Speakers champion public education at rally in Harrison
The message on Thursday during the Proud to be Public Education Rally in Harrison was similar to last year's — but with a twist.
Speakers at the podium in the Highlands Middle School auditorium praised the virtues of public education, criticized the state's funding of charter and cyber-charter schools at public schools' expense and blasted Gov. Tom Corbett for cutting education funding by $1 billion in 2011-12.
The difference this year was noted by school board president Carrie Fox, who said, “This is an election year; we can do something about it.”
About 50 or 60 people attended the rally to hear five speakers, all of whom were Highlands School District teachers, administrators and school board members, except for one: state House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont.
“We cut $1 billion out of K-12 public education, and I believe most of it was unnecessary,” Dermody said.
Dermody pledged to restore that funding. Speaking for Democratic legislators, Dermody said, “We will fight every day to restore those funding cuts.”
But to get that done, he told the crowd he needed their help at the polls to elect a Democratic governor and “a few more Democrats” in the Legislature.
Bridget Seery, a teacher at Fawn Primary Center and public relations officer for the Highlands Education Association, the teachers' union, sounded a wary note regarding the governor's budget for next school year. She said that Corbett is projecting a $1.2 billion budget deficit.
“That's more bad news for public education,” she said, fearing cuts.
“We can all work together, but if funding continues to decline, it is going to affect our children,” Seery said.
Highlands Superintendent Michael Bjalobok gave the most impassioned speech. He lashed out at Corbett for his education cuts and for his policies on public schools having to finance cyber-charter schools through tuition payments. He criticized what he called the inequity of how the state funds schools.
He reminded everyone that Highlands, along with New Kensington-Arnold, was named among the 100 “Most Screwed School Districts” in the country by a Rutgers University study of how the states fund education in relation to need and poverty levels.
“The solutions we are getting out of Harrisburg are one-size-fits-all solutions, and that just doesn't work,” Bjalobok said.
He said he was excited to see bills presented to reform cyber-charter tuition payments by school districts but found they offered little reform or increased accountability by those schools.
Bjalobok said under the reform bills, the districts won't receive their state education subsidy and then write tuition checks to the cyber schools for residents who are enrolled in them.
“The charter will simply tell the state who goes here, and the state will skim the money right off your basic education funding and send it to the charters,” he said. “We will never see that money.”
Bjalobok emphasized that taxpayers can rightfully question any expense paid by the school district but such accountability is lacking for cyber-charter schools.
“When $1 million leaves here every year to go to charter and cyber-charter schools, you have no idea where it went,” Bjalobok thundered. “Is that fair?”
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.