The New York Times lifted up a large rock over Pennsylvania this morning, and the slime they found underneath was remarkable even by the low muck standards of the Keystone State. Under the headline "Public Money Finds Backdoor to Private Schools," a remarkable expose by reporter Stephanie Saul (whom I worked with at Newsday many years ago) reveals a tangled web involving the Corbett administration, fracking money, and the ongoing crusade to favor private schools at the expense of public education.
The focus of the article is private-school scholarship programs now operated in Pennsylvania and seven other states (around these parts it is better known by the bureaucratically benign name of EITC, for Educational Imporvement Tax Credit, launched here in 2001). Instead of the government providing direct help for parents to send kids to private or religious schools through vouchers, EITC provides tax credits to private donors for scholarship money that does essentially the same thing.
The Times article quotes experts calling this "a shell game" and it's not hard to understand why: The tax credits that finance the scholarships mean there's less revenue coming into to Pennsylvania's coffers -- at a time when the Corbett administration has been slashing spending for public schools.
But it gets better. Frankly, this looks like the Iran-Contra of the Corbett administration -- one unifying theory that ties together our governor's ridiculously close ties to the fracking industry with his jihad against public schools while benefiting people with close ties to his administration.
The Times article chronicles how Pennsylvania's EITC has evolved into a web that brings together companies seeking to curry favor in Harrisburg with lawmakers eager to woo voters by helping steer where this scholarship money actually goes. In the middle are lobbyists posing as philanthropists.
Some of the programs have also become enmeshed in politics, including in Pennsylvania, where more than 200 organizations distribute more than $40 million a year donated by corporations. Two of the state's largest scholarship organizations are controlled by lobbyists, and they frequently ask lawmakers to help decide which schools get the money, according to interviews. The arrangement provides a potential opportunity for corporate donors seeking to influence legislators and also gives the lobbying firms access to both lawmakers and potential new clients.
When the gas drilling company XTO Energy made generous donations for private school scholarships in Pennsylvania, the corporate largess was hailed in ceremonies across the state. As the cameras flashed at one event in Punxsutawney, Sam Smith, the speaker of the Pennsylvania House and a local native, stood with an oversize cardboard check for area private schools.
The media events began in 2010 and have generated a burst of good will for XTO at a time when the controversy over the hydraulic fracturing drilling method has been growing in Pennsylvania. One state official remarked that the company, which donated $650,000 over the past three years, had gone "above and beyond" its duty. In reality, as much as 90 percent of XTO's donation was underwritten by taxpayers.
Also in attendance in Punxsutawney was Peter Gleason, chairman of the Bridge Educational Foundation, the middleman organization that arranged XTO's donations. Mr. Gleason congratulated the voters of Punxsutawney for having the wisdom to send Mr. Smith to Harrisburg. In addition to serving as chairman of Bridge, Mr. Gleason is a lobbyist in Harrisburg. Two other lobbyists, who have represented XTO, serve on Bridge's advisory board, as does the chief of staff to Mr. Smith. XTO was acquired in 2010 by Exxon Mobil.
Gleason, who represents several large natural-gas drilling companies in Pennsylvania including the largest, Chesapeake Energy, was a member of Corbett's transition team. The current executive director of the Bridge Educational Foundation is also the wife of Corbett's 2010 campaign manager, Brian Nutt. Its board of directorsis a mish-mosh of current and former lobbyists as well as the chief of staff to House Speaker Smith, Philadelphia Democratic state Rep. Bill Keller and union leader John Dougherty. The Times article also notes the travails of 2005 Bridge founder and lobbyist John O'Connell, who just the following year was convicted on embezzlement charges.
Is this a great state, or what?
And the Exxon-Mobil subsidiary XTO, according to Brodge's website, isn't the only firm ties to the Marcellus Shale industry -- which has been aided in ways large and small by the Corbett administration -- that is now supporting the Bridge scholarship fund. So is Williams Transco, which is seeking to build pipelines to transport natural gas across the state. And one assumes that the Times' findings about Pennsylvania (the long article also describes potential abuses in other states) are the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
Of course, this comes right when the Republican "shock doctrine" of destroying public education in Pennsylvania, and especially here in Philadelphia, is detonating. Corbett's heartless budgeting combined with Philly's massively self-inflicted wounds of fiscal mismanagement and the end-of-the-empire decadent reign of Arlene Ackerman has led to a plan that -- with no public input -- would all but end public schooling here as we've known it. And the no-really-we're-not-political Catholic Church was seeking to pile on with its "Voucher Sunday" the other day.
And so instead of working together to re-build the system that created the American middle class of the booming 20th Century, and gave a fair shot to every kid, Pennsylvania's pols have developed a Ponzi scheme to tap into the wealth they create with their short-sighted policies and steer those dollars to favored schools and favored kids. In a warped way, you have to admire the ingenuity of their scam.
Just imagine if Pennsylvania's leaders ever used their brainpower for good.