Heating Up

Boy, it’s getting intense as the state budget negotiations heat up. Senate majority leader Dominic Pileggi and House majority leader Mike Turzai are trying to get the two Republican caucuses into alignment. Senator Pileggi said they “are working through the details” on public education funding, among other issues, and Rep. Turzai praised his colleague’s budget plan, calling it “fiscally responsible while still balancing the needs of Pennsylvania citizens.” [Post-Gazette, 5-31-12]

What Turzai is calling “fiscally responsible” is actually another $50 million in proposed cuts to public education. That’s on top of the staggering cuts Governor Corbett made last year. Far from being “fiscally responsible,” these cuts have put tremendous negative pressure on local communities across the state.

Take the news from Pittsburgh today: Pittsburgh Public Schools will be sending furlough notices to 285 teachers and other professionals such as school social workers. The notices are provisional, meaning things won’t be finalized until August, but it’s still “expected to be the largest number of teacher layoffs in the district’s history.” [Post-Gazette, 5-31-12] That’s one out of every eight teachers in the district who won’t be returning in the fall. Yet the number of students and their learning needs remain the same.

There’s no doubt that Pittsburgh has some belt tightening to do, with one of the highest per-pupil costs in Pennsylvania. But drastic state budget cuts have forced its hand. And now we’re talking about an additional 285 well-educated, professional people losing their jobs in Southwest PA. There’s a huge multiplier effect on communities with these layoffs, but this supposedly “fiscally conservative” Governor seems to conveniently overlook the economic consequences of his actions.

Now consider how this is happening all across the commonwealth. A new study out this month found that 75% of school districts will furlough or not fill vacancies and more than half have a wage freeze in place (that’s up dramatically from 16% last year). [PASA/PASBO May 2012] And that’s on top of the many thousands of teachers who lost their jobs last year.

A national group called American Working Families has taken notice, launching a two-week television ad campaign in the state looking at the effects of Gov. Corbett’s budget cuts. The organization’s founder, Bud Jackson, said that Gov. Corbett is “one of the worst governors in the country when it comes to helping the middle class and he’s been making things harder for them.” Jackson told CBS News that Corbett has been deceitful: “Corporate friends and campaign donors – he chose to give them tax breaks. His staff – pay raises. And a new SUV for himself and his wife while eliminating health care for our children and cutting our schools by more than $1 billion.” [CBS News, 5-29-12]

And speaking of national attention. Actress, writer, and producer Tina Fey has weighed in on the terrible cuts Pennsylvania schools are being forced to make, especially to the arts. [Washington Post, 5-29-12] Fey is a graduate of Upper Darby School District, which has announced it will eliminate music, art, library, and physical education classes for elementary students and foreign language and technical education for middle school students. She is lending her considerable voice to the cause of public education, urging people to sign a petition that will be presented to Gov. Corbett next week. She also emailed this moving video to her network, to help spread the word about the real consequences of the governor’s budget:

But you don’t have to be a celebrity, or have the financial resources to run television ads, to make a difference. Every time we call our legislators, sign a petition, or participate in a rally we are being heard. Did you see the excellent letters-to-the-editor from Matt Chinman and Steve Karas in yesterday’s Post-Gazette? We are keeping the spotlight on public education and things are certainly heating up.

The Truth About the Numbers

Oh those halcyon pre-stimulus days. Governor Corbett and his allies have a habit of making outrageous claims about our state budget, then repeating them over and over again hoping that people will believe them. Lately we’ve been hearing again that the governor is merely returning state education funding to its level before Pennsylvania accepted federal stimulus dollars. (This has been a common claim since January, see “A Shameful Betrayal.”)

Amanda Godley and Paul Foster have done some digging into this absurdity and conclude, “His claim is not supported by the facts.” Using official state documents, they double and triple-checked their numbers and found the following:

The short story

  • In 2008-09 (pre-stimulus), under Gov. Rendell, the state spent $9.597 billion on PK-12 education (“basic education”).
  • In 2011-12, under Gov. Corbett, the state spent $9.225 billion on PK-12 education (“basic education”).
  • So Corbett allocated $372 million LESS last year for PK-12 education than the state spent pre-stimulus in 2008-09.

Note that there is a line item within the category “PK-12 Education – Basic Education” that is called “basic education funding” and this is the line item that Corbett usually refers to when he claims that he has simply returned state education funding to pre-stimulus amounts. But there are many, many other line items in the section of the state budget entitled “PK-12 Education – Basic Education” (things like transportation, early intervention, special education, etc.) that Corbett has reduced or eliminated. So when he refers to his “basic education spending” in claims that he is not reducing state funding for PK-12 education, he is trying to trick the public into believing that he is referring to ALL state funding for PK- 12 education rather than just one line item. (See “Dishonesty Disguised as Generosity.”)

Just last week, Corbett’s spokesman, Kevin Harley, tried this trick, claiming that the governor has “added more” to Basic Education and that “Pennsylvania taxpayers now pay more toward Basic Education than at any time in the state’s history.” [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5-23-12] But in a rare moment of full disclosure, even Corbett admitted the truth back in February, saying, “We reduced education funding if you look at it as a whole. … and if you listen to my words, I always talk about the basic education funding formula [also referred to as the basic education subsidy].” [Capitolwire, 2-9-2012 (subscription service); for reference, see PADems 2-10-12]

The Long Story
To figure out the 2008-09 actual spending on education, Amanda and Paul examined Gov. Rendell’s 2010-11 Executive Budget, which reports actual 2008-09 spending on education. On page 513-14 (labeled E14.15-16 at the bottom), you’ll find the PK-12 budget numbers. The leftmost column, “Actual,” is what was spent in 2008-09. The total is $9.597 billion.

To figure out the 2011-12 spending on education, they examined Gov. Corbett’s 2012-13 Executive Budget proposal, published in February. Pages 496-497 (labeled E15.12-13 at the bottom) report 2011-12 education spending under the middle column entitled “2011-12 available.” This budget does not follow the exact same format as the 2010-11 budget document, so these two sleuths double checked that they had accounted for the all programs (when programs were not cut). As we have reported here before, Gov. Corbett eliminated a number of line items and consolidated them under “Education Block Grant” to appear as if he has increased education funding, but this is just an attempt to hide decreases in funding.

Furthermore, if you compare the column entitled “2011-12 available” to the “2012-13 budget” (what Gov. Corbett is proposing for next year) you can see that the governor is proposing decreases in many categories for next year, too. The only category that is increased is employees’ pensions.

The Bottom Line
When Gov. Corbett insists that he is simply taking us back to the days before federal stimulus dollars, he is not being truthful. This governor actually spent $372 million less last year on public preK-12 education than the state spent before it started using federal stimulus money. It’s convenient to blame the loss of stimulus dollars for our current budget woes, but these numbers make it clear that Gov. Corbett is using that as a cover story. What he is really doing is slashing public funding for one of our most cherished public goods: our children’s future.

EITC: No Credit to PA

While our legislators are busy looking under their sofa cushions for spare change to fund the state budget, they might want to consider the $75 million that just walked out the front door. That’s how much the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program costs us taxpayers every year.

The misnamed EITC program has nothing to do with educational improvement and everything to do with funneling what would have been state budget dollars into private schools, while increasing profits for corporations. Here’s how it works: corporations can get an EITC tax credit by contributing to a Scholarship Organization, which channels the money to private schools. The companies receive up to 90% of their contributions as a tax credit, worth up to $300,000 per year, and can get a federal tax write-off as well, making the program highly attractive.

Not only do corporations get a tax write-off, but they also receive good publicity and increased access to legislators. For example, gas driller XTO Energy (now owned by Exxon) donated $650,000 over the past three years allowing it to stage ceremonies all over the state at the time when its fracking technique was coming under intense scrutiny. The New York Times reported last week that a state official credited XTO with going “ ‘above and beyond’ its duty” when “[i]n reality, as much as 90 percent of XTO’s donation was underwritten by taxpayers.” [unless otherwise noted, all quotes from New York Times, May 21, 2012]

And don’t underestimate the benefit corporations receive in cozying up to legislators through the program. Two of Pennsylvania’s biggest Scholarship Organizations are run by lobbyists who turn to lawmakers for “advice” in deciding which schools should receive the money. As the Times concluded, “The arrangement provides a potential opportunity for corporate donors seeking to influence legislators and also gives the lobbying firms access to both lawmakers and potential new clients.”

For instance, XTO made its tax-payer funded donation to the Bridge Educational Foundation chaired by Peter Gleason, a Harrisburg lobbyist. Bridge’s advisory board includes two other XTO lobbyists and the chief of staff to Pennsylvania’s Speaker of the House Sam Smith. And it gets worse: “Bridge’s director, Natalie Nutt, whose husband ran the campaign of Gov. Tom Corbett…said all of the group’s board members were selected for their devotion to school choice.” One of Bridge’s founders was John O’Connell, another lobbyist who embezzled over $200,000 from a Pennsylvania non-profit group promoting tort reform.

O’Connell was also a partner at Bravo, another large Scholarship Organization, and he tried to use his connections to both groups as evidence of his charitable work in arguing for a lesser sentence. Federal prosecutors disagreed, saying, “As a lobbyist, O’Connell’s involvement in the Bravo Education Foundation and later in the Bridge Foundation was very beneficial to him in a business sense in that it afforded him excellent opportunities to cultivate new corporate clients and relationships with legislative leaders.”

Now full disclosure here. I am on the board of a non-profit early childhood education center in Pittsburgh that has received EITC scholarship money. There is no doubt this has been helpful for our organization and the families we serve. But we are talking about $75 million a year in taxpayer money that is walking out the door at the same time the Governor proposes slashing about that same amount from the Accountability Block Grant program. That would be the program that funds early childhood education and Kindergarten programs across the state.

And there is no accountability for that $75 million. The Keystone Research Center analyzed the EITC’s K-12 component (the program also funds pre-K scholarships and ‘educational improvement organizations’ that work with public schools) and found that “schools benefiting from the EITC scholarships are not required to report on student progress or document school quality.” [Keystone Research Center report, April 7, 2011]

In fact, the legislature outlawed any attempts to collect such information and the program is actually managed by the Department of Community and Economic Development – not the Department of Education.

With practically no state oversight, the public has almost no financial information on the organizations receiving tax credits or distributing scholarships. The Keystone report warns, “Experiences in Arizona indicate that a lack of financial accountability opens the door to the misuse of public funds.” And we’re talking about a program that provides scholarships to over 38,000 students to attend private and religious schools – that’s more than the number of students in the Pittsburgh Public School District.

If all this weren’t enough to make you concerned about the program, the Times report noted that there is a nationwide movement for EITC-like programs backed by the voucher-touting American Federation for Children and its ALEC allies. (For the back-story on these organizations and their connection to efforts to privatize education in Pennsylvania, see “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money” and “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC.”) A spokesman for the American Federation for Children boasted to the Times, “Scholarship legislation was approved in Virginia this year and is gaining traction in other states, including New Hampshire and New Jersey.”

The EITC program has been operating as a backdoor voucher program in Pennsylvania since it was founded in 2001. In eleven years, it has cost over $300 MILLION in lost revenue. Those are real dollars that are not available to fund the state budget so it can support things like, oh, you know, public education. Revoking the EITC program would put millions of dollars back into the state’s coffers without raising taxes one dime. It’s time for legislators to get their heads out of their couches: the Education Improvement Tax Credit is not improving education and it’s certainly no credit to the state of Pennsylvania.

It’s Not an Image Problem

We’re making him squirm. The Governor has been taking it on the chin this week from people in every corner of the state fed up with his devastation of public education. Yesterday he announced a major shakeup in his office with the departure of his chief of staff, William F. Ward. Apparently a small group of Republican heavyweights, known as the Governor’s “kitchen cabinet,” have become worried that Corbett has a “growing image problem.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 5-24-12]

Actually, what he has is an ideological problem. Governor Corbett stubbornly sticks to a “no new taxes” mantra, while slashing essential public services and refusing to consider alternative revenue sources – even those that would not require a dime in new taxes. Take for example, the $86 million in overpayments our school districts have been forced to make to cyber charter schools: those dollars alone would go a long way towards plugging the hole in the block grant program that Corbett wants to cut, which will eliminate full-day Kindergarten in many places. [“Trouble Seeing the Money”]

Corbett’s proposed budget is an ideological budget, aimed at privatizing many of our public goods – especially public education – under the guise of austerity. Pennsylvania isn’t buying it, leaving the governor’s top advisors worried that “the administration [has] not effectively sold Corbett’s agenda to the public, and that the governor [has] paid a price in popularity.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 5-25-12] No kidding.

The poor man can’t even get his story straight. Gov. Corbett repeatedly claims on the one hand that school districts must make severe cuts now that federal stimulus money is gone, even spending their emergency reserve accounts to pay for core educational programs. On the other hand, he loves to claim that he has increased state spending, by slyly referring to the Basic Education line item in the budget – which has gone up, while the overall budget has been drastically slashed. Pennsylvanians can see right through this doublespeak.

Perhaps the Governor’s kitchen cabinet ought to show him the new report out this week from the PA Association of School Administrators and the PA Association of School Business Officials. This study concluded, “School districts are being forced to cut deeper into instructional programs that will hurt student-learning opportunities and create fear that nearly half of districts surveyed will be in financial distress within three years if state and local funding does not improve.” [PASA/PASBO May 2012] The survey of Pennsylvania school districts found that:

  • 60% will increase class sizes again
  • 58% will face reduced instruction in art and music, reduced physical education classes, fewer elective course offerings and advanced placement course offerings
  • 49% are delaying textbook purchases
  • 46% are trimming or eliminating extra-curricular programs, including sports and field trips
  • 37% are cutting tutoring programs
  • 34% are eliminating summer school
  • 19% will eliminate full-day Kindergarten
  • 75% will furlough or not fill vacancies in their district; more than 50% have a wage freeze in place now (an increase from 16% last year)

I don’t need a kitchen cabinet to tell me that we have a real crisis in public education. And it’s not an image problem, it’s a funding problem.

The Governor’s Bad Week

It’s worse than a bad hair day: Gov. Corbett is having a bad education week. Everywhere he goes, people are protesting. As he spoke to the Chamber of Commerce in Reading on Monday, over 100 people stood outside chanting. Bryan Sanguinito, president of the Reading Education Association, put it bluntly: “We’re here to let the governor know that he’s not welcome here in Reading because of what he has done to our students and to our schools.” [WFMZ-TV69 News, 5-22-12] Reading, which is teetering on the edge of “distressed” school status, is laying off 170 more teachers this year.

Tuesday, Gov. Corbett’s office refused to accept letters from school children in Pittsburgh, and was greeted with a rally at his front door in Harrisburg. (See “The Governor Must Listen.”)

But Wednesday took the cake. Yesterday, Pennsylvania literally took to the streets, protesting Gov. Corbett’s education cuts with large demonstrations in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh. In Philadelphia, several thousand people marched through the streets chanting, “Save our schools!” Organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the parade included a sea of bus drivers, janitors, and other school workers who have been uniformly pink slipped by the state in its effort to privatize the Philadelphia education system. Fourteen people were arrested in a peaceful sit-down demonstration designed to get the Governor’s attention. (Check out some great photos: Philadelphia Inquirer, 5-23-12)

At the very same time, several hundred people marched through the streets of Pittsburgh to Governor Corbett’s downtown office. After denying entrance to a small group of moms and kids on Tuesday, it was no surprise that the governor’s office refused to accept a message from representatives of yesterday’s group. Eleven protestors then sat peacefully in the street in a planned demonstration and were arrested for blocking traffic. These folks – parents, teachers, school workers, preachers, community members – chose to take a bold stand to send a strong message to the Governor. “We can’t afford to stand by and watch public education eroded,” the Rev. David Thornton of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Hill District, told the crowd. Governor Corbett “needs to understand that we are in this fight for the long haul because we care about our children and quality public education for all children.” [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5-23-12]

Hundreds march in Pittsburgh for public education. [Source: John Pilecki]

11 peaceful demonstrators were arrested for sitting on the street. [Source: John Pilecki]

Meanwhile, in Harrisburg, over 1,000 people marched to the capitol building in support of the public schools in the state’s capitol. State budget cuts have exacerbated an already dire situation for the Harrisburg school district, which is one of our “distressed” school districts (along with Duquesne right here in the heart of Yinzer Nation). Parents from the Shippensburg and Chambersburg area marched along in solidarity and students delivered thousands of letters to legislators. (More great photos: PennLive.com 5-23-12)

And all day long yesterday, people across Pennsylvania participated in a state-wide call-in-day, phoning the Governor’s office and their state legislators. Parents at several Pittsburgh Public Schools made flyers with information about specific cuts to their schools and stood on the sidewalks handing them out to families as they dropped off and picked up their children, urging people to call their representatives.

Governor Corbett might have been shutting his eyes and plugging his ears all day, hoping this would all go away. But he could hardly ignore the massive protests from one end of the state to the other. By noon, he had his office email a statement to reporters repeating his tired claim that he has not cut money from education. How he can say this with a straight face these days in anyone’s guess, as overwhelming evidence to the contrary stares back at him.

And yet, Corbett’s spokesman Kevin Harley said it is “simply untrue” that the Governor has cut education funding. Sticking to his well-worn script, Harley insisted that Corbett merely refused to replace federal stimulus money. The problem with this claim is that the state had already committed itself to righting a historically unjust education budget and had started on a six-year plan that school districts were working under. While Gov. Rendell and Gov. Corbett chose to use stimulus dollars to pay for the plan, yanking the entire sum now has pulled the rug out from under our schools.

Here’s the back-story: The state uses a formula to distribute money to school districts. However, between 1991 and 2008, this formula did not distribute money adequately or equitably. Hundreds of school districts – especially the poorest – lacked the resources they needed to provide a consistently high-quality education to their students. And legislators had no way of knowing which districts had adequate resources.

To fix this problem, in 2006 the General Assembly called for a statewide study. Called the “Costing-Out Study,” it concluded that Pennsylvania was short-changing K-12 schools to the tune of $4 billion. (APA Report to the State Board of Education, December 2007). The legislature wisely responded by passing Act 61 of 2008, establishing a six-year plan to phase in increased state funding for public education. In 2009 and 2010, the state used the new formula – and also used federal stimulus money to pay for the increased funding (which, remember, it had already committed itself to). Then came the unprecedented cuts to public education in 2011. These disproportionately affected the poorest school districts once again, in large part because the state rolled back its funding to previous levels, rolling back all the progress it had made towards equity at the same time.

In other words, this was not a simple scaling back of the budget, but a wholesale betrayal of Pennsylvania’s own commitment to a rational and fair education budget. To claim that the state is merely reverting to previous funding levels, or simply not replacing stimulus money, obscures the fact that this budget re-installs historic inequities and restores a deeply flawed system.

Corbett’s spokesman, Kevin Harley, also repeated his distortion of reality, claiming that the governor has “added more” to Basic Education and that “Pennsylvania taxpayers now pay more toward Basic Education than at any time in the state’s history.” The fact is Gov. Corbett collapsed several line items into what’s called the “Basic Education” line item (which is just one of many in the education budget), inflating this single line item while actually slashing the overall education budget. Even Corbett admitted as much back in February, saying, “We reduced education funding if you look at it as a whole.” [Capitolwire, 2-9-2012 (subscription service); for reference, see PADems 2-10-12]

The Governor’s office tried to go on the offensive yesterday, blaming the press, saying: “Political opponents of the governor will cling to this myth of a $1 billion cut so long as the media goes along with the fiction.” [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5-23-12] So who is the one propagating myths? The thousands upon thousands of Pennsylvanians who took to the streets and their phones yesterday are not buying the Governor’s fiction. It’s time for him to try a different story – one from the nonfiction aisle – one with adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for public education.

The Governor Must Listen

Unbelievable. Now the Governor won’t even accept letters from children. Yesterday morning, a group of Pittsburgh Public School students and their parents took time out of their school and work days to visit Governor Corbett’s Pittsburgh office. They had planned to deliver the children’s hand-drawn posters, banners, and letters that they had made explaining how much they love their public schools, but they were not even allowed to enter the office.

This has to be a new low, even for this Governor. These kids were ready to learn about democracy and how our government works. Instead, they got a lesson in nasty politics and saw just how cut off – literally – Gov. Corbett is from the people of Pennsylvania.

The group of moms and kids entered Piatt Place – some of the most expensive real estate in downtown Pittsburgh – intending to simply drop off their letters. They also hoped to leave petitions signed by hundreds of people from Southwest Pennsylvania in support of public education. However, the Governor’s staff refused to allow the children to go upstairs, complained that they didn’t have an appointment (to deliver letters?), and became quite angry and unpleasant. The parents explained that they were not asking for an appointment to meet with someone, they simply wished to leave the letters for the Governor, but the staff would not even consider sending someone down to the lobby to accept them.

When Jodi Hirsch, who helped organize the visit, asked the office for a statement so they could explain to the media why the Governor would not accept letters from children, a woman named Roxy abruptly hung up the phone, saying “that’s it, this conversation is over.” As Hirsch observed, “Maybe some of the funding for those fancy offices should be used to hire an additional staff person who can help accept 5 minute visits from children … even an intern could have politely accepted the materials.”

Is this Governor so removed from the people of Pennsylvania that he has instructed his staff not to accept letters from school children? How is this politicization of our education system and the cruel treatment of our youngest citizens helping our schools and students?

Governor Corbett wasn’t even in his Pittsburgh office yesterday. But Pittsburgh went to Harrisburg to deliver our message loud and clear. Kathy Newman led a “Yinzercation Delegation” to the state capitol, filling a bus with public education advocates. The group split into teams and had substantial meetings with four key members of the Democratic party in Allegheny County: they met with staff members in the offices of Jay Costa, Frank Dermody, and Dan Frankel, and then had a 30 minute meeting with Representative Matt Smith in person. At each of these meetings the group asked our representative to:

  • Write a letter/email to his constituents about education
  • Put something about the education budget on his website
  • Have someone on his staff follow Yinzercation
  • Help delay the budget vote so that there is time to find out about actual state revenues and get more money for education in the budget
  • Work to restore more funding/prevent more cuts for next year

The staff members of each of these representatives agreed to do most, if not all, of these things. The group also delivered packets of letters collected at the “Write Now!” and Mock Bake Sale events to: Dan Frankel, Jay Costa, Jim Ferlo, Wayne Fontana, Jake Wheatley, Mark Mustio, Adam Ravenstahl, Paul Costa, John Pippy, and Mike Turzai. Newman reports that even though they didn’t have letters for Phyllis Mundy, they visited her because “the kid delegation was so fired up they started looking for reps to talk to wherever they could find them!”

The letters gave the group a great excuse to “drop by” these offices and have significant conversations with receptionists and other members of the representative’s staff. For example, John Pippy’s staff was very polite and talked for the group for ten minutes. Pippy, a Republican from the South Hills, did not seek re-election; businessman D. Raja won the Republican nomination for that seat, though if he wins in the fall, he may not be in office long as the congressional redistricting may exclude his hometown of Mt. Lebanon once the new lines are settled on. So this is going to be an important office to keep in touch with.

The children’s delegation, led by parents Jeff Shook, Ali Patterson and Sarah Nunley, delivered a packet of letters to Mike Turzai’s office. Turzai, a Republican from the North Hills, is absolutely critical in this fight for public education (see more on him in “Rep. Turzai’s 1.7 million Reasons”). Unfortunately, his staff members were not at all receptive, but students Maya Shook and Abigail Segel spoke eloquently and poignantly about education. Newman said, “We were so proud of them, and impressed by their ability to advocate for themselves!”

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After two hours of lobbying, the group joined 80 members of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) for a rally in the Capitol rotunda. Pittsburgh Montessori parent Cassi Schafer spoke for our group, and both Rep. Frankel and Rep. Smith gave impassioned speeches. Finally, the delegation walked a short way over to the office Education Secretary Ron Tomalis. Newman reports that “the kids were again the stars of the show, explaining to Secretary Tomalis’s second in command how the budget cuts are affecting their education.”

Building on our visit, advocates from OnePittsburgh made hundreds of phone calls to the Governor’s office supporting education and public funding for our public goods. The phone calls kept going until the Governor actually shut down his phones! This is outrageous behavior from a man who does not want to hear from the people of Pennsylvania.

Now it is your turn to make a few phone calls. Today is the final state-wide call-in-day organized by our friends at Ed Voters PA. Use this handy on-line tool to look up your state representative and senator and their contact information. Governor Corbett’s office is: (717) 787-2500. You can also use this Call-in-Day Q&A sheet created by parents at Pittsburgh Colfax as a guide. Please take a few minutes to tell the Governor and your legislators that they must listen: we need adequate, equitable, and sustainable state funding for public education.

Dueling Rallies

Oh the irony. It just so happens that when our public education advocates get off their buses in Harrisburg this morning, they will be greeted by another group rallying at the capitol for cyber charter schools. While our colleagues are meeting with legislators today urging them to restore public funding for public schools, the PA Families for Public Cyber Schools group will be meeting with legislators asking them to instead send more public money to largely private corporations.

Let me say right up front that I don’t think all charter schools are necessarily bad. In fact, I know of some pretty good ones. Perhaps not surprisingly, these tend to be non-profit organizations, run by actively involved local volunteer boards, have broad parent participation, and pay their teachers competitively. Unfortunately, this is not the model for all charter schools – especially not in the cyber charter world, which is largely enriching corporate shareholders while delivering horrendous educational results.

We’ve talked before about the outrageous sums of money going to line the pockets of cyber charter CEOs and their equally outrageous school performance (“Soaking the Public”). And we’ve talked about the $86 million taxpayers and school districts could have saved in 2009-2010 if cyber charters had been funded based on what they actually spent per student, rather than an artificially high fee imposed by the state (“Trouble Seeing the Money”). That was two years ago – imagine what we could be saving now – and spending on students instead of CEOs.

But we haven’t talked about two other key concerns with charter schools in general: performance and oversight. Let’s start with performance. The bottom line is that charter schools, whether brick-and-mortar or cyber, are not delivering the student performance results they promised when they were signed into Pennsylvania law back in the 1990s.

For example, the University of Washington’s center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and Mathematica Policy Research released a study earlier this year on the effectiveness of charter school management organizations (CMOs). The longitudinal study looked at 17,000 students attending CMO-operated schools in eight states and matched them with similar students attending conventional public schools. The researchers concluded “there were no statistically significant effects of attending a CMO-operated school on state assessments in math, reading, science, or social studies among middle school youth. There were also no statistically significant impacts on high school graduation and college enrollment rates.”

Interestingly, this study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation – that’s the Walmart family that spent over $159 million on funding school privatization efforts last year. As Lawrence Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition points out, “What if the Waltons spent their $150M per year on programs for poor kids that are actually effective, like early education and making sure that they are reading on grade level by third grade?” [“Follow the Money,” KSEC, 3-8-12]

Cyber charter schools do a particularly poor job of educating students. Only two of twelve Pennsylvania cyber charter schools made AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress, a designation affiliated with the federal No Child Left Behind) last year, and seven have never made AYP at all. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. That’s a 100% failure rate. [Stanford/CREDO report summary, 2011]

That study also found that students in Pennsylvania’s brick-and-mortar charter schools are not doing so well. A quarter of them made “significantly more positive learning gains” in reading, but the report concluded, “their performance is eclipsed by the nearly half of charter schools that have significantly lower learning gains.” And Pennsylvania reflects the national trend. A 2009 Standford/CREDO study of charter schools in fifteen states and the District of Columbia – looking at the vast majority of the nation’s charter school students – found that only 17% of charter schools showed better academic gains than conventional public schools. And 37% were worse, while 46% showed no significant difference. [Stanford/CREDO report summary, 2009]

With such inferior results, we are left to wonder why Gov. Corbett’s administration recently authorized seven new cyber charter schools for next school year and is hell-bent on charterizing as many existing public schools as it can. (This is the state’s forthright goal in Philadelphia: see “This is What Privatization Looks Like.”) Especially when the entire charter system lacks supervision.

That brings us to the second problem with charter schools: supervision. The Lehigh Valley’s Morning Call reported last month that, “The Legislature and state Department of Education have known since 2002 that oversight of charters was lacking.” A Western Michigan University study that year found that many local school districts in our state were making only “ceremonial” visits to the charter schools under their purview. [Morning Call, 4-22-12] But the state is the one that has forced school districts to allow charter schools to open while providing no staff or financial resources for their supervision, creating yet another unfunded mandate.

The state is also responsible for supervising charter schools. But the Morning Call found that the auditor general’s office “is having trouble conducting cyclical audits or special investigations to make sure tax money is spent appropriately in the state’s charter schools.” The report concluded “there are few eyes on the $4 billion taxpayers have spent toward charter schools in the last decade.” That’s right. Four billion. That number came from the Department of Education and includes per student expenditures, salaries, building and rental costs, and grants. [Morning Call, 4-22-12]

If the state is going to spend four billion of our taxpayer dollars, we ought to demand adequate supervision. Particularly since a great chunk of that money is going to private corporations who answer to shareholders and their bottom line, not students and their learning outcomes.

What if we had invested that $4 billion in our existing public schools? After all, that is where the vast majority of Pennsylvania’s students continue to be educated – and by many measures, educated quite well. Where there are problems, let’s fix them. That $4 billion would surely go a long way.

Our legislators in Harrisburg will see dueling rallies today: when they hear cyber charter families asking for more taxpayer dollars for miserably performing, poorly supervised charter schools let’s hope they focus on the other message. The one our colleagues will be chanting: what we really need is adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for public education.

What Will You Do This Week?

Word from Harrisburg is that the Governor and his allies are trying to get the budget passed in the next couple of weeks. While having an “on-time” budget (delivered before the end of June) is necessary and admirable, negotiation time is just about the only bargaining tactic opponents of draconian budget cuts still have. In other words, our legislators who support education – and public funding for public goods in general – are in the minority: the longer they can hold out and keep the budget discussion going, the more leverage they will have over getting funds put back into things like public education. Politics is lovely, eh?

But with a final budget decision likely to arrive in just a few weeks, our timeframe for affecting the outcome has narrowed: this week is absolutely critical! The Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign – a statewide coalition of thirty groups concerned with public funding for public education – has named this Education Funding Advocacy Week. With events planned all over the state, here is how you can get involved in Southwest Pennsylvania:

  1. Monday, May 21 (TODAY): a group will be dropping off piles of letters from children at the Governor’s Pittsburgh office this afternoon. To participate, please contact Jodi Hirsch <jhirsh@justactionllc.com>
  2. Tuesday, May 22: We are teaming with the PIIN Task Force on Education to fill a bus to Harrisburg for a Rally on the Capitol Steps. The group will also be meeting with legislators. The bus will leave at 7:30AM and will return in time for dinner. Contact Kathy Newman <knewman4@gmail.com> for more information and to reserve your seat on the bus!
  3. Wednesday, May 23: Statewide call-your-legislators day. Take five minutes to tell the Governor and your legislators that we must have adequate, equitable, and sustainable state funding for public education. Use this handy on-line tool to look up your state representative and senator and their contact information. Governor Corbett’s office is: (717) 787-2500. You can also use this Call-in-Day Q&A sheet created by parents at Pittsburgh Colfax as a guide.

Need some more motivation? Consider the news from Allentown, which joins a long list of Pennsylvania school districts crippled by state budget cuts. Last week the Allentown school board announced, “The sky is falling.” Without adequate support from the state, that district will be cutting full day Kindergarten, laying off teachers, and raising local taxes by 4.8 percent next year. But “that’s nothing compared to what could be facing taxpayers, staff and students” in three years when the district’s reserve account will run dry. At that point, Allentown will have a $6.5 million deficit that is projected to grow 515 percent to $40 million five years from now. [The Morning Call, 5-18-12]

Those reserve accounts are what Gov. Corbett accused school districts last week of secretly hoarding. (See “Insane, Irrational, Irresponsible.”) The state actually recommends that districts keep 5-8% of their operating budgets in reserve for emergency expenses and Allentown has a solid track record in this regard. But the district already plans to tap into its reserves to cover regular operating expenses, and the account will not last long. Allentown’s chief financial officer, Trevor Jackson, said, “We are two years away from Chester Upland and Reading,” invoking the specter of the state’s poster children for fiscally distressed districts. [The Morning Call, 5-18-12]

Our legislators are the only ones who can stop this craziness. And this is the week to reach them to let them know the sky really is falling on our public schools. What will you do?

The Accountability Hoax

Governor Corbett’s secretary of education doesn’t want to talk about the $1 BILLION in cuts to our public schools. In a speech to the Chamber of Business and Industry in State College earlier this week, all Ron Tomalis wanted to talk about was accountability. That’s a nice word, accountability: very grownup, responsible, implies you are thinking about outcomes and consequences. But the poor word has been hijacked by the forces of school privatization.

First, watch how Sec. Tomalis slips out of talking about the massive state budget cuts and turns it into a problem of teaching. “Everyone wants to invest more in public education, and I get that,” he told the roomful of business people. “But we also need to balance that with what our expectations are. … We need to get it so that the impact of the labor is such that we’re getting a good (return on investment) on our $26 billion. I don’t think we are.” [Centre Daily Times, 5-16-12] Ah, see? What we have here is a labor problem not a funding problem. We’re not getting enough out of our labor.

By which he means, of course, our teachers. This purposeful labeling of teachers as “labor” is meant to convey by linguistic association their role as unionized workers. And make no mistake, teachers unions and other unionized educational workers are under attack right now. Take for instance Philadelphia, where every single bus driver, janitor, and maintenance worker got a pink slip this year – 1,400 members in all of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). [Philadelphia Inquirer, 1-3-12] Unions are not perfect – and neither are school boards or district administrations – but we absolutely need them. (I’ll save my Labor and Union History 101 lecture for another time, but here’s the takeaway: we still need ‘em.)

Blaming teachers and suggesting that public schools are failing has become the main plot line in a national, ultra-conservative education narrative. (This is “What I Told the White House” about the need to stop painting public education with the failure brush and to start focusing on real problems where they exist.) Students aren’t learning, this story goes, because we have too many bad teachers interested only in their supposedly cushy benefits. The solution is to close public schools, hand them over to private charter companies, implement vouchers so that public money can go to private schools, get rid of unionized workers, and impose ever-stricter testing requirements on students.

Sec. Tomalis told his audience that we need more student testing with end-of-class PSSAs and that our real problem is teacher quality. While we can all agree that we want an excellent teacher in front of every classroom, Tomalis completely missed the point when he asked, “Would you rather have your child in a class of 25 students with an outstanding teacher or 20 students with a so-so teacher?” [Centre Daily Times, 5-16-12] Twenty-five students in a classroom? We are talking about 30 students in my son’s classroom next year. Christine Chirdon, a Sophomore at Shaler Area School District, told us at the Rally for Public Education back in February about having 32 students in a classroom and not enough desks for everyone to sit down. (Watch a short video clip of Chirdon’s moving testimony here.)

The real issue is that the state has cut $1 BILLION from its public schools, forcing nearly every school district in the state to increase class size. This has nothing to do with the quality of our teachers. Yet Tomalis continued in this vein, saying that the state has been emphasizing early childhood education and now he’s worried about first through third grade: “The gains of full-day kindergarten will be lost if first- through third-grade education isn’t strong.” Actually, the gains of full-day Kindergarten are being obliterated because state cuts have eliminated full-day Kindergarten programs in many districts and some places are even yanking half-day Kindergarten. (For examples, see “Insane, Irrational, Irresponsible.”)

If only the state was spending $26 billion on education, as Tomalis is so fond of implying. Did you notice how he slipped that figure into his comments about our “return on invesment”? His spokesman, Tim Eller, has been throwing around that scary-sounding figure for the past two months as well and newspapers never fail to run the number without questioning it. [For example, see “Enough with the Spreadsheet Debates.”] To be clear: the state proposes to spend $10.6 billion next year on education – this includes early childhood, K-12, higher ed, and our public library system combined. [2012-2013 projected budget] That $26 billion figure includes local, state, and federal contributions to education.

In fact, Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom ten out of all fifty states in spending on public education. And the PA legislature appropriates almost $500 per student per year less than the national average, and less than all of our contiguous states. (See “A New Mantra” for details.) We don’t have an accountability problem, or a teaching problem, or a labor problem. We have a funding problem.

Accountability used to be such a nice word. But “accountability” is now a convenient framework in which to plug the privatization agenda. What we really need is a framework committed to our students with adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for public education.

Insane, Irrational, Irresponsible

The Governor has added another new talking point. Now he is suggesting that we should blame school districts for cutting programs because they aren’t tapping their supposedly vast reserve accounts to pay for them. Speaking during his regular appearance on a Philadelphia radio program, Gov. Corbett criticized school districts because they “are making a concerted effort not to go into those reserves.” [Delco Times, 5-16-12]

Actually, as Gov. Corbett well knows, over 70% of the state’s school districts are already spending down their reserves to balance their budgets this year. [Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, September 2011 study] Those reserve accounts are meant to be used for major planned construction projects or for emergencies such as a broken furnace. Not all districts have reserves, and those that do are certainly planning to use them for the massive spike in pension costs that are coming our way. (See why the state’s refusal to deal with the looming pension crisis is creating a recipe for disaster in “Pension History 101”.)

For example, last year when Pittsburgh Public Schools learned of the Governor’s nearly $1 BILLION in state cuts to education, it projected that it would deplete its reserves entirely by next year. The school board’s sound fiscal policy requires the district to maintain 5% of the current year’s budgeted operating expenses in reserve, but the district was already starting to run an operating deficit that would eat into those reserves. With the massive state cuts, Pittsburgh and other districts around the state were suddenly facing a dire situation: they would have to immediately cut programs, lay off teachers, and increase class sizes while continuing to eat into reserves and while knowing full well that the pension spike looms on the horizon. [Data from PPS presentation May 19, 2011.]

Yet here is the supposedly fiscally responsible governor telling school districts to essentially wipe out their savings accounts to pay for Kindergarten and other academic programs. As Jay Himes of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials points out, “To take the governor strictly on his own advice would be the same thing he criticized the school districts for doing with the federal stimulus funds. … This is one-time revenue. It shouldn’t be used haphazardly or without discipline.” [Delco Times, 5-16-12]

Since February, Gov. Corbett has been telling everyone who will listen that he has actually increased state spending on education (funny, then, that districts everywhere face huge budget gaps and are cutting programs). This past week he added a new talking point, telling us that we should blame school districts for cutting arts education because they are the ones making that choice. (For more on the etymology of this talking point, see yesterday’s piece, “The Governor’s Rash.”) And now Corbett tells us that if districts with reserve accounts cut those programs, “that’s their decision to do that, because they have the money in reserve, but the parents don’t know that.” [Delco Times, 5-16-12]

Wow. So now he not-so-subtly implies that school districts are trying to horde money and not tell parents about it? This is another tactic from the divide-and-conquer playbook and we will have none of it.

Right now school districts are making draconian cuts to essential but not legally required programs, like Kindergarten, because the state has left them with no alternative. Jim Buckheit of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, points to the abundance of research on the critical importance of early childhood education and says, “Most educators would rather get rid of high school before they got rid of kindergarten, but we’re mandated to have high school.”

While Corbett points his finger at local school board members, many of them are shaking their heads in disbelief at the empty bag the governor has left them holding. The Harrisburg school district announced yesterday that without state funding, they will eliminate Kindergarten, all athletics, and student transportation – and they will still have a $7-8 million budget gap next year. Harrisburg school board member Brendan Murray said, “This is absolutely insane, I never thought running for office we would have to say those [programs] are off the table.” [Penn Live, 5-16-12]

Insane is the right word for it. Irrational comes to mind. We can see through this new talking point, too, Governor Corbett. And it’s fiscally irresponsible.