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February 4, 2010

State rep discusses lack of higher ed support

Why is higher education chronically underfunded in Pennsylvania, especially as compared to other states?

While there are many reasons, the biggest culprit may be the high percentage of senior citizens in the state, according to Pennsylvania Rep. Jake Wheatley.

Wheatley spoke Jan. 22 on “A Perspective From the Pennsylvania State House,” as part of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) Roscoe Robinson Jr. Memorial Lecture Series on Diversity and Public Service.wheatley

A GSPIA alumnus with a master’s in public administration, Wheatley since 2002 has represented the 19th District, which includes the Pittsburgh neighborhoods of the Hill District, North Side, South Side, Allentown, Hazelwood, Downtown, Knoxville, Beltzhoover, Manchester, Arlington, Arlington Heights, West End and South and North Oakland.

He serves on four committees in the state House of Representatives: appropriations, health and human services, education and transportation. He also chairs the appropriations subcommittee on education, which annually makes recommendations on higher education funding.

“I learned a lot of important lessons at GSPIA, but in Harrisburg, unfortunately, we don’t use a lot of those skills I was trained here at Pitt to provide,” Wheatley said. “There’s not a lot of cost-benefit analysis on impacts of fiscal decisions, not a lot of rational discussions on the merits of the issues. But the one important thing I did learn here is that whatever we do it is supposed to further service for the public and do good will for people who otherwise wouldn’t have servants looking out for their best interests. I take that with me wherever I go.”

However, the higher education community is somewhat insulated from the real world, Wheatley said, and that puts pressure on elected officials to compartmentalize, rather than combine, their constituents’ concerns.

“You all are a different set of folks than the ‘normal people’ I talk to when I go out to Beltzhoover or to Hazelwood below Second Avenue, or when I go to the Hill District, for the most part. You all have this perspective, it’s rational, based on fact and it’s driven by the probabilities of success,” he told the audience of mostly Pitt and Carnegie Mellon faculty and students.

“Most people who I represent and most that the mayor represents are dealing with survival. How do I survive? I don’t care if you’re black, white, whatever. So the challenge is: How do we bring the higher education folks to become connected with folks from everyday life who are just trying to survive? And, just as importantly, how do we then get things done when you’re dealing with politicos who only think in terms of two- and four-year election cycles?”

Many elected officials fail to realize that the positive ramifications of funding higher education include job growth, start-up companies and a solution to a hemorrhaging population base, which is key to the state’s future, he said.

“Here’s my particular challenge: I’ve been having a very hard time understanding why all the time we have to vote for our seniors. I love seniors. We are an aging state. However, while we have to protect our seniors, we have to do things to make this environment better for young folks to grow and survive. At some point you’re going to need more people working than are retiring or retired, if you’re going to grow your economy. I can’t get my colleagues to believe in this, because guess what? — Seniors vote, young people don’t. But young people, even if they don’t vote, are critical to our survival.”

Wheatley praised Pennsylvania’s higher education institutions as among the best in the country, despite minimal state support. “What we don’t have is a rational system of funding them,” Wheatley maintained.

“In the budget process, every year we just look at the numbers and say, ‘Okay, we think our budget can support, let’s say, 3 percent growth for higher ed and we’ll do it across the board and be done with it, regardless of the outcomes we’re anticipating, the resources, the needs, the challenges. We give them 3 percent across the board. Then there’s a negotiation process that might whittle it down to 1.5 percent and that’s what they end up with.”

Instead, Wheatley advocated a K-20 system that targets investments based on potential economic impact.

“That really requires individuals to be committed to education, from K through 20. And, by the way, I think our fiscal challenges will force us over the next few years to rethink how we do our investments in higher ed and K through 12,” he said. “For example, in all the debate about expanding gaming, there was no consideration, none whatever, to use the gaming money to add to our educational support.”

All of the gaming revenue is going toward property tax relief and support for seniors, Wheatley said.

“We have a mentality in Harrisburg that we need to get over, because everyone cowers to the strength of the voting bloc of senior citizens,” he said.

Solving the related problem of making the commonwealth more conducive to young people staying and prospering is an even more difficult challenge, Wheatley said.

The problem is especially acute in the African-American community, he noted. “As an African American, I’m not devoid of the feelings that most African Americans in Pittsburgh have,” he said.

Wheatley said that his native Detroit, in contrast to Pittsburgh, has a majority of African Americans who form a viable middle class and offer a model for its citizens to stay and prosper.

“When I walked around in my neighborhood back in Detroit, I was seeing African Americans who were lawyers, doctors, mayors, city council members. It wasn’t a strange thing to see that. You had an African-American middle class that was fairly influential,” Wheatley said. “In Pittsburgh, you don’t have the same type of experience as an African American.”

A recent survey showed that seven out of 10 African-American college students in the Pittsburgh area plan to leave as soon as they graduate. That is an alarming number, he noted.

“When you look at the growing cities around the country, they’re not growing because of the birth rate alone; they’re growing because of the open environment where people from the outside, immigrants, move in. They’re growing because they’re open to people’s life choices; if you’re gay or lesbian, for example, they’re open to that, not combative to that. They’re open to creative ideas of young folk and old folk and folks who come from wherever to pursue whatever. They’re cooperative with those with viable ideas. They provide opportunities to succeed,” Wheatley said.

Pittsburgh is recognized as a city that has maintained better employment rates than most others, but the statistics are deceiving, he said. “Our unemployment numbers for the last couple years are lower than the national average, but when you break that down further, some communities are drastically hit and hidden from those numbers.

“There are neighborhoods [here] that are at 15, 20 percent unemployment, and groups, African-American males between 16 and 25, are hitting 50 percent unemployment or underemployment,” he said.

Some legislators try to paint the employment problem as one of local jobs being taken by illegal immigrants. “If people really knew their history they would realize that a lot of us are illegal immigrants,” Wheatley joked. “What we have to figure out is a way to increase diversity and inclusion. When I talk about diversity, I mean it from a broader perspective; it means more than racial diversity. It means social, gender, lifestyle choices.”

But talk is cheap with no action, Wheatley said.

“We can’t force people to stay here. I can’t force African Americans to choose to come back here. I can’t force people to allow for our immigrants to come here and feel welcome with their language differences and the challenges they face in school. I can make noise about it, but it will take a collective effort from all those politicos and all the communities to be willing to welcome them,” he said.

When he looks for diversity among legislators in Harrisburg, he finds it lacking. Wheatley cited the telling statistics of 37 women, 21 African Americans, one Hispanic, one Asian and one Native American among the 253 House and Senate members.

“But when we talk about diversity and inclusion, it is not just sheer numbers,” Wheatley said. “I’m still not convinced having more women and minorities makes it a better process, if they come from the same old perspectives. More diversity and more inclusion does not automatically equal a better outcome, when you stay in your enclave and see and hear only like-minded people. The question is: Are you going to come kicking and screaming and remain isolationists until change is forced upon you, or are you going to be open and creative, and how will elected officials reflect that?

“So we have challenges and we should talk boldly and honestly about race and gender,” he concluded. “We all need to agree that we all have needs that must be met; that we should be clear about those needs; that we communicate openly and honestly, and that we respect each other. If we do those four things, there are no challenges, no problems that cannot be resolved.”

—Peter Hart

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