"What I see here is a dismantling of the public school system," Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ District 1201 president George Ricchezza, whose 2,700 members have all received layoff notices, told the Inquirer. What he's experiencing goes beyond the standard contract negotiation. This time, the entirety of the school district's unionized blue-collar workforce — janitors, aides, maintenance — may well be fired, and their jobs outsourced, if the two sides fail to agree on contract givebacks.
School districts statewide are deep in the red. Just south of Philadelphia, the Chester Upland School District is a laboratory for state government abandonment. The district does not have the money to cover next month's paychecks, and Corbett has resisted calls to help the district meet its pressing financial obligations, even though the state ran the district from 1994 to 2010.
"They talk about not wanting to harm job creation in the Marcellus Shale industry with a tax, but their decision to slash education funding from pre-kindergarten through college is the biggest job killer I have seen in my 27 years in Harrisburg," says state Rep. Babette Josephs, a Philadelphia Democrat.
And while Corbett maintains a tough-on-taxes reputation, the tax burden has in reality shifted to the local level — making funding between rich and poor districts all the more unequal.
"It's a pretty simple equation: Less state assistance means a higher burden in terms of local property taxes," says Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials executive director Jay Himes.
Last year, Philadelphia raised property taxes 3.85 percent to contribute to the delivery of an estimated — but uncertain — $53 million to city schools. Statewide, an estimated 27 percent of districts have raised property taxes higher than the rate state law normally allows.
But the legislature might have a declining appetite for education cuts.
"Moderates should be feeling the heat from their constituents considering the budget cuts last year," says Karen Beyer, a former state representative and moderate Republican defeated in the 2010 primary by a 23-year-old Tea Party-backed candidate.
School vouchers, if enacted as Corbett hopes, would further drain funding from traditional public schools. And Corbett continues to advocate for the privatization of state-supported universities like Temple and Penn State.
"Corbett, I don't know if he looks down on the lower class, but it's not really his concern. He's screwing over our generation," says Kareem Singleton, a 19-year-old from University City.
Accepted to Penn State's flagship in State College, Singleton was unable to attend because of tuition increases, and now studies at the Abington campus, where tuition is less. In 2011, Corbett proposed a 50 percent cut to higher education, which the legislature decreased to a 19 percent reduction: Temple's annual tuition increased by $1,172, Penn State's by $712. This year's proposed budget includes a $42 million cut to Temple, $64 million to Penn State.
A 21-year-old senior at Temple, Francesca Rouzard is struggling to cover costs with loans, grants and a part-time job. "I don't have parents to pay for school," she says. "With the tuition increase, that money doesn't meet the need."
She says friends have considered transferring, and others have dropped out.
"The legislature and governor, and particularly this governor, want to defund higher education and privatize it," says Art Hochner, president of Temple's faculty union. "If the state ultimately stops funding these institutions, tuition would rise considerably." Because of the midyear cuts, Temple may have to find $7 million more in savings by summer.
Of course, not everyone uses Philly public schools or state universities, but the social costs of bad schools — crime rates, lost lives and sky-high spending on prisons and policing — are paid by all.
Joshua Glenn, 23, of West Philadelphia, says he's a case in point. "I needed to get money, so I chose to sell drugs. I didn't have guidance," he says. He spent 18 months in prison after being charged as an adult for aggravated assault at age 16. "The schools aren't really involved with young people. They don't have the right resources in schools to help young people with their problems."
Charges were later dismissed, and Glenn now works for Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project (YASP).
Romeeka Williams, 19, also found herself lost in the Philly school system. After she transferred from a school in the Poconos, where she did extracurricular activities like choir and culinary arts, she found University City High School to be a shock. Williams says the environment was more conducive to trouble than learning — and she found trouble, including, eventually a murder charge. It "was so packed. They have gang wars. The teachers didn't used to teach us much because there were so many people. They can't get everybody. And we had to share books." The murder charge was eventually dropped; Williams, now on probation, is working at YASP.
"Imagine now, after the cuts?" says Glenn. "The amount of money they're putting into the urban school system wasn't right before the cuts."
Yet prison spending keeps growing. Although in 2009 the number of state prisoners nationwide declined for the first time in 38 years, Pennsylvania's prison population grew by 2,122 people (4.3 percent) — more than in any other state, according to a Pew Center on the States study. And a study released last month by Pew and the Vera Institute of Justice found Pennsylvania actually spends a minimum of $2.1 billion on prisons, $463.8 million more than is generally reported.
In January, the state legislature passed a measure proclaiming 2012 "The Year of the Bible," asserting the "national need to study and apply the teachings" of the "word of God." This effort to establish Christianity as the official state religion could be interpreted as the most recent fundamentalist maneuver in the "culture wars" against homosexuality, abortion and contraception. A recently approved law regulating clinics will raise the cost of abortions, while another bill in progress could restrict insurance coverage of them. Though the Corbett administration's social and economic philosophies are at times contradictory — for example, a recent study suggests that the lack of medical insurance is a significant cause of unintended pregnancies, 40 percent of which end in abortion — they are also deeply intertwined.
Last month, the Inquirer revealed that Robert W. Patterson, a top Department of Public Welfare adviser, also edits a fundamentalist Christian journal that blames abortion, contraception and welfare for black American poverty. Patterson called the anti-poverty programs of Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society "more of a quagmire than Vietnam ever was."
Which is even more cause for concern, given that DPW has been granted special power to carry out its faith-based attack on the safety net. That leeway derives from Act 22, an extraordinary measure that received less media attention than the Bible proclamation. Approved on June 29, 2011, Act 22 enabled DPW to make changes to eligibility or benefits with no legislative or public input or oversight.
The Pennsylvania Bar Association called the measure "an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power to the administrative branch." DPW used this authority, most recently, to disallow the distribution of food stamps to people with assets in excess of $2,000 ($3,250 for the elderly and disabled), excluding homes and first cars. They backtracked under a firestorm of criticism, and raised the asset limits to $5,500 and $9,000.