Downward Slide

[letter to the editor, originally published in the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, January 31, 2012]

The defunding of education that Gov. Tom Corbett has initiated is a travesty that will have negative repercussions for many years to come.

Without good public education, our children will have problems getting into good colleges, getting decent jobs and becoming productive members of society. They will have more physical health problems, more mental health problems and higher rates of crime. This is especially true for children of the poor and lower middle class.

Regarding private and charter schools, and cyber education: for many people, these are not options. There are not enough schools to take in all the children, the vouchers will not last forever and travel distance is a barrier in many cases. Cyber education requires that a parent stay home and supervise — a task for which not everyone is suited or able.

Having smaller public schools in neighborhoods helps build community, which helps local businesses to thrive, which allows the local residents to support those businesses. But you are taking money away from the schools so there will be fewer of them. This will lead to the breakdown of communities, less support of local businesses and loss of jobs.

Gov. Corbett, please stop this terrible downward slide that you have initiated and restore the money to public education so that we can have healthy communities and our children can grow into their greatest potential.

ELAINE RYBSKI
Point Breeze

Dishonesty Disguised as Generosity

During the state-wide call-in day last week, a number of people reported having conversations with legislators and the Governor’s office in which the administration claimed to have actually increased public education funding. That struck many of us here in Yinzer Nation as downright strange, so we tracked down some information to share with you. In the coming days, we will respond to these three major claims of the Corbett administration:

  • Claim 1: “This budget spends more on basic education.”
  • Claim 2: “Schools should have known the federal stimulus funding was temporary.”
  • Claim 3: “The state is simply reverting to 2009 funding levels.”

Today let’s start with the first one.
Claim 1: “This budget spends more on basic education.”
Gov. Corbett and his legislative allies are claiming to have actually increased funding for public schools by carefully stating that they’ve increased the Basic Education Funding (BEF) line in the budget. But they have actually cut so many other line items and categories (moving some of that money over to the BEF line) that the overall budget is greatly reduced and schools are getting much less.

Susan Gobreski, Executive Director of Education Voters PA, explains, “It would be like you doing this. Weekly money for your child: Allowance $10 (i.e. Basic Education Funding), Lunch money $8 (Funding for Full Day K and after school tutoring), Scout dues $2 (Other supplemental programs). [total = $20] From now on: Allowance: $15  — there, I increased your allowance. Aren’t you happy?”

According to an analysis performed by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, in the current state budget, Governor Corbett increased the BEF line to $622.2 million (13.2%) over the previous year, but “the total amount allocated to districts is $420.4 million (7.3%) less than the total amount made available for 2010-2011.” That’s because the state reduced line items such as Accountability Block Grants and eliminated others such as reimbursements for payments to charter schools (a huge deal for districts like Pittsburgh Public Schools which lost millions of dollars on this line item alone). The state also eliminated the Education Assistance Program (tutoring) and froze other programs such as special education funding and career and technical education funding at levels that had already been reduced from previous years.

Thus, the claim that this administration has increased public education funding is patently false. While they are generally careful to state that they have increased “basic education funding,” this is really dishonesty disguised as generosity.

Not Concerned about Budget Cuts to Public Education?

Judy Wertheimer has the lead op-ed piece in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Sunday Forum section (see below). Don’t miss the last paragraph, beautifully stating the need for a grassroots movement to fight these state budget cuts. You are a part of Yinzer Nation: keep spreading the word and sending people to Yinzercation to get connected!

Not concerned about budget cuts to public education? Then you are NOT paying attention

What if you knew that your children’s teachers have been talking lately with school administrators about how many more desks they can fit into their classroom next September?

That, behind closed doors, principals are trying to figure out where gifted education can be trimmed? And foreign language education? And special education? And, of course, the ever-expendable music and art?

Bottom line: How many teachers, aides and classes can your school get by without — who can be let go? That’s the conversation.

Oh, and by the way, your school board may be considering a property tax hike (which, as of this writing, holds true for Mt. Lebanon, Pine-Richland and North Allegheny, to name just a few of the districts that are keeping that option on the table).

Conversations like these are taking place in every single one of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts — urban, suburban, rural, affluent or not. It would be irresponsible for them not to be having these conversations, and here’s why.

As mandated by state law, districts are in the process of drafting their proposed budgets for the 2012-13 fiscal year. So, too, is Gov. Tom Corbett, who will announce his proposed budget Feb. 7.

Last year, Gov. Corbett proposed cuts to education that were so steep that even his Republican colleagues in the Legislature wouldn’t accept them. In the end, they put some money back in, but the state still hit K-12 education with an unprecedented $860 million in cuts. That said, the governor’s administration has already signaled that the budget for the next fiscal year will again take a cuts-only approach.


 

Think you’re immune? Think again. Pine-Richland saw 11.4 percent of its state funding disappear in the last round of cuts; Fox Chapel Area, 10.8 percent; North Allegheny, 8.2 percent; Bethel Park 7.9 percent; and Mt. Lebanon, 7.4 percent. Each of these cuts amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars per district. Pittsburgh Public Schools saw nearly $26 million disappear — 14.3 percent of its state funding. Woodland Hills lost 21.9 percent.

The neediest districts took the biggest hits, but this isn’t about haves versus have-nots. Whatever your socioeconomic status, I hope that we all want the same thing, and that is the best, most productive lives possible for all of the 87 percent of school-age kids in Pennsylvania who attend our public schools.

Consider this: The annual expenditure per pupil in Pennsylvania is about $10,700. The annual expenditure per prisoner is about $33,000. That means that for every dollar we spend on public education, we’re spending about $3.08 on our prison population. In 2007, one in 28 adults in Pennsylvania was incarcerated, on probation or on parole. Pennsylvania’s incarceration rate has increased 280 percent since 1982.

Voluminous research documents the link between education or the lack thereof, criminal activity and incarceration. Study after study has concluded that education is a proven investment that keeps people out of jail. Not a big surprise. Yet our Legislature continues to invest more in incarcerating Pennsylvanians than it does in educating them.

Pennsylvania’s child poverty rate worsened from 15 percent in 2000 to 19 percent in 2010. That’s 522,000 living, breathing boys and girls just like your kids, just like mine, except maybe they don’t have enough to eat or a safe place to live.

What does poverty have to do with education? When the state cuts back on funding, classes get bigger, textbooks and computers get old and out-of-date, and the quality of teaching frequently declines. As you would expect, poor kids are affected by those declines at a much greater rate than kids whose families are better off. In a nutshell, they’re more likely to start out with an inferior pre-school and elementary education that leaves them less prepared for high school and less prepared to go on to college, that is, if they manage to graduate high school (poor kids are more likely to drop out).

Ultimately, a lot of these kids end up trapped in a multi-generational pattern of low education rates, low employability and high poverty. The irony is a better education would leave them better equipped to get a good job, earn a decent income, pay more in taxes and contribute more overall to society. A 2007 study by the Brookings Institution found that improving education outcomes could result in national savings between $7.9 billion and $10.8 billion annually in public assistance, food stamps and housing assistance.

Not exactly chump change.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to front-load spending and invest more early in education, rather than pay more later for entitlement programs aimed at mitigating poverty? How else can we expect to break the cycle?

Since my oldest son started kindergarten in 1999, I have been paying attention to public education and I have never been so deeply concerned as I am right now. Which is not to suggest that this is the time to lose heart and abandon our schools. Rather, this is the time to get serious about fighting back, before the gradual chipping away erodes our schools to the point where there’s not much left to save.

Whatever you might think about the tea party movement or the Occupy movement, these grassroots efforts changed the conversation; there was no dialogue around the 99 percent before there was Occupy. That’s what we need to do. We need to change the conversation from, “How much money do our districts need to survive?” to “How much money do our districts need to thrive? To save our favorite teachers? To save our foreign language classes? Our teacher’s aides, our counselors, our school libraries?”

How do we change the conversation? We organize, either through Parent Teacher Organizations or through other parents willing to step up. One idea: plan a letter-writing event. Parents from Pittsburgh’s Colfax school got together with their kids at someone’s house and turned out more than 70 letters to their state legislators in an afternoon.

EducationVotersPA is also organizing call-in days to state legislators. On one such day, parents at Pittsburgh’s Montessori coordinated an afterschool call-in that netted more than 50 calls to legislators in one hour.

Don’t know who your legislator is? Go to EducationVotersPA.org. There you’ll also find information about how to write letters, how to phone your legislators and how to make your case. It isn’t hard. Don’t be intimidated. Just do something.

To network with other parents in our area and see what they’re doing, go to yinzercation.wordpress.com. That’s a website started by a Colfax parent to share documents, toolkits and ideas. I don’t know any of the Colfax parents who got the ball rolling in my neighborhood, but because their message reached me, I went to a meeting and that’s why you’re reading this today. That’s grassroots.

It’s time to make noise.

Judy Wertheimer is a writer living in Squirrel Hill
with two sons at Pittsburgh Allderdice.
Reach her at wertheimer.jb_at_gmail.com.

Our Meeting with Rep. Frankel

Ten people sat down this afternoon with Representative Frankel to talk about the state budget crisis and the work of this group to date. Rep. Frankel continues to be a huge supporter of public education and the group wanted to find out what he feels our grassroots movement should be doing to sway our legislative leaders on this issue. Here is a re-cap of the conversation:

  1. On Gov. Corbett’s budget announcement (Feb. 7th), Rep. Frankel feels the “best case” scenario would be that we will see no additional cuts, but no additional spending on public schools. The good news is that we may avoid additional cuts because our voices are being heard; the bad news is that keeping state subsidies to our schools flat will actually result in a decrease in money, since costs continue to go up (including mandated expenses such as pension contributions).
  2. A group is forming to work on a response to Governor Corbett’s budget announcement. Kathy Newman is coordinating a meeting for next week: if you are interested in helping with this event, please contact her at knewman4_at_gmail.com. We are hoping to get parents from across the region involved in this, with lots of media attention.
  3. Rep. Frankel agreed that it is crucial to continue reaching out to suburban districts and pull in all our friends and colleagues to this effort: the battle will be won only with Republican support, and those legislators need to hear from their constituents. Setting up meetings with those legislators with small groups of their constituents, like the one held today, is key.
  4. On March 5th, the House will have a committee hearing with Sec. of Education Tomalis testifying: Rep. Frankel believes this could be a good opportunity to “fill the stands.” It is Pitt’s spring break and it was suggested that we try to recruit some Pitt students, many of whom are local public school graduates, to attend such an event, too. Mark your calendars, and if you are interested in working on this, please join our google discussion group and let us know!
  5. Finally, Rep. Frankel suggested starting a “rolling protest,” with groups from across the state each taking a week when the legislature is in session during the budget negotiation process and sending people to Harrisburg. He feels it could actually be quite effective to have even 200-300 people showing up each week to rally and then knock on legislator’s doors (again, particularly if the groups include constituents from Republican districts). There was enthusiasm for this idea as it would help our movement stay visible during the critical May-June period. Jessie Ramey will talk to our friends at Education Voters PA to see if there is interest in coordinating state-wide. And again, if you are interested in working on this, please join our google discussion group and let us know!

Good News

As we learned last week, Governor Corbett has no intention of restoring funding to public education in the budget he will soon release. But our efforts to fight this crisis are definitely starting to have an effect. Here are several pieces of good news:

  • Yesterday, Yinzer Nation rallied for the statewide call-in day coordinated by our friends at Education Voters PA. Hundreds of parents and community members from Southwestern Pennsylvania participated in sidewalk events at local schools and in house parties, generating several hundred phone calls to the Governor and legislators! Channel 11, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Tribune Review all covered the action. We are getting noticed and making our voices heard.
  • The PA House Democratic Caucus is getting focused on public education: Their legislative review, released yesterday, looks at the “Crisis in Public Education;”  they are tracking media coverage of public education around the state on their website; and on Tuesday they filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of students in the Chester Upland School District (the poster-child for the consequences of state budget cuts to public schools). We know public education is not a partisan issue, but we are encouraged that some of our legislative leaders are starting to hear our message.
  • Judy Wertheimer, a Taylor Allderdice parent, will have an op-ed piece on public education funding in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this coming Sunday.
  • A group will be meeting with Representative Frankel in his Pittsburgh office tomorrow. Frankel is a supporter of public education, but the group’s message to him is: “We need you to be our champion, and we have your back!” We also want to know what he feels we can be doing to be most effective during the budget negotiation process. Meeting in person with our legislators is a great strategy and something we can all be doing.

Keep up the good work! It is having an impact and our legislators are starting to take notice.

Call the Governor & Legislators Today

Today is the day to call the Governor and our legislators to tell them to STOP THESE CUTS TO PUBLIC EDUCATION. Several Pittsburgh Public Schools are having “sidewalk parties” at pick-up time to encourage their communities to make calls. But if you can’t participate in one of those, please make your calls any time today at your convenience.

1.  Call the Governor (717-787-2500) and your state representative and senator. Click here if you need help finding your legislators and their contact information.

2.  You will be speaking to a staff member. Introduce yourself and identify yourself as a constituent. For example: “Hi this is _____, I am a constituent of Representative _____, and I am calling because I strongly support public education and I am very concerned about the impact of budget cuts on my school, and on our community.”

3.  In your own words, say something like the following (pick a few points):

  • Stop these drastic budget cuts! The $1 BILLION cut last year was devastating to our District and is hurting our school.
  • I am concerned / outraged / distressed that our school has lost so much money (see list below of sample talking points from Colfax that you can use or adapt to your own school).
  • Every kid must have an opportunity to learn and good schools make stronger communities; education is a human right.
  • Education is my top priority issue as a taxpayer and voter – a responsible community with strong values educates all of our children and makes it a priority.

4.  Let them know you plan to follow these issues and see what happens. For example: “I am interested in the Representative’s position on these cuts and would like to hear back about it.  My email address is ….  Thank you.”

5.  After you call, click here to let Education Voters PA know how the call went: they are organizing today’s event and are trying to collect the number of people who participate, which is important for making our collective voice heard!

Sample Talking Points from Colfax K-8

  • Colfax lost its after school and Saturday tutoring program for the most struggling students
  • Our classes are growing
  • We’ve lost custodians
  • We’ve lost paraprofessionals (adults in classrooms)
  • The District was forced to cut yet another $10,000 recently so we now have no supply or text book money
  • We are losing our Parent Engagement Specialist: a key position in our school that works with the most under-served families
  • We are losing our Gifted Education teachers, wiping out a proven, highly effective and efficient new program
  • We are losing our instrumental teacher
  • And possibly our librarian

Phone Tips

Be really pleasant to the staff. They take a lot of calls, often from people who are upset about things (and some from people who just like to complain). Think of it as a conversation you might have at work or a meeting: keep the tone professional and courteous, make your point about the issue.

Try to sound like yourself.  It is okay to prepare notes to remind yourself what you are calling to say, but try not to read something. Share your sincere personal opinion and your reasons for it, in your own words.

Keep it short:  a 2-3 minute call is usually plenty to say WHAT you SUPPORT (or oppose), WHY, and to give your contact information and ask for a response.

Alert the Media

Tomorrow is the statewide call-in day, organized by Education Voters PA to encourage people across Pennsylvania to call their legislators in support of funding for public education. Schools and community groups across Southwest PA are planning events — from sidewalk parties to a “Protect Your Piece of the Pie” pie eating and phone call party. What is your group doing?

If you are organizing an event, please remember to alert the media! They need know know that groups across the region care about this issue and are rallying behind public education. Check out a sample media advisory put together by Colfax parents and sent out to the local press.

Corbett’s “Education Priorities” Attack Public Schools

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis briefed the House Education Committee last Thursday on the governor’s “main priorities for 2012.” Not surprisingly, these “reforms” include “charter schools, school choice, EITC and an enhanced
teacher evaluation system.” (Pennsylvania Legislative Services, Jan. 19, 2012)

Make no mistake, this is a multi-pronged attack on public education, disguised in the language of “choice” and “reform.” In the coming days we will be posting more information about each of Gov. Corbett’s “education priorities” under The Facts menu tab.

But let’s take a minute to look at that slippery “school choice” category. This is Corbett’s code word for vouchers, which sound great on the surface to a lot of families since they appear to offer choices (and what could be more American?). This can be genuinely attractive to families who feel their kids have been under-served by their local schools. Yet the vast majority of Pennsylvania children are educated in public schools that are doing a pretty good — and even excellent — job. Naturally, we should fix schools that aren’t working: but Corbett and his allies have successfully highjacked the conversation by focusing on “failing schools,” as if this were the norm, effectively labeling all public schools as “failures.”

The bottom line is vouchers are expensive, not supported by research, and worse, take money away from schools that are already trying to deal with budget cuts. (See Education Voters PA fact sheet on vouchers for more information.) The PA House refused to pass Corbett’s voucher bill last month, but the issue will clearly be back. If state legislators want to help struggling schools and communities, they must focus on improvements that benefit all our children, not just some. And we need to start by restoring funding for our public schools.

Remember to call your legislators on Wednesday for the statewide call-in day and tell them to stop the budget cuts to public education!

“Sidewalk Team” Shares Blueprint for Call-In Day

Inspired by the success of Pittsburgh Montessori parents last month who generated over 50 calls in one hour during Education Voters’ statewide call-your-legislator day, several Southwestern PA schools are planning similar tactics for the call-in day this coming Wednesday, January 25th. Parents and community members at Pittsburgh Colfax have formed a “Sidewalk Team” to engage parents at pick-up time and have shared their blueprint for the event. Please steal these ideas and then let Yinzercation know what your group is doing!

They have found that the key is to involve a core team of committed volunteers and then split up the following to-do list:

  • decide on a time and recruit 4-5 people to form a core Sidewalk Team
  • write an invitation to the school community and send via email to PTO, PSCC, and any other d-lists or personal networks (see sample)
  • get a permit from the school (good idea to maintain communication with the principal, even if you are staying on the sidewalk)
  • appoint 1-2 people to bring cookies, hot drinks, etc. if you wish
  • create a list of “talking points” on how the state budget cuts have affected your school (also see general Tips on Calling Your Legislator for ideas); photocopy
  • create a contact sheet with legislator’s names and phone numbers for your district (click here if you need to find your legislator); photocopy
  • have children make signs to hang up on day of event
  • bring: a table, signs, contact sheets, talking points, and well-charged mobile phones!

 

Pgh. Linden Plans Event for Statewide Call-in Day

Pittsburgh Linden is planning an event for the Education Voters PA statewide call-in day, next Wednesday, January 25, 2012. Linden parents hope to get at least 50 people to call their state legislators to restore funding to public education in the upcoming budget. Below are some details from their plan. What will your school or group be doing? Contact Yinzercation with your plans and we’ll share them with others. We are not alone!

Pittsburgh Linden is an excellent K-5 magnet school in the Pittsburgh Public System that draws students from 15 different zip codes. Parents are planning to gather outside at drop off and pick up times with a call script in hand, phone numbers, and mobile phones.

Linden parent Tara McElfresh explains, “We got a list of all the zip codes at our school. We will print off Ed Voters tip sheet with the name and number of who to call based on the zip. We have a group of parents that volunteered to share phones and go around matching parents with the correct zip code script.” They will have copies for people to take home and make calls if they can’t do it right then.

If you are a Linden school community member and want more information, please contact Tara at taramcelfresh_at_gmail.com.