Johnstown — On a hot afternoon a little after 3 p.m., state Democratic Party Chair Jim Burn, state Rep. and Auditor General candidate Eugene DePasquale (D-York), state Rep. Bryan Barbin (D-Cambria) and Cambria County Controller Ed Cernic Jr. gathered on the steps of Johnstown Central Park’s gazebo to talk education.
State Sen. John Wozniak (D-Cambria) was scheduled to appear but was unable to make it.
A few dozen people sat on benches throughout the park near a fountain as a religious group offered free bottles of water to park-goers.
As Cernic and the AFL-CIO’s Marty Marks worked to hang a banner that read “Democrats: Standing up for working families” a handful of the spectators moved in closer to hear them speak.
Burn opened the press conference by welcoming everyone and reminding attendees of the press conference’s purpose: as students gear up to go back to school, parents and voters should remember the “unfortunate direction that Governor Corbett has been and continues to take this state as it relates to the education and the future of our next generation of our leaders.”
He said that cuts to education force school districts to make difficult decisions and try to educate children with a dwindling amount of resources.
Bryan Barbin was up first, and he went after charter and cyber schools – schools he said are benefiting at the expense of public schools.
“The real issue isn’t whether or not you have to cut spending (in the state budget) – you do – but you can’t say you’re gonna cut a billion dollars from public education and then turn around and hand another billion dollars to cyber schools and charter schools.”
Barbin said that while the state’s 500 public schools have to deal with $1 billion less, 130 cyber and charter schools are getting that money without having students who perform as well or graduate at the same rates as public schools.
“So the question is: are you really providing a benefit to the taxpayer if you’re taking away a billion dollars on the one hand and then just handing it over to someone else that isnt doing the job that they claim to do? The answer is no.
He said that cyber and charter schools that are not performing well should have their funds redirected to full-day kindergarten and urban school districts like Johnstown would solve many of the problems faced by public schools.
“At the very minimum you’ve gotta have the same standards apply across the board” to public and charter or cyber schools, he said.
DePasquale took to the steps of the gazebo next, saying that not only does everyone agree with cutting wasteful spending, as mentioned by Barbin, but that people involved in the areas of the budget being cut should have a say.
He pointed to a press conference run by Burn and DePasquale earlier that day in Pittsburgh, where the Chairman mentioned reforms made to the Port Authority public transportation system in Allegheny County.
DePasquale said the Governor localized power, forcing management and unions to work together to come up with their own suggestions and ideas and make a plan Corbett could sign off on – but that when it came to education, he ignored the teachers.
“In public education he ignored the teachers. He ignored school administrators and he ignored the school board members across the state. And all he did was cut.”
The keyword of DePasquale’s speech was creativity. There could have been other ways to look for savings without making large cuts across the board.
One of the ideas that should have been explored, he said, was looking into statewide contracts for things like healthcare plans – using the state’s purchasing power to have one contract for multiple areas of the schools’ budget like teachers’ health care or buying supplies like paper.
Such a move would have gotten rid of a lot of bureaucracy and red tape, as well as taken a lot of pressure off of local school districts.
DePasquale said that voters should take notice that while education suffered cuts, the corrections budget remained the same. It takes $10,000 to $12,000 per year to educate a child, he said, and $35,000 to sustain an inmate.
“If we don’t do a good job of educating our kids and giving them a better hope for the future,” people will end up spending a lot more on the back end as the inmate population rises.
Educating the future workforce is one of the best things Pennsylvania can invest in, he said, and public education investment now will mean more economic growth and prosperity for the future.
Cernic wrapped up the press conference, drawing in a few more stragglers with a booming voice that carried across the park.
He said that public education is one part of supporting working families, and that as a Johnstown school board member he helped the district do many good things.
“Does any of us believe here that public education has no flaws today? Absolutely not. But, the answer to that is not reducing funding and raising class sizes and lessening the amount of instruction that these students get.”
Cernic made a business metaphor, saying that in tough times the first things businesses do is cut back on advertising.
“That’s the worst thing you can do,” he said.
Cernic added that you’ve got to promote more and get yourself out there for people to remember to patronize your store, and that it’s the same thing with education – it allows working families to survive and for economies and communities to grow.
“So when you take away a cornerstone or reduce a cornerstone to nothing, as public education…you’re eroding that whole base.”
PA GOP spokeswoman Valerie Caras said if the Democrats wanted to stand by the banner they put up at the press conference, they would applaud the Governor for his efforts to attract job-creating industries like the Beaver County petrochemical complex or recruitment of technology companies from Silicon Valley
“Instead of resorting to these transparent distortions of Governor Corbett’s record of creating jobs for hardworking families, maybe the Pennsylvania Democratic Party should just take a page out of President Obama’s dismal record on jobs and the economy,” she said.
“A banner reading “working class families: we didn’t build that” would be more appropriate.”
As the press conference wrapped up, a man standing closest to the gazebo told Cernic he had a question.
“I was in Special (Education) my whole life. And they never taught me how to read or nothing. They showed me movies. Now I’m taking reading classes…what they did back then, they should have taught me how to read. Now I have to go to the Cambria County Library to learn how to read, and write, and spell.”
The man trailed off in the end in what was assumed to be not a question, but more of a narrative about the failings of the system.
Cernic congratulated the man for taking the initiative to teach himself as an adult, but said it was an example of how the system needs to be more invested in the next generation.
“We should be supporting people like you,” Cernic said.
Cernic added that Pennsylvania needs more teachers, smaller class sizes and investment in the future as education evolves. He said the nature of education has changed, and that the state should be trying to keep up, not cutting, so students don’t get left out.
“I just wanna speak my piece,” the man said.