Flat? Level?: Greasing Right-Wing Agendas One Sentence at a Time

It’s been a little over two weeks since Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett delivered his annual budget address. Corbett’s office signaled in advance that his proposed 2013-2014 budget would not be as draconian as the previous two. I think it would be fair to say that the governor would have to work extraordinarily hard to try to top the devastation he’s wrought since taking office in 2011.

Gov. Cut, Gut, and Punish Arrives in Harrisburg

Corbett’s first budget proposal in 2011 sought a 50% cut in public higher education funding and close to a $2 billion reduction for K-12 schools. In the end, Corbett didn’t get to cut as deep as he wanted, but he got his cuts thanks to Republican control of all three branches of state government. The PA

Chart from PSEA | psea.org
Chart from PSEA | psea.org

legislature may have balked at Corbett’s initial numbers, but they had little problem passing, in the words of Rick Smith, a “cut, gut, and punish” budget that targeted schools, general assistance programs, and health care support for low-income working families. But the biggest target was clearly education.

Here’s how the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PBPC) put it in their analysis of the 2011-2012 budget:

Public schools and universities bear the brunt of the reductions in the 2011-2012 budget. Grants to school districts, including the basic education subsidy, reimbursements to school districts for the loss of students to charter schools and other program cuts total more than $860 million, while higher education institutions, including Penn State and the three other state-related universities [Lincoln, Pitt, and Temple], community colleges, and the 14 State System of Higher Education [PASSHE] universities are reduced by $245 million [brackets mine].

When all was said and done the poorest school districts were hit the hardest and while the legislature did “restore” some funding, the PBPC analysis shows that “funds were restored unevenly, with wealthier school districts gaining the larger share of the $100 million in restorations put in place by the House.” Higher education institutions saw cuts between 10 and 20 percent. Of the “state-related” universities, Penn State saw a 19% cut, University of Pittsburgh was cut by 20%, and both Temple and Lincoln University were cut by 19%. PASSHE universities were slashed by 18%, or $90.6 million. The state’s cash-strapped community colleges were stripped of $23.6 million in funding, or 10%.

As the chart from the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) above demonstrates, the 2011-2012 cuts were maintained into the 2012-2013 budget, amounting to a two consecutive years of deep cuts. So, while Corbett did not get his 50% cut in higher education or a $2 billion reduction in K-12 funding in the 2011-2012 budget, he was successful in extracting close to his original plan over two-years. The lesson for Corbett and PA Republicans? You’ll get everything you want, you just have to be a little patient.

Go Get that Switch So I Can Beat You With It

Good for Nothing Tom While the PA legislature is debating Gov. Corbett’s 2013-2014 proposed budget, one thing is clear: there is virtually no discussion of rolling back the cuts from 2011-2012. That is, the legislature is almost certain to keep those cuts in place and Corbett is sure to sign off. The difference this year is that Corbett and PA Republicans have to play nice in public. In the most recent Franklin and Marshall Poll, Gov. Corbett’s approval rating stands at an all-time low of 26% – crushing his previous low approval rating that had been the lowest for a sitting PA governor in the poll’s history. Even more telling, only 41% of PA Republicans like what the Governor is doing.

Corbett’s tanking poll numbers and growing unrest within the state Republican party might be one of the reasons we got this little zirconia gem from his 2013 budget address:

we must also continue to expand funding for K-through-12 education. This budget adds nearly $100 million dollars to be distributed to our school districts. That is over and above last year’s record funding levels.

We intend to maintain full funding levels for state and state-related universities. That is $1.58 billion that will go towards these institutions. At the same time, the leaders of these universities have promised to work to keep tuition increases as low as possible for students.

I can’t even begin to seriously address the claims here. Those of us in the reality-based world – including those of us with kids in school, who work in education, and even sane politicians – can’t help but shake our heads in disbelief that these words could come out of his mouth after two straight years of deep cuts. But, I can say that Corbett and his political operatives and PR managers know what they are doing. In an age of stenographer media, my bet is that they are hoping that these words will trump reality – at least at the level of perception. And, guess what? Some of it is already working – and it’s driving me freaking crazy.

Reporting following Corbett’s address earlier this month has repeated a Corbett and PA Republican talking point so often that it is making its way into how everyday people are talking about this year’s budget, especially as it relates to education funding. Here’s the lie:

  • THE LIE: Governor Corbett is proposing flat or level funding for education

The only way that this statement approaches reality is if we are willing to erase history and wipe the slate clean every year.  Take a look at that PSEA graph again. Funding is “flat” from 2011-12 right through 2013-2014. Hell, if we limit ourselves to only those years we can actually say that Corbett has slightly increased the budget for education. Everything’s better now, right? Kids have what they need to learn, university classes are no longer overflowing, faculty are no longer losing their jobs. I can now breathe a sigh of relief and go back to not paying attention, right?

The repetition of the flat funding lie is pervasive in the mainstream media, for sure. But I can tell you that I’ve had dozens of conversations with faculty and students in the halls of my university who repeated the flat funding lie in describing Corbett’s proposed budget. I’m not talking about right-wing nuts either. I am talking about, in many cases, progressive union members, activist students, and well-meaning liberals. Using the language of “flat funding” does not make that union member or journalist or student a bad person. That’s not the point. The point is that words matter. And the more the “flat funding lie” is repeated, the more it reinforces the right-wing frame and the more we help grease the gears of their public-wrecking ideological machine. Thank you sir, may I have another.

Enter the (Inept) Stenographers

As Glenn Greenwald pointed out in Salon last July,

A common criticism of establishment journalists entails comparing them to stenographers, on the ground that most of them do little more than mindlessly write down and uncritically repeat what government officials say. But stenography is a noble and important profession: they’re the court-licensed officers who, with astonishing speed and accuracy, transcribe the statements of all witnesses, lawyers and judges in judicial proceedings. If establishment journalists were to replicate actual stenography, it would be an improvement on most of the work they produce.

Greenwald was reporting on new revelations that editors and journalist from some of the nation’s most respected media outlets were giving the Obama and Romney campaigns veto power over news stories as a matter of policy:

confession in yesterday’s New York Times [July 16, 2012] reveals that even the stenography produced by our nation’s most esteemed media outlets is anything but accurate: rather, it’s contrived and distorted by the very people whom these media outlets purport to cover adversarially. The article describes how many American media outlets, including the NYT, give veto power to the Obama campaign (and, less so, to the Romney campaign), as well as political offices generally, over the quotes of its officials that are allowed to be published [brackets mine].

Greenwald’s piece gained some traction at the time, mostly because the New York Times’s confessions came in the middle of a highly charged presidential campaign. But the kind of uncritical and selective reporting to which he points happens all the time. And, I would argue, has just as a significant impact on shaping public debates – if not more so – than what we saw during last year’s election. It’s a constant, relentless drum beat, driving how we come to think about what’s going on. And it’s not that one major media outlet is to blame. What makes this kind of reporting so pernicious is that it pervasive.

Here’s a sample of how “flat funding” made its way from the mouth of Gov. Corbett into the public discussion following his budget address:

From the Patriot-News out of Harrisburg:

Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to announce on Friday that his 2013-14 budget proposal to be unveiled on Tuesday will contain flat funding for the state’s four-year public universities, according to three sources familiar with the proposal.

From 90.5 FM WESA, a Pittsburgh-based Public Radio station:

Pennsylvania Governor Corbett said Friday he won’t propose a funding cut for state-supported and owned colleges and universities next fiscal year.

The governor’s announcement comes with strings attached: the schools will receive level funding, but they’ve promised to keep tuition hikes as low as possible. Last year, when lawmakers worked a similar deal with colleges and universities, the rule was to keep hikes within the rate of inflation – about three percent.

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett announced this afternoon he will propose level funding for higher education while the leaders of state and state-related universities pledged to keep tuition increases as low as possible.

Orlando-Ferguson-flat-earth-map editFrom Fox 43, based out of York, PA under the headline: “University Leaders Thank Governor for Level Funding, Agree to Work at Keeping Tuition Increases Low,” we get these nuggets:

Governor Tom Corbett, joined by a dozen leaders of state universities, announced today that the proposed 2013-14 budget will maintain funding levels for state and state-related universities…

…“For the second consecutive year, we propose level funding as part of our commitment to higher education.  In return, the leaders of these universities have promised to work to keep tuition increases as low as possible for students’’ …

From Public Opinion, out of Chambersburg, PA:

Local college students praised a proposal to flat-fund higher education and promote smaller tuition increases, but they also worried about the implications a minimal budget could have on their educations.

Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a 2013-14 budget plan this week that includes flat funding for higher education, keeping with last year’s level of $1.58 billion. In return, he asked the 18 publicly funded universities to keep tuition increases “as low as possible.”

From The Pitt News, the student-run newspaper from the University of Pittsburgh:

For the first time in three years, Gov. Tom Corbett announced days before his budget address that he intends to propose level funding for state and state-related universities.

From The Penn, the student newspaper of Indiana University of PA:

Last year, Gov. Corbett tried to slash $82.5 million from the higher education budget.

Eventually, the state legislature negotiated for flat funding for higher education.

This year, the Governor’s proposed budget calls for another round of flat funding for the 14 state-owned universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and institutions such as Pennsylvania State University  and Temple.

From The Keystone, the student newspaper of Kutztown University:

Governor Tom Corbett announced his plan for the budget of state universities to remain flat for 2013-14 last week.

The 14 state universities will all receive the same amount of funding, $1.58 billion, in return for a promise to keep tuition increases as low as possible, according to Pennlive.com.

The uniformity of the message from the major Capital newspapers right down to students newspapers at the very universities that continue to feel the impact of continued cuts only goes to show how effectively Corbett has framed this year’s budget. Truth be told, he didn’t need to try very hard.

Even my own union, APSCUF, fell into the “flat” trap – twice, actually – assuming “level” to be a synonym for “flat.” This is how APSCUF led its response to Corbett’s budget:

Today surrounded by leaders from the State System of Higher Education, including Board Chairman Guido Pichini, leaders of the state-related universities, members of the Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education, and House and Senate members, Governor Tom Corbett announced his proposal to flat fund state-owned and state-related universities in exchange for their commitment to keep tuition “as low as possible.”

After announcing level funding, Governor Corbett and Department of Education Secretary Ron Tomalis broadly outlined plans to develop a long-term performance-based funding system for higher education stemming from the Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education recommendations released last November.


The good news is that while the flat funding lie has clearly dominated the headlines immediately following Corbett’s budget address, there were several strong responses from which we can learn. I should also say that some of the news stories I cited above include some of these dissenting voices, even if they are buried at the end of the stories.

Pennsylvania Democrats, for example, at least moved in the direction of getting it right – even if their messaging is not consistent among their members:

Governor Corbett announced today that his budget proposal will contain flat funding for the state’s four-year public universities.  This means he will keep in effect the nearly 20 percent cuts to the state universities and state-related universities. While he signed his first budget with nearly 20 percent cuts and signed his second budget with flat funding, his true intentions were exposed by his proposals. In 2011, Corbett proposed cutting funding by an unprecedented 50 percent and the next year proposed 30 percent cuts for Penn State, Pitt, and Temple and 20 percent cut for the state universities [emphasis mine].

One of my favorites is a much more pointed and aggressive stance by PSEA. Their response to Corbett’s budget begins like this:

For the third consecutive year, Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a state budget that fails Pennsylvania’s students, ignores the school funding crisis he created, and uses public school students as bargaining chips to achieve an ideological agenda.

PSEA President Mike Crossey pointed out that the governor’s spending plan uses gimmicks and false choices that will only worsen the school funding crisis Corbett created by slashing nearly $1 billion in public school funding in his last two budgets.

“If the governor was serious about addressing the school funding crisis he created two years ago, he would target sustainable funding to our students rather than use their education as leverage to promote his ideological agenda,” Crossey said.

Crossey explained that the governor’s proposal to add $90 million in public school funding still leaves a massive funding gap, which school districts are being forced to fill with painful program cuts and property tax increases [emphasis mine].

PSEA’s response is especially noteworthy because they do not even use the words “flat-funding.” NOT using the language of the opposition is absolutely critical. George Lakoff, progressive language scholar and cognitive psychologist, has argued this for over a decade. In his 2004 book Don’t Think Of An Elephant!, he argues that a basic principle of “framing” is that “when you are arguing with the other side: Do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame – and it won’t be the frame you want.” As he argues in The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic, “Messaging is about thinking, not just language. To get language right, you have to understand the thought it conjures up.” This is an important point.

One of the strongest statements to come out of the PA House came from a newly elected Democrat from the 153rd District in Montgomery County. Representative Madeleine Dean’s office issued this statement a week BEFORE Gov. Corbett delivered his annual budget address:

In response to Gov. Tom Corbett’s announcement today that he will propose “level funding” for higher education in the 2013-14 budget, state Rep. Madeleine Dean said that Pennsylvanians should understand that the misleading statement only locks in reduced spending from his last budget

…“The governor is manipulating words when he touts ‘level funding,’” Dean said. “We must not forget his crusade last spring to leave our institutes of higher learning threadbare while he refused to enact a reasonable severance tax on the Marcellus Shale industry, or close tax loopholes, or offer a more comprehensive tax plan.

“His announcement flies in the face of Pennsylvania’s academic community, students and taxpayers,” she added. “I believe the path to a healthy, skilled, and gainfully employed community goes through a strong network of schools committed to postsecondary education and beyond. As such, I will join my colleagues in the House again this budget season in calling for a robust investment in higher education.”

The whole “flat funding” frame helps to conjure up “reasonable” proposals, especially when the economic recovery doesn’t extend beyond Wall Street board rooms. When Gov. Corbett swung his budget ax in 2011, people were up in arms, protesting on the PA Capitol steps, pressuring legislators (why we didn’t see a Wisconsin-style occupation of the Capitol building is still beyond me). But this year, it’s almost as if people are breathing a sigh of relief. Corbett said he kept the budget relatively “flat.” But that’s not what he did. He maintained the cuts.  Schools, universities, and public services are taking another year of cuts.

Whether Rep. Dean’s spine represents an emerging fight-back politics within the Pennsylvania Democratic party remains to be seen. The challenge is to lay bare the lie at the heart of “flat” or “level” funding and ramp up our political organizing to bring in line with the reality we face. We can no longer afford to place our hopes in any one election, party, or organization. And we must refuse to willingly take part in our own destruction. If someone gives us a shovel and tells us to dig our grave, we have more options than arguing over how deep to dig. We have to get used to refusing to take the shovel in the first place.

Flat funding is a lie.

Kevin Mahoney is the Founder and Editor of Raging Chicken Press. He is also an Associate Professor and union activist at Kutztown University.




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  1. Cliff Diving – The New Normal for Public Higher Education in Pennsylvania? | Raging Chicken Press
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