In Defense of Public Education in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Over the past month, Millersville University has become riled with frustration and anger. The catalyst for this discontent among the students, faculty and alumni can be traced back to 2011. Governor Tom Corbett, newly sworn into office, proposed the most drastic cuts to a state’s public education system in the country. Basic education programs saw a 15% cut, a loss of $1.18 billion. What did this 15% cut mean?

  • Accountability Grants (at-risk student tutoring; Pre-K; kindergarten) – $259 million cut
  • Reimbursing School Districts for Charter Schools – $224 million cut
  • Education Assistance Program (at-risk student tutoring) – $47.6 million cut
  • School Improvement Grants – $10.8 million cut
  • High School Reform – $1.8 million cut

Then there’s the monumental damage Governor Corbett’s agenda has wrought upon the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). Corbett proposed to cut PASSHE funding for its 14 sister institutions by 53.8% in his 2011-2012 budget. That would have amounted to a total of $625 million. These cuts would have also affected the four state-related universities (Temple, Pitt, Lincoln and Penn State). The General Assembly could have taken a stand against such draconian cuts. Instead they reduced the governor’s budget cut proposal to 20%, which amounted to a loss of $90 million in funding to the system and to the four state- related schools. What did this loss of $90 million mean for PASSHE institutions?

  • PASSHE was forced to raise tuition rates by 7.5% or $436 for undergraduate resident students.
  • Mandatory student fees increased an average of 9.4%
  • Room and board fees (including auxiliary enterprises) increased 4.7% and 1.4% respectively. 4) A downgrade in Moody’s Rating to a Negative outlook, thus raising the costs for PASSHE to raise capital through credit lenders.
  • MU had to institute an across the board 10% cut in departmental budgets.
  • Larger class sizes.
  • Increased workload for faculty
  • Reduction in university course offerings and programs
  • The elimination of extra-curricular programs (Example: MU’s Track/Cross Country Team)
  • Hiring freezes
  • Wage & Benefit freezes
  • Delay and/or prevention of the graduation of the most impacted students

Reversal of PASSHE FundingFor 2012-13, Governor Corbett proposed a further 25% cut, a possible loss of another $230 million for PASSHE schools. The General Assembly subsequently reversed the reduction and enacted “flat funding” for the year [see “Flat? Level?: Greasing Right-Wing Agendas One Sentence at a Time” in RCP]. This year Corbett is proposing to continue that “flat funding” in the 2013-2014 state budget. In return, he entered into a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with the 14 PASSHE administrations to keep tuition increases be as “low as possible.” This agreement effectively ties the hands of the PASSHE schools attempting to offset decades of reduced state support that precedes the Corbett Administration [see “History Lesson on Higher Education Funding – Holding the Commonwealth to its Promises” in RCP]. It should be self-evident at this point that we have reached a breaking point in Pennsylvania regarding the defunding of public education. As many school districts throughout the state, PASSHE, and the state-related universities have been forced to shift the financial burden onto the backs of middle class families and their students by raising property tax rates and college tuition and fees in order to offset the loss of state appropriations. Act 188 of 1983, the enabling legislation of PASSHE, states that it is the Commonwealth’s responsibility to provide a “high quality education at the lowest possible cost.” This responsibility is clearly not being taken seriously by Tom Corbett, members of the General Assembly, the PASSHE Board of Governors and administrators at each of the 14 PASSHE universities.

Corbett has always championed his “fact” that he has not had to raise taxes in Pennsylvania to support his agenda. However, he purposely ignores the fact that property taxes levied by school districts and local municipalities have increased due to this very same education agenda. Corbett cannot simply claim that his policies have not forced tax increases on the state level when they have been forced to increase on the local level. This cognitive dissonance is quite prevalent within the mindset of our elected leaders in state government. The backs of average Pennsylvanian are being broken by the Corbett Education Agenda.

To add insult to injury, the Corbett Administration enacted budgetary increases and very modest cuts to non- educational programs as follows (2011-2012 Fiscal Year):

  • Correctional Institutions 11% increase
  • Probation and Parole 6% increase
  • State Police 6% increase
  • Fish and Boat Programs 1% cut
  • Game Commission 3% increase

It is blatantly and painfully obvious that Governor Corbett and his supporters in the General Assembly have their priorities twisted. The state government thinks that prisons deserve more funding at the expense of funding essential education programs and ensuring middle class students access to high quality public higher education. There is no doubt that Pennsylvania has seen marked increase in its prison population. The questions you should be asking is what if our Commonwealth had a properly funded education system, spanning Pre-Kindergarten to college to adult outreach training programs?  What if such a system actually encouraged student success through quality programs that are targeted towards fostering opportunity and achievement? Would there even be a need to throw more taxpayer money at our Department of Corrections? You be the judge.

Fast forward to 2013 and “cliff funding” and twisted priorities are now our reality and Pennsylvania is buckling under this burden. The Commonwealth once held the distinction of being 7th in the nation in job creation. In the course of one year under Corbett’s failed leadership we have now plummeted from 7th to 34th. Tom Corbett’s policies are killing our state socially and economically. Big Business could never be happier with their countless tax breaks and subsidies, young professionals are fleeing the state, small businesses can’t find the trained employees they need and Pennsylvania is hemorrhaging jobs and it’s because Corbett has slashed the state’s jugular. Public education is a democratic society’s lifeblood and public higher education is a powerful engine of economic forward mobility. The economic impact of PASSHE is massive. In 2006, PASSHE released a study of its impact on the state’s economy and what it discovered is nothing short of mind-blowing. In 2004, Pennsylvania had a Gross State Product of $468,833,000,000. PASSHE’s reported economic impact was $4,465,367,098, which makes up a full 1% of the entire state’s economy. In other words, for every $1 in state appropriations made to PASSHE, the state sees a return of $10.27 in positive economic impact in the state from PASSHE institutions. If we are to remain economically competitive in our 21st Century economy we must stand united and work to save our public schools and universities.

Crisis of Governance Deepens Negative Impact of Corbett’s Policies: The Millersville U Example

We face grave problems on the budgetary front, however these are not our only problems when we look at the health of our public higher education system in Pennsylvania. We must now consider the deplorable state of affairs concerning the governance of PASSHE and the administration of its institutions. Millersville University is a prime example at how things can go disastrously awry.

It has come to light that the university’s Governance Manual is being disregarded by the very men and women charged with fulfilling its intentions and procedures. MU has earned a reputation of back room dealing, poor oversight and lack of fielding input from the faculty and student body.

Exhibit one: the poor decisions that were made in the retention of a faculty member who was found to have committed at least one act of sexual harassment and was allowed to continue teaching at the university. An internal investigation concluded that the professor did indeed commit sexual harassment against a student but was only given a slap on the wrist. Why is this professor allowed to continue teaching at the university when through the university’s own internal investigation it was found he violated its Code of Conduct, professional ethics and the state’s criminal code?

Exhibit two: the recent Presidential Search Committee-Council of Trustees debacle. The Presidential Search Committee (PSC), pursuant of its duties outlined in the Governance Manual and in Act 188, convened to select a slate of three candidates to submit to the MU Council of Trustees (COT) from which the COT would forward these recommendations to the PASSHE Board of Governors. The COT chose to act in direct violation of the university’s Governance Manual by voting down the slate of candidates submitted by the PSC. They went further into their error by voting on their own slate of candidates that included two from the PSC slate and one of their own candidates, Dr. Vilas Prabhu. It was the COT’s slate of candidates that were forwarded to the Board of Governors. If at first this doesn’t look bad, also consider the fact that the COT brought in outside counsel to reassure them that they were legally safe in their actions. One only brings in a lawyer if one expects to run afoul of any legal issues, therefore the COT knew they were acting in direct violation of the Governance Manual and wanted to bulletproof themselves from a legal conflict.

Corbett Public Ed Pirate MU Yellow BkExhibit three: Millersville University also has within its Governance Manual, a Commencement Committee and a Commencement Speaker Committee. These two committees possess membership drawn from the university faculty and are mandated to be convened at least once every academic year. When news broke that MU had selected Governor Tom Corbett to be the keynote speaker at the upcoming Spring Commencement, students, faculty and alumni were understandably outraged. Beginning almost exactly two years ago, MU had vigorously encouraged its students and faculty to speak up and organize against the budget cuts being proposed by Corbett in 2011 and again in 2012. These cuts, it should be noted, led to the dissolution of the MU Men’s Track and Cross Country teams. These two teams are the same men who ran the 40 miles to Harrisburg to attend a student organized rally on the steps of the State Capitol. Now this same university has invited the same governor to speak out the students’ commencement?! Questions were asked by the university community and promptly ignored or glossed over with a shiny press release issued by the university administration.

Events developed further when news came to light that the faculty members of the Commencement Speaker Committee made it known to the students that they were never convened by Vice President of University Advancement, Jerry Eckert, who is the chairman of the committee, nor were they made aware of any pool of potential speakers. After the surge of student and faculty rage that ensued, Mr. Eckert issued an apology for not following procedures, to the Student Senate President Kelly Mathiesen. A public apology has yet to be issued.

Exhibit four: during Millersville University’s Spring Break, the administration put into action its building plan for MU’s $180 million new student dorm project. The Bush is a wooded area on the outskirts of the south side of campus that is home to many academic projects of the school’s Biology Department. There was a gross lack of communication and many of this biological research projects are now lost and has left the Biology Department scrambling to find viable replacements. MU claims nothing sinister took place and that it afforded everyone ample time to make the needed accommodations. This simply was not the case here.

Exhibit five: it has recently come to be known that the COT and the McNairy Administration has outright lied to the university community in regards to the handling of the dissolution of the Men’s Cross Country and Track & Field teams. The Coalition to Rescue Our Sports approached the COT to find a viable solution for the continued existence for these two very successful sports programs. It was discovered that the McNairy Administration’s justifications for dissolving the teams were lies and they subsequently attempted a cover up of the issue. The COT were approached in order to remedy the situation but declined to intervene citing a lack of jurisdiction. Through a Right To Know request it was then determined that the COT had approved the dissolution of the two men’s sports teams. Where is the accountability? The administration at MU is sacrificing the school’s reputation and honor and for what? Political gain? Bolstering of resumes for the members of the administration and COT? Regardless of the reasons, something is rotten in Millersville.

All of the above exhibits paint a picture of gross dereliction of duty, lack of upholding professional standards, no proper oversight, lack of transparency and failure of putting the needs of the students and faculty before the personal aspirations of the trustees and the administrators of MU. These exhibits are evidence of the politicization taking place at our university, its sister universities and in PASSHE’s Board of Governors. Tom Corbett has appointed like-minded people who support the governor’s education agenda into influential state posts. Guido M. Pichini, Chairman of the PASSHE Board of Governors, is a Corbett man. Look no further than the fact the Mr. Pichini is an ardent supporter of the Heritage Foundation, a known right-wing think tank now headed by former Sen. Jim DeMint a Republican from South Carolina. Mr. Pichini’s has supported the Heritage Foundation with donations that total at least, $10,000. The Heritage Foundation is an organization that has advocated for the privatization of public school systems through its advocacy of “school choice.” If you need further proof of the politicization of PASSHE, look no further than the Millersville University Council of Trustees. Recently, MU saw the appointment of Kevin Harley onto the COT. In case you don’t know who Kevin Harley is, he is Governor Tom Corbett’s Director of Communications and Press Secretary. His press secretary! If this doesn’t make you angry, then I don’t know what will.

We, as a Commonwealth, have reached an important crossroads. If we fail to act now, we won’t have any reason to act because there won’t be anything left to save.

 

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About J. Rizzo Mertz 3 Articles
Age: 26 - Executive Director of The Pennsylvania Center for Civic & Community Engagement - 2011 Millersville University graduate (BA- Government & Political Affairs)
Contact: Website