Halloween provides the perfect backdrop for telling the following tales – tales of secrecy, tales of expediency, tales of horrible things happening in a veil of darkness, tales of the malignant ones, and their quest to turn Penn’s sylvan paradise into a foul wasteland. Heed these paragraphs well, to protect yourselves from their evil mission.
Our story begins a week ago, when Congressional Republicans feigned outrage and disrupted a closed-door Congressional event to determine if the President of the United States had committed impeachable offenses. The hero of this spectacle – Rep. Matt Gaetz (R., Fla) – declared “We’re going to try and go in there, and we’re going to try to figure out what’s going on, on behalf of the millions of Americans that we represent.”
Meanwhile, 120 miles to the north, Pennsylvania House and Senate Republicans were rejoicing in a clandestine scheme that they had concocted that would have made it more difficult for news services and others to gain access to the expenditure campaign reports of State House and Senate officeholders. The Republicans managed to slip this language into the House and Senate versions of a bill that was intended to address voter registration issues.
The hypocrisy of the State GOP lawmakers legislating in the shadows while their Congressional counterparts were advocating for more transparency was not lost on some of the rank-and-file Republicans who quickly lobbied for elimination of new campaign finance language from the legislation.
Yet this type of crypto-lawmaking has been going on for years. It often occurs during the final stages of the budgetary process, which occurs during the last few days of June. Multiple bills, drenched with dense legalese, circulate through the General Assembly, and often end up passing because legislators want to fulfill their Constitutional duty of having a budget in place at the beginning of the new fiscal year.
Law-making in this fashion, however, leaves a trail of victims, and Philadelphia is generally in the cross-hairs of such legislation. We saw this in 2018 when Philadelphia City Council members received a rude awakening after an anti-tobacco bill that they had been drafting was rendered unenforceable because State Republicans attached an amendment to the State budget preventing the City from enacting such a bill. The target of the municipal legislation was the flavored cigarillos, a favorite of many adolescent smokers, which contain three times the amount of tobacco as a regular cigarette. Since Philadelphia already has the highest adult smoking rate of all of the major US cities, one would think that the pro-life Republicans would applaud Philadelphia’s efforts to curb the consumption of such a deadly product. Instead, the Republican caucuses in both chambers of the legislature defended their pre-emption law by declaring that the law brings “Philadelphia closer inline with the rest of the State.”
This past July, Philadelphia once again found itself the victim of Republican mischief during the budget process. That’s because many legislators were handed PA HB 1615, a bill sponsored solely by House Speaker Mike Turzai. This bill bestows upon certain schools a new designation, called an “Innovation School”. To acquire such an appellation, a school must serve a certain number of low-income students, be located in a federal Promise Zone, and partner with behavioral health specialists. Once a school acquires this designation, it is virtually untethered to any State or local oversight. The school can therefore operate independent of any standards common to public education institutions in that community. When initially reviewing this legislation, a reader might ask why this specific set of criteria should be used to give a school such autonomy. None of the conditions seem to have anything to do with better pedagogy. Such skepticism, however, is addressed when we discover that these criteria apply to a single school – Belmont Charter. Belmont Charter has been operating since 2003. According to Belmont’s most recent School Progress Report, only 26% of the students who took the English Language Arts PSSA scored Proficient or better; and 15% of the 381 students who took the Math PSSA were at least proficient.
This school has been a complete disaster over the past 17 years. Yet rather than fix the problem, the legislature has decided to camouflage it in a new designation. Belmont is no longer a failing charter school, but an autonomous innovation school. Same stink, different title. Jennifer Faustman, the CEO of the Belmont Charter Network, has admitted lobbying for this designation. But why should State legislators listen to the CEO of an institution with such an abysmal educational record? The most reasonable answer is that Belmont President Michael Karp donates frequently and heavily to Republican candidates.
Another shadowy strategy that Turzai and his supporters have employed during the past several years is to ask for some legislation that is obscenely absurd. Once such legislation is voted down, he then asks for a toned-down version of his original request, and he generally gets what he wants, especially if he believes that he can demand it as ransom in exchange for passing a new budget. That is what happened when he sponsored PA HB 800, which would have increased Educational Improvement Tax Credit program (EITC) – basically a voucher plan – by $100 million. This program gives “scholarships” to students to attend a number of private schools in the State, with no oversight of what these schools are teaching, and with no knowledge of the rate at which these students are achieving. After the Governor vetoed the bill, Turzai and his allies then pushed to get a cheaper version of this bill through to the cost of $25 million. Legislators found themselves in a similar position last year at budget time, awarding $25 million in tax credits for “educational scholarships” with no accountability, bringing the total of EITC up to $135 million per year. Such funding could go a long way toward providing Pennsylvania’s children with a real education.
Halloween is a good time to remind ourselves of there are evil politicians who disguise themselves – not with costumes, but with words. They speak about more accountability while legislating for less. They assert that they are pro-life, but their love of the campaign funds and perks that they derive from guns and tobacco belies such declarations. Banish such creatures from our General Assembly and back into the underworld. Vote Blue.