchers because they are frequently a taxpayer bailout for religious schools, but we are also proponents of a strong public education system in this country. That’s why it’s important to remember that when voucher programs expand, it often comes at the expense of public schools.

Corbett said: “I know we can do better” when it comes to education in his state. But as long as he continues to cut public school funding and hand over some of that money to voucher programs, his stated goal will never be realized.