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Budget chief Zogby reflects on his quest for school reforms

Photo: Kevin McCorry/WHYY

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Your browser does not support the audio element. It’s a cold December day in Harrisburg, where both the streets and the echoing halls of the state Capitol lie dormant between legislative sessions.

In a handsome executive-wing office of mahogany and leather, a copy of the Wall Street Journal sprawled across his desk, state Budget Secretary Charles Zogby has already begun boxing up his belongings.

"Don’t make me out to be the villain," he says, half joking, referring to his supposed image among traditional public school advocates.

As the Corbett administration draws near its final days, it’s Zogby’s departure that perhaps best marks the radical shift about to occur in executive-level education philosophy.

To his ideological opposites, Zogby is a union-buster, a privatizer, a profiteer. But the way Zogby sees it – through three governors and an eight-year foray in the private sector – it’s always been all about the children.

"Anything that I’ve done, it’s really been trying to help those most in need get a better shot at a better education," he says.

In Pennsylvania, if you had to craft a short list of the players who best advanced the conservative public school agenda over the last two decades, Zogby’s name would be on it.

"Who else will be left that eats, sleeps and breathes school reform?" he asks.

The question hangs in the air as he considers the state lawmakers who have come and gone, and who shared his passion for choice and accountability.

Through Zogby’s window, work appears stalled on the Capitol’s roof as smoke curls from stacks in the distance. Inside, the grand office hums with the incessant sound of a heat compressor that Zogby cannot control. A box of decorative knick-knacks sits packed on his glossy wooden conference table. Still on display on a far shelf reads a framed quote: "Nothing stimulates the imagination like a budget cut."

"When will I ever have a nicer office than this, right?" he says wryly. "Kinda one of those things you just reflect on as an added positive to a job that maybe hasn’t had a lot of those."

Good soldier

To some advocates, Zogby earned the villain’s mantle early in his tenure as Gov. Corbett’s budget architect. Corbett’s first budget, in 2011 – timed with the expiration of federal stimulus funding – sent shockwaves through the education community that are still being felt to this day.

Without the stimulus cash, classrooms took a tremendous hit, even though the Corbett administration forwarded a budget that increased the state’s basic education subsidy.

Zogby labeled the 2011 budget address "a day of reckoning."

Effects on classrooms – especially poor, urban ones – were made worse as the Corbett administration slashed other line items that aided public education, such as the one that helped districts defray the added costs of charter schools.

All the while, as state pension, health-care and debt obligations grew, Corbett prioritized a business-friendly, anti-tax philosophy over restoring classroom resources – a gambit that likely sunk him in his quest for another four years of mahogany and green leather.

Contemplating these austerity budgets, Zogby, with jet-black hair graying at the temples, characterizes himself as a "good soldier" who found ways to get revenues in line with expenditures without tax increases as Corbett grappled with "the most difficult set of circumstances of any governor to take the office."

"We did the best that we could. And I think people are going to see, as the new team will coming in, there are no easy answers," he said. "The election may have changed the players, but it really hasn’t changed at all the challenges that are facing state government."

Those challenges include a $2 billion dollar anticipated budget shortfall for 2015 that Corbett’s critics attribute, in part, to the one-time cash infusions used to balance last year’s spreadsheets.

As we talked, Zogby, a native of the Cooperstown, N.Y., area, paced his office with a well-worn baseball, tossing it from hand to hand.

"Ah just, you know, just a baseball to hold," he muttered. "I’m a baseball fan.I live for baseball."

If baseball is first, education policy makes for a close second.

A Republican, Zogby volunteered for President Ronald Reagan’s successful reelection bid in 1984 and, soon after, he found a philosophical home working for former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge – himself a major champion of school vouchers and charter schools.

Zogby has a distinct vision for public education, one that’s a sharp departure from tradition.

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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