Robbing Peter

John Marsh wonders how higher education can rejoice when its budget woes are minimized by deep cuts to social services.

June 21, 2011

In March, the new governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, announced a 2011-12 budget that, when combined with the loss of federal stimulus money, would reduce funding to public schools by $1.2 billion dollars, and funding to higher education by $649 million. My own institution, Pennsylvania State University, stood to lose $169 million, or about 51 percent of its state appropriation. As our president, Graham Spanier, pointed out, such cuts "would be the largest percentage reduction to public higher education in this nation's history."

Other states, of course, have faced similar budget shortfalls and have also responded with cuts to education, especially higher education. What happened next in Pennsylvania, though, dramatizes the new and distressing choices that states will have to face, and institutions of higher education have to live with, so long as the economy drifts along, state finances remain a sea of red ink, and tax increases are off the table.

In Pennsylvania, deciding on a budget is more like a game of bridge than a game of solitaire. The governor merely makes the opening bid. Ultimately, the legislature gets to review and pass the budget, which then goes to the governor for approval. So when leaders of the state and state-related institutions of higher education learned of the governor’s proposed cuts, they descended upon the state capital to plead their case to legislators. And it worked. Sort of.

In early May, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans, offered a revised budget. The good news? The House Republicans restored $243 million of the $1.2 billion proposed cuts to public schools, and $370 million of the $649 million that higher education stood to lose under the governor’s budget. Instead of losing 51 percent of its state appropriation, for example, Penn State would lose 21 percent, which is still bad, but not historically bad. The bad news was that in order to keep overall spending in line with the number the governor proposed, House Republicans made cuts elsewhere in the budget, mostly to public welfare programs.

Republicans claim that much of the funds cut from public welfare would come mainly from reducing fraud, waste, and abuse, but many are skeptical that instances of fraud, waste, and abuse add up to the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be taken from these programs. Rather, many observers agree that the cuts to the Department of Public Welfare would mean, as one journalist recently itemized them, reductions in "the amount of money for hospitals that treat the poor, families seeking subsidized child care, shelters that aid women and the homeless and counseling for families, children, and the mentally ill."

If this budget passes, and these cuts do in fact go deeper than just fraud, waste, and abuse, then faculty, staff, and students at institutions of higher education in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania face a potentially Dickensian scene. Under the House budget, they will likely still suffer from layoffs, the closing of academic programs, larger class sizes, and perhaps even higher tuition levels. But whatever cuts and inconveniences those in higher education face will be minimized only because somewhere a sexually abused child, instead of receiving immediate counseling, would go on a waiting list to receive counseling. Or because somewhere a low-income family would have to scrape together a co-payment for a medical procedure they used to not have to pay. Or because somewhere a family lost its home to foreclosure because the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network could not provide them with a lawyer. Or because somewhere someone gets dropped from the Medicaid rolls. You have to wonder how we will live with ourselves.

Of course, the Pennsylvania budget process merely highlights the kind of zero-sum decisions that characterize any allocation of public money. When resources are limited, even worthy endeavors — higher education, rape counseling, services to persons with disabilities — will have to compete for funding. Still, such competitions usually remain tactfully concealed behind closed doors. When, however, they are made public and you can see horses being traded, it is hard to feel good about support for one worthy cause when it means taking resources from another.

Indeed, my own interest in the dispute, beyond the considerable self-interest of seeing funding restored to my institution of higher education, lies in how the debate about the Pennsylvania budget has pitted education against welfare. In an op-ed for our local newspaper, Representative Mike Hanna, a Democrat, called the Republican budget "a shell game, filled with false choices: Do we choose to hurt kids in public schools or seniors in nursing homes? Do we choose to hurt college students or single mothers? Do we choose to cut teaching jobs or nursing home jobs?"

Others sounded a similar theme. "We need to advance this process by not trading one child need for another child need," Joan L. Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, said. And Pennsylvania Democrat Frank Dermody helpfully offered the chestnut everyone was probably already thinking. "It’s simply not right," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It's nothing more than robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Dermody and others, though, are more right than they know. In paying for education by robbing from welfare, legislators in Pennsylvania have merely solved one problem by creating another. But the problems are not as separate as they might seem. You cannot rob Peter to pay Paul because, in this case at least, Peter is Paul.

Let me put it another way. In the course of completing a recent book, I immersed myself in the literature of the educational achievement gap: the persistent differences in educational performance that separate various gender, racial, and socioeconomic groups. And what I learned is that to an astonishing extent, a child's educational outcome depends upon his or her family's income. Don’t think so? Consider the results from the latest round of major international tests of student learning. As Joanne Barkin recently reported, students in the United States who attend schools where the poverty rate is less than 10 percent ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math.

Students who attended schools where the poverty rate was slightly higher, between 10 and 25 percent, still ranked first in reading and science. But as the poverty rate of a school rose, its students performed worse and worse. For example, 20 percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75 percent. Few countries can match those rates. And it is those schools — and those students — that drive down the average ranking of American students, and it is those middling rankings that send educational reformers into a panic.

Despite what those reformers would have you believe, though, the United States does not have an education problem. It has a poverty problem. People grow up to be poor because they did not get an education. But it is also the case that they did not get an education because they grew up poor. Something about growing up in poverty — the stress, the low birth weights, the parenting style, and later the doubts about being able to afford college — makes acquiring an education difficult if not impossible. Still don’t think so? How about the fact that of all those who earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24, only 1 out of every 10 will come from families in the lowest quartile of income? By contrast, over half will come from families in the top quartile.

So critics like Mike Hanna are right to call the revised Pennsylvania budget "a shell game, full of false choices." Except the choices are false not because we should not have to make them, or because — as Hanna asserts — there is enough revenue to meet both needs. The choices are false because if you care about education, enough to think that draconian cuts to it should be avoided, you have to care about people’s welfare as well. In addition to offering much-needed services, social welfare programs like the ones under threat also allow low- and middle-income families to keep the money they would otherwise spend on those needed services. In addition to helping people, they also help people’s bottom lines, in some cases keeping people out of poverty or making poverty more manageable. Conversely, when families do not get the help they need, or are made poorer when they have to pay out of pocket for the help they need, their lives, including the educational lives of their children, suffer.

Unfortunately, there is no painless solution to the budget dilemma, either in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. Representative Hanna and other Democrats want to tap a $500 million budget surplus that, incredibly, the commonwealth collected over and beyond what it expected to. In theory, it would also collect these funds next year. The governor and House Republicans, however, oppose drawing on this so-called rainy day fund. My former state, Illinois, raised income taxes to meet its budget needs, but that seems unlikely in Pennsylvania, where the governor has pledged not to raise taxes. Many people in the commonwealth support taxes on the highly profitable — and environmentally suspect — natural gas industry, but that too seems unlikely.

Having recently passed the House, the Pennsylvania budget will soon make its way to the Senate. Here is hoping that legislators understand that education and welfare go hand in hand — and that in robbing from one to pay the other, you really end up robbing from both.


John Marsh is assistant professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. His new book, Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality, will be published next month by Monthly Review Press.


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