It’s as Simple as Talkin’ n’at

The Post-Gazette ran a great op-ed yesterday by Michael Crossey, President of the Pennsylvania State Education Association. The whole piece is reproduced below for your reading pleasure, but I want to call attention to one line in particular: in speaking about the devastating state budget cuts, Crossey asks, “So, what can we do about it? As Pennsylvanians, we can remind the governor and the General Assembly that state government has the constitutional and moral responsibility to fund the public schools.”

This is exactly what we must do. And how do we remind them? It’s as simple as picking up a phone and calling our state legislators and the Governor’s office on Monday for the next state-wide call-in day. This sounds simple, almost too simple, right? But the only way to reverse these cuts is through the budget negotiation process controlled by our state legislators and the only way to get them to fight for our schools is to actually talk to them.

You would be surprised at how few people bother to talk to their local legislators. This is a powerful tool and one of the cornerstones of our democracy. Our partners at Education Voters PA estimate that it only takes 8-10 phone calls in a day to really get the attention of a legislator to let them know their constituents are passionate about an issue. Next to voting, talking to our local state representatives is the most direct and effective way to participate in the decisions our government makes — and because so few people take the opportunity, those who do actually have quite a chance to have their voices heard.

So speak up on Monday! And spread the word through your networks — especially to your friends and colleagues living outside the city of Pittsburgh. It’s time for Yinzer Nation to pick up the phone. Talk n’at.

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Stop the School Cuts: PA Can Afford to Provide Stable Funding

Across Pennsylvania, people are wondering.

Why is my school district packing children into overcrowded classrooms? Cutting programs that work? Raising my property taxes?

There’s a simple “because” to all of these questions.

It is because state funding to the public schools was cut by $860 million this year. And, if Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed state budget passes, funding will be cut by another $100 million next year.

There is a crisis in our public schools — and it is because of these unprecedented state funding cuts. Our children lose opportunities to learn when programs that work get cut.

Programs get cut when there aren’t resources to pay for them. Class sizes increase when state funding runs out. Our local property taxes go up when the governor refuses to dedicate state revenues to fund the public schools.

All of these things have happened because of nearly $1 billion in funding cuts to the public schools.

For nearly a year, Pennsylvanians have heard the governor claim that the state hasn’t cut funding. It’s a shocking argument that flies in the face of reality.

The governor has said that he has increased school funding. School boards, parents and taxpayers in our communities don’t see it that way. In fact, they know it’s not so.

The facts are the facts. You can see them for yourself at www.psea.org/schoolcuts.

The consequences of these cuts are dire. Already, 70 percent of our school districts have increased class sizes, 44 percent have reduced course offerings, and 35 percent have reduced or eliminated tutoring programs.

The consequences for our students have been severe and are getting worse.

Since Gov. Corbett came to office, his school funding cuts have eliminated a long list of programs that have been working in the public schools for nearly a decade.

The charter school reimbursement program, which helped school districts cover the exploding costs of charter and cyber charter schools? Eliminated.

The education assistance tutoring program, which funded tutoring opportunities for students who need help learning? Gone.

The accountability block grant program, which paid for full-day kindergarten programs, pre-kindergarten and class size reduction initiatives in every school district in Pennsylvania?

The governor cut it to the bone last year. This year, he plans to shut it down entirely.

The names of these programs may be unfamiliar to many Pennsylvanians. But educators, parents and students have seen their benefits — and they have felt the consequences when these programs have disappeared due to the governor’s budget cuts.

So, what can we do about it?

As Pennsylvanians, we can remind the governor and the General Assembly that state government has the constitutional and moral responsibility to fund the public schools.

The fundamental question is this: Are we going to invest in our public schools and the students who learn in them? Or are we going to allow the governor to keep cutting education funding and blame educators and parents for the consequences?

We need to invest in our public schools. It can be done. It is not impossible. How can we do it?

Enact modest increases in state taxes on corporations. Close loopholes that allow Pennsylvania companies to avoid Pennsylvania taxes by incorporating out of state. Find ways to bring state revenues from natural gas drillers into the state’s general fund.

These are commonsense solutions to the school funding crisis. They shouldn’t be taken off the table just because the governor and some legislators signed a “no tax increase” pledge to win the support of a Washington, D.C., lobbyist.

Our public school students are counting on us to find a solution and stop this crisis.

In the future, when they ask, “Why did lawmakers stop cutting public school funding?” we need to be able to give them a simple “because”: Because it was the right thing to do.

Michael Crossey is a special education teacher in the Keystone Oaks School District and president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

School Delays and Closings

Reading through the list of school districts in Yinzer Nation affected by these devastating state budget cuts, I had the peculiar feeling I was a kid again and it was a snow day. We would wake up to snow on the ground, turn on KDKA, and listen through the looong list of school districts announcing two-hour delays: being at the end of the alphabet in Upper St. Clair, we had to listen impatiently to all those other schools, hoping to hear that we would have a day off.

Only now that long list of school delays has turned onto real delays for our children’s education. The snow storm is a man-made disaster with white-out conditions hitting our schools. Take a look at the numbers below, compiled by the Pennsylvania State Education Association. (These are just Allegheny County, but we will add more of Southwest Pennsylvania in the coming days.) This list is Yinzer Nation: school districts like Sto-Rox, Keystone Oaks, and Steel Valley evoke our identity. I can name school districts like Northgate and Chartiers Valley more quickly than the actual townships their students come from (Bellevue and Avalon for the former; Bridgeville, Collier, Heidelberg, and Scott for the latter … I had to go look these up) — because our schools define us. They are our collective identity as communities.

Because of Governor Corbett’s $1 BILLION + $100 MILLION budget cuts, our schools are talking about real delays and closings. The Pittsburgh Public School district has announced that some schools will have to delay opening in the fall (these include the Advanced Learning Academies that had an additional ten school days designed to address the racial achievement gap). And many school districts are being forced to close their full-day Kindergarten programs with the loss of the state block grant which used to fund them.

I don’t know about you, but these numbers are making me feel snowed in. It’s time to get out the shovels. Time to tell our legislators to take those shovels and spread the money back into our children’s education and our state’s future.

Data compiled by the PSEA.

We’re Getting Their Attention

Governor Corbett’s communication staff is paying attention to Yinzer Nation! In case you missed the hoopla over the past few days, check out the comments section of “The Letter Wars Continue (or Why Networking is Working)” and “We Have a Priority Problem.” Dennis Roddy, former columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and now in communications for Gov. Corbett, has been defending the $1 BILLION + $100 MILLION state budget cuts to our schools. The Pittsburgh City Paper picked up the fact that we have grabbed attention and ran its own article on Mr. Roddy’s posts to Yinzercation.

Which just goes to show that we are doing exactly the right thing: we need to keep talking to our legislators and talking to our networks. As our grassroots movement grows it gains strength precisely because public education binds us together — Republican and Democrat, rich and poor, black and white, young and old — we all care about our schools. So let’s keep having a conversation about budget priorities that put our children first.

Yinzer Nation is busy this week. Here are several opportunities to get involved and keep the pressure on our legislators (and don’t forget about our Simultaneous Sidewalk Parties next Monday — we need everyone’s help this week to help plan those events!):

Wednesday, February 29: South Fayette High School will be kicking off a partnership with the Pennsylvania State Education Association called Partners for Public Education. “State Senator Wayne Fontana, State Representative Jesse White, PSEA President Mike Crossey, along with members of the SFEA Representative Council, SF School Board, SF Administration, and SF Student Government will stand together to … add their voices to the chorus of those who care about public education.” 6PM. South Fayette High School Theater.

Thursday, March 1: The Last Lunch: Cutting into the “Lean” PA Budget. The Civil Action Movement is hosting a lunch seminar at the University of Pittsburgh breaking down what Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget means for education, transportation and human services – and to plan how we can organize to make a difference! State Senator Jay Costa and State Representative Jake Wheatley will join with nonprofit leaders to discuss the biggest impacts this proposal will have and the most effective strategies advocates can use from a legislator’s perspective. Local advocates and activists including CAM members will lead breakout sessions to plan the next steps of this campaign. A few ideas in the works include legislative visits and phone banking, letters to the editor and op-eds, and public actions such as street theater and rallies. 11:30am-1:30pm, 20th floor of the Cathedral of Learning. Refreshments provided, please RSVP.

Saturday, March 3: We Are One Education Action. Program includes Rick Adams, former Pittsburgh School Board member; Nina Esposito-Visgitis, PFT President; and Ron Cowell, Education Policy and Leadership Center (EPLC). Allen Kukovich, former PA Senator, will talk about where the money could come from to fund education. 10AM. Obama IB World (formerly Reizenstein Middle School).

Simultaneous Sidewalk Parties: Please Help

The next state-wide call-your-legislator day is scheduled for Monday, March 5th. Our state-wide partner, Education Voters PA, has set this date and schools here in Yinzer Nation are coordinating efforts to maximize participation and keep media attention focused on our schools. Based on very successful events the last two months, we plan to have simultaneous “sidewalk parties” across the region at school pick-up time, encouraging parents to make phone calls to their legislators in support of public education. This kind of direct communication with our legislators is absolutely critical.

What can you do to help?

  • Gather 4-5 people at your school to form a “sidewalk team” (it doesn’t take many people to pull this off at a single school!)
  • If your school doesn’t have a lot of activity at pick up time, consider hosting a house party with your network for the same day.
  • Either way, please stay in touch so we can direct other volunteers your way and you can let us know how plans shape up at your school. We have a media team that has volunteered to send out a coordinated media alert to try to get media at some of these events, but we need to know about them!
  • Use our toolkit (below) to help organize your event.

Once you have a core team of committed volunteers, consider using the following toolkit as a blueprint to help you organize:

  • Write an invitation to the school community and send via backpack mail and/or email to PTO, PSCC, and any other d-lists or personal networks (see sample)
  • Invite the principal and teachers: ask them to spread the word.
  • Consider getting 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, oranges, etc. We found this was extremely helpful, as it generated a mass of kids around the table, drawing the parents in, too (and kept kids happy while parents made their calls).
  • 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. You might also consider having a parent with a smart phone who can look up legislators for people using that link.
  • Have 3-4 volunteers pass out flyers the morning of March 5th, encouraging parents to make calls during the day if they are unable to participate in the afternoon. (Helps to spread the word about the sidewalk party later, too.)
  • Have children make signs and banners to hang up on day of event. These have gotten a lot of press coverage! Make sure they target the state budget cuts. (“Gov. Corbett: No More Cuts to My School,” “Gov. Corbett: I Need My Science Teacher,” etc.). See the Rally for Public Education for more ideas.
  • Bring: a table, signs, cookies, legislator contact sheets, talking points, and well-charged mobile phones!

The excellent group of volunteers who organized publicity for the Rally are having their arms twisted into coordinating media for this Simultaneous Sidewalk Party. The more schools that participate, the better! So please help to get something started in your neck of the woods and then stay in touch to let us know what you are planning. Sara Goodkind has volunteered to contact the student news group at Westinghouse High School to see if they might work on covering the events. Terry Kennedy has requested that principals at Allderdice and CAPA allow their voting-age students to use mobile phones and have a student-led effort to participate in the call-in day.

Last but not least, need a little inspiration? Check out Channel 11′s evening news coverage of our last Sidewalk Party for call-in day:

The Fiction of Flexibility

When Governor Corbett proposed collapsing several educational budget items into the Basic Education Funding line, he championed it as a move towards “greater flexibility” for schools. But school districts here in Yinzer Nation are finding that flexibility is fiction: a nice story, but in the end, just that.

According to Corbett’s flexibility story, districts would no longer have to spend, say, their state allocations for salaries or transportation on those things; if they found a way to save money on teachers or school buses, under the proposed system, they could spend that money elsewhere. Flexibility sounds good. Who doesn’t like flexibility? School officials in West Mifflin, Sto-Rox, Penn Hills, McKeesport, and the North Hills all spoke with the Post-Gazette this week to explain the problem.

As the Post-Gazette reports today, “district officials said it’s nearly impossible for them to reduce salary and transportation costs as most salaries in the district are dictated by contractual agreements, and transportation costs continue to increase, in many cases, because more students are choosing to attend charter schools and their home districts are required to transport them to distances up to 10 miles.”

The West Mifflin school district has already made huge cuts to its transportation system, and can’t imagine where it’s supposed to find additional savings. A new charter school in Penn Hills has increased transportation costs for that school district and also nearly doubled its charter school tuition payments, from $4.2 to $8 million. Penn Hills, McKeesport, and Sto-Rox all stand to lose their funding for full-day Kindergarten programs with Corbett’s elimination of accountability block grants. “Flexibility” isn’t going to pay for any of these things: school districts can’t rob Peter to pay Paul because they’re both broke.

What’s worse, the Post-Gazette reports that business managers in these school districts “fear the reason Mr. Corbett lumped much of the school funding … is to eliminate the formulas previously used to fund items such as transportation and Social Security subsidies.” David Hall, director of finance for the North Hills School District, explained, “Right now, both the [Social Security] and transportation subsidy are formula driven and when they are increased, the state automatically increased their subsidy to match. By putting it into a block grant, I’m guessing there won’t be any increases in the future. It will no longer be formula based,” Mr. Hall said.

In other words, where school districts used to be able to count on formula-based increases for things like transportation costs, now they can expect no increases at all, even as costs continue to rise. This isn’t flexibility – it’s a fairytale.

We Have a Priority Problem

Many people are asking the fair question, “If we want to reverse these draconian cuts to public education (and transportation, health and human services, etc.) where are we going to find the funding, given that the state has a budget gap?” The fact is Pennsylvania has money on the table that it is choosing to spend on corporations, not people.

The state itself estimates that more than half of the current budget gap is due to a huge shortfall in corporate tax revenues (to the tune of $260 MILLION). Where did this money go? Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office recently concluded that the corporate tax shortage is “generally attributable” to a little-known corporate giveaway approved by the Revenue Department last year. Known as “bonus depreciation,” this new rule allows corporations to write off 100% of investment expenditures.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities had warned this would create a significant impact on state revenues. But, as Steven Burg and Brendan Finucane at Shippensburg University conclude in their recent op-ed piece, “Pennsylvania decided to provide this generous tax break and to implement it without legislative action.” That means that the people who work for us — our legislators — never even got a chance to vote on this corporate giveaway.

What’s more, at budget hearings last spring, the Department of Revenue “significantly underestimated the loss of revenue.” It had predicted shortfalls of “$69 million for 2010-11 and $132 million for 2011-12, as compared with the actual $260 million reduction for the first half of the current fiscal year.” You read that right: this corporate welfare program has allowed more than twice as many dollars to leave the table than the state thought it would, in the first half of this fiscal year alone.

Some claim that Pennsylvania needed to allow “bonus depreciation” in order to conform with federal tax policies. But there is no requirement that states do this – and most do not. All of our neighboring states are “nonconforming,” meaning they do not allow bonus depreciation.

As Professors Burg and Finucane point out, “This one tax change, realized without any vote in the state Legislature, has exacerbated the state budget situation. Economic conditions such as slow economic growth and high unemployment rates are contributing factors, but the decision to grant the ‘bonus depreciation’ was a voluntary decision made by the state.”

Indeed, when we are talking about cutting school librarians, science teachers, and mentoring programs, it’s time to start talking about state revenues. We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a priority problem.

The Letter Wars Continue (or Why Networking is Working)

The letter wars continue on the editorial pages of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Today’s letter-to-the-editor is a spot-on rebuttal to two of the most commonly repeated, and false, claims about the budget cuts to public education. But it is also an excellent example of how Yinzer Nation is growing through our personal networks — and how this most basic strategy of networking is working.

Here’s how: upset by the disparity in the last round of state cuts to public schools, one Mt. Lebanon mom with personal connections in Pittsburgh’s East End got involved in conversations that launched Yinzercation. Through her networks, groups of concerned parents and community members have been meeting in the South Hills to talk about the effects of the budget cuts: they have hosted house parties in Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair, urged their friends to write letters to their legislators, participated in the state-wide call-in days, and set up personal meetings with their legislators. And through those ever-expanding personal networks, they reached out to Katherine Luniewski, author of today’s letter-to-the-editor, who lives in Peters Township, Washington County.

This is exactly why we must each continue talking to our friends, family, and colleagues about these budget cuts. It is the only way to build our grassroots movement — and the most powerful weapon we have. So please keep networking, and encourage your friends to stay connected through Yinzercation.

And now for Katherine’s letter …

His education budget defenses don’t hold up

I would like to provide insight into two of Gov. Tom Corbett’s defenses for “defunding” public education (see Bob Gold’s letter “The Funding Facts,” Feb. 14).

First, the administration states that monies lost were a result of the withdrawal of federal funds provided by the America Recovery and Reinvestment Act. True, the ARRA funding ended, but it was always presented as temporary. The ARRA funds were used to plug existing holes in the budget, but these were dollars that the state had slated to spend on public education as part of a new equitable funding formula approved by the General Assembly in 2008. Now that the federal funds have ended, the state has gone back to the old funding formula and left local school districts (and taxpayers) to make up the funding difference.

The second defense is that this administration has increased funding to “basic education.” This is a deception. The Corbett administration collapsed four budget lines (basic education subsidy funding, pupil transportation, nonpublic and charter school public transportation, and school employees’ Social Security) into one: basic education.

Basic education now has a higher funding amount but increases in Social Security require all of that funding increase and more. The governor’s proposed budget also reduces or eliminates other funding lines so the overall education funding is less. The administration claims the “collapse” allows school districts to allocate monies as they see fit. But making it fit will be to the detriment of student learning.

The allegations that Pennsylvania funding of public education has been reduced are not false.

KATHERINE LUNIEWSKI
Peters