In the political dictionary, an example of "pandering" is a candidate saying what he think sounds good — often a plank of the other party’s platform — despite knowing it’s bad policy.
Ironically, pandering virtually never works, because people see right through the political calculation. When a candidate panders, acting like his opponent, he gets the worst of both worlds: Neither his own party faithful nor those from the other side trust him.
Yet, the pandering continues, to the detriment of those who practice it. Just ask Eric Cantor, Mitt Romney and soon, Gov. Tom Corbett.
Republicans pander infinitely more than Democrats, because, inexplicably, many buy into the myth that their positions aren’t popular. Wrong. What is needed is conviction and articulation. Chris Christie, Bridgegate notwithstanding, is the shining example. Democrats, for the most part, don’t pander because they believe what they say: That big government spending, achieved through ever-higher taxes (penalizing those who are successful), is the answer to everything.
Locally, the pandering by GOP state Senate candidate Tom McGarrigle could well spell defeat for him, since the 26th District seat being vacated by Sen. Ted Erickson will likely be the closest election in the state this November.
A recent McGarrigle mailer states that he is "doing what’s right for our children! Tom McGarrigle has a plan to implement a 4 percent severance tax on natural gas drilling companies. Tom’s plan will raise $1.6 billion, ALL of which will go to funding public education."
Talk about pandering at its worst.
First, advocating higher taxes is not a Republican ideal, nor is it the answer. Tightening the belt is, in the exact same way that families and businesses do when times are lean. But since Delaware County taxes have gone up almost 25 percent in six years under all-Republican leadership (McGarrigle is chairman of county council), another proposed tax hike is not a surprise.
Second, taxing a particular industry is flat-out wrong. Pledging to tax the natural gas industry implies that it isn’t already being taxed, which it most certainly is, to the tune of $600 million from the impact fee and over $2 billion in corporate taxes. Imposing a job-killing and economy-stifling severance tax on the grounds that other states are doing it is simply asinine and will, unquestionably, produce two negative results: Gas exploration (and thus, production and revenue) will decline as the industry finds greener pastures in more competitive states, and the tax will be passed onto consumers, as every business tax always is. A severance tax is a lose-lose.
And for the record, Pennsylvania has the second-highest corporate net income tax in the country, along with the onerous capital stock and franchise tax. Legislators (and candidates) looking to take more from businesses because Harrisburg refuses to act responsibly is over the line. Unfortunately, these folks have not yet learned the immutable economic lesson that if you want less of something, tax it.
Third, and possibly most important, those who pledge to give all additional tax receipts to "public education" are either grossly ignorant or outright pandering. There is no other option.
It is high time to stop with the "education funding" crisis headlines. There is no such animal. There is only one crisis and it is the lack of educational achievement for the only ones who matter: Our children, indeed, our future.
Our public school system has neither competition nor accountability, both of which are needed for success in any venture. If educational funding were doubled, the end product would not improve.
In fact, that’s exactly what has occurred.
School spending is over $25 billion annually — averaging nearly $15,000 per student, more than 39 other states — an amount which has doubled since 1996. Additionally, school district reserves grew by $445 million in 2013 — to nearly $4 billion! Not too shabby.
Money is clearly not the problem. So it must be the number of students, right? Wrong.
Despite a drop of 35,510 students since 2000, the public school system has added 35,821 employees in that time. Therefore, by definition, increased funding, more personnel and decreased class size has not improved student achievement.
Speaking of achievement, Pennsylvania students are 37th in SAT scores, and rank low in literacy, graduation rates and those going to college. Their performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress exam has not improved, as only about 40 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders are proficient in reading and math, with scores unchanged for nearly 10 years, according to The Commonwealth Foundation.
And perhaps most startling, one-third of all 11th-graders are not proficient in reading and 40 percent do not achieve math proficiency on the already dumbed-down standardized PSSA tests. This is an across-the-board failure, not just the schools in our major cities.
Yet, teacher salaries and benefits rank among the highest, and Pennsylvania leads the nation every year in school strikes.
Common sense tells us that the last thing we should be doing is throwing good money after bad. Instead, lawmakers and candidates should try — actually try — to fix the problem.
A good start would be to outlaw school strikes, replacing them with final best offer arbitration. Forced union dues should be eliminated, where a teacher’s dues are automatically deducted from his or her paycheck and used to wage multimillion-dollar political campaigns to keep the status quo intact.
The Legislature also needs to reform the antiquated tenure and seniority rules, and instill a system of accountability where ineffective teachers can be removed much more easily, with an incentive program developed to reward achievement, as the private sector does.
Charter schools should be expanded (perhaps with more stringent oversight) and, ultimately, a school choice program implemented for both public and private schools. Those districts still unable to perform should be dissolved outright, with students sent to additional charter schools or better-performing neighboring districts.
The crisis we face, both in Pennsylvania and nationwide, is of epidemic proportion, one which cannot be solved by throwing more money at the problem. We cannot afford to waste another decade, forsaking our children because some choose to ignore the widespread failure occurring year after year. Our children are no longer competing against those in Seattle and San Antonio, but Singapore and Stockholm. And we are falling farther behind each year, as America ranks near the bottom of all educational categories against its industrialized competitors.
It’s time to take the tough steps necessary to bring back the day when America — and Pennsylvania — produced the best and brightest.
Lose the pandering and start educating. Our children deserve no less.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected].