Steven Singer: Pittsburgh Media Runs Right Wing Propaganda About Public Schools As If It Were Real News
The Commonwealth Foundation is a right wing advocacy group with a clear ALEC-style agenda. But somehow they managed to get mainstream media in Pittsburgh to treat their latest propaganda piece as if it were real news. Reprinted with permission.
ALEC writes the laws. The Commonwealth Foundation justifies them. And GOP lawmakers pass them (often with help from neoliberal Democrats).
So why are otherwise reputable Pittsburgh television and radio stations running stories based on Commonwealth Foundation reports?
On May 25, WTAE-TV ran a story called “Pennsylvania school districts flush with federal cash, but many still considering tax hikes.” It was a love letter to the Koch Brothers funded ideological network.
The basic thrust of the story is captured in the headline. It says that public schools throughout Pennsylvania have received an influx of funding to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic but school directors are unnecessarily planning to increase taxes anyway.
For example, Pittsburgh Public Schools has received $161 million in three rounds of federal disaster funding. Yet the district is still projecting a $38 million deficit this year.
Ideologues at the Harrisburg based Commonwealth Foundation don’t understand how that’s possible. They want to know why districts can’t just use the disaster funding to pay for continuing expenses?
Because it’s illegal. Duh.
Pittsburgh Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet explains:
“That’s one-time dollars. That money cannot supplant the general fund so the general fund is different. These are supplementary dollars that can’t be used for personnel or anything like that.”
Most of those funds will go to pay for after-school or summer school programs to help students with declining academics after they spent much of the past year at home, he continues.
Moreover, if districts spent that money (illegally) to fill pre-existing budget holes, all they’d be doing is kicking the can of funding deficits down the road a year or two.
Ideologues at the Commonwealth Foundation know that.
In fact, later on in the exact same story, they worry about this very thing.
At the beginning of the story, Elizabeth Stelle, Director of Policy Analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, says, “We see no reason why the federal funding is not more than enough to cover the needs of districts today.”
But then later in the same story she says, “I’m very concerned they’re going to spend that money on ongoing needs and we’ll be in a very difficult situation a couple years from now.”
Well, which is it Stelle? Are you worried about districts REFUSING to use disaster funds to pay for ongoing needs or are you worried that they WILL use disaster funds for this exact purpose?
You can’t have it both ways.
Stelle made headlines in March lobbying to eliminate the minimum wage in Pennsylvania and allowing slave labor.
WTAE should have had the journalistic integrity to ask her about her blatant contradiction in this story and her reprehensible positions on record. Or perhaps have the integrity not to invite such members of the lunatic fringe on their network and legitimize her position with coverage.
Unfortunately, producers are content to broadcast clickbait to get low information voters agitated against schools without any good reason.
I suppose it gets ratings.
If it bleeds it leads, and if it antagonizes it televises.
Sadly, WTAE wasn’t the only local television station to do so.
On march 15, WPXI ran a similar story under the headline, “Study claims Pa. schools don’t need COVID-19 relief money, local districts pushing back.”
This at least was a more skeptical look at the same Commonwealth Foundation report.
But why run anything on the report to begin with?
Were the Flat Earthers busy? Was Q-anon out of conspiracies? Has no one spotted the Illuminati lately?
WPXI characterized the report less about COVID funding misuse than additional funds being unnecessary to begin with.
Reporters said the Commonwealth Foundation report concluded that state districts were not hurting from the pandemic in the first place. And then journalists went to local districts who flatly contradicted that statement with facts.
Gateway School Board President Brian Goppman, for example, said the district cut $3 million from its operating budget due to the pandemic. Moreover, the tax base, itself, has suffered from COVID. When businesses close, that’s less tax revenue to fund social programs like schools.
“Monroeville and especially our district… we get a lot of money from the businesses. Every day that we’re in the pandemic with these restrictions is another day we’re wondering if that business will be around tomorrow,” Goppman said.
And this doesn’t even factor in additional costs to hire more teachers and support staff to help students deal with a year and a half of less than ideal academics caused by quarantines and other safety measures.
However, the worst of all may have been the report on The KDKA Radio Morning Show with Larry Richert and Kevin Battle from May 27.
They had on Jennifer Stefano, Chief Strategist and Vice President at the Commonwealth Foundation, to talk about public school funding. Stefano is a former Tea Party member and frequent talking head on Fox News and other radical right propaganda networks who famously attacked the Head Start Program that provides early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent services for low-income families.
She could not have found a more friendly audience in Richert and Battle.
KDKA is one of the oldest commercial broadcasting radio stations in the US with a more than 100 year history. However, in 2017, KDKA Radio split from the television station of the same name and was purchased by radio conglomerate Entercom. Since then it has become increasingly rightwing and reactionary.
Richert and Battle were pathetically begging for relevance and ratings while letting Stefano spout nonsense statistics about public schools for 8 minutes.
This may come as a shock, but a group like the Commonwealth Foundation that advocates for cutting governmental services doesn’t like public schools.
They think schools have too much money. Privatized institutions like charter and voucher schools need and deserve an influx of cash, but those pesky government schools are already rolling in it.
Of course, this isn’t true at all.
A real investigative journalist might have just walked into an inner city school to check it out. She would have seen that many schools are literally falling apart.
Or she could look up actual statistics. A full 35 states provide less overall state funding for education today than they did in 2008. Most states still haven’t recovered from George W. Bush’s Great Recession and the subsequent state and local budget cuts it caused. And schools in 27 of those states actually saw per pupil funding fall even further.
Moreover, Pennsylvania is one of the worst. The state government pays only 38% of the cost to educate children leaving the majority up to local communities to make up the difference. That’s the 46th lowest in the country. The national average is 51%.
In fact, our funding inequality is the worst in the nation. According to the U.S. Department of Education, poor schools in the Commonwealth spend 33 percent less on their students than rich ones.
Not because public schools are “flush with cash” – a characterization right out of the mouth of Donald Trump.
However, the Commonwealth Foundation plays with the numbers to mask this reality.
For example, they claim the US spends more per student than nearly any other country in the developed world. But that figure varies tremendously by state with some spending much more than others. Moreover, American schools have costs educational institutions in other countries don’t have such as security and other non-instructional costs.
As we’ve seen, even when you look at per pupil spending across the state, you’re masking funding inequalities from district to district. You’re looking at an average of all spending, which ignores how little we spend at lower income schools and how much we spend at districts catering to rich communities.
Moreover, if we compare the percentage of GDP spent on education with other countries, you’ll see the US spends much less than comparable nations. For example, we spend about 5% of our GDP on schools compared with 6.4% in New Zealand, 6.9% in Finland, 7.5% in Iceland and 7.6% in Denmark.
This has been the situation for decades and it relies on one basic fundamental catastrophe – much of American education funding is determined by local property taxes.
If you live in a rich neighborhood, your kids get all the best. If you live in a poor one, you don’t get comparable services.
Trolls like the Commonwealth Foundation feed off this burning dumpster fire by covering the inequity of our taxing system which relies too heavily on the poor and middle class and lets the wealthy get by without paying their fair share.
Instead of pointing out the real problem and demanding the rich do their part, the Commonwealth Foundation covers for their billionaire masters. Partisans at the foundation ignore low taxes on the wealthy and blame high taxes on the poor and middle class on things like public schools.
And stories like these only go to further enrage taxpayers so that they’ll support tearing down the very systems that help keep them and their kids afloat.
No news organization should be falling for these lies.
WTAE, KDKA and WPXI should know better.
They are helping tear down media trust in this post truth age.
How ironic that in doing so they are helping destroy education – the one tool essential to navigating through such a landscape.
Find out more about state education funding shortfalls HERE.