The Elephant at the White House

So there we were at the White House. Forty “education leaders” from Pennsylvania invited to meet with President Obama’s senior policy advisors as well as top staff at the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). The room contained district superintendents, school board members, principals, college presidents, education professors, representatives from a host of education associations, a super-PAC school privatizer, educational consultants, and various non-profit directors. And one elephant.

This elephant in the room fittingly started as a Republican beast, but has gained so much traction with Democrats over the past decade that it could just as well have been a donkey lurking there in the corner. Whatever its animal form, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was casting a pretty big shadow and it was time to talk about the consequences of labeling our public schools as failures, high stakes testing, and the demonization of teachers.

And so during the first discussion session, I stood to address Roberto Rodriguez, the President’s senior policy advisor on education. I reminded him of what I had told him back in March, when I implored the White House to stop participating in the national narrative of failing public schools. (See “What I Told the White House.”) And then I gave him the view from the ground here in Pennsylvania where our grassroots movement has been fighting massive budget cuts, to let him know what it looks like when our country stops believing that public education is a public good. When it chooses to cut teachers, tutoring programs, nurses, special ed, school buses, music, art, foreign languages, and even Kindergarten.

NCLB has created a culture of punishment and fear, with student “achievement” measured by highly problematic standardized tests that don’t begin to assess real learning, and teachers evaluated on those test scores and little else. It has narrowed the focus in our schools to reading and math, jettisoned real education in favor of high stakes testing resulting in a plague of cheating scandals, and nurtured a system of “teaching to the test” on top of weeks of school time spent on test taking and nothing else. NCLB set a pie in the sky target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed.

All this supposed failure and blaming has served as convenient cover to gut public education in states like Pennsylvania, where Governor Corbett and the Republican controlled legislature acted as fast as they could to slash $1 billion from public schools, install voucher-like tax credit programs, and privatize struggling districts, handing their schools over to corporations run by their largest campaign donors. But they had plenty of help from the other side of the aisle, because faced with the relentless media barrage of the failing-narrative, far too many people have lost confidence in public education as a pillar of our democracy.

And this has been happening all across the United States, with the backing of mountains of ultra-right superPAC money and ALEC-inspired legislation as well as major new foundation players including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation. This is truly a national battle, and we can’t win this fight isolated in our trenches. We need tone-changing leadership from the top.

My report from the grassroots met with a rousing round of applause from attendees and was followed by a series of equally urgent remarks. Larry Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition warned that President Obama’s policies have looked nearly identical to Republicans on education (with the exception of vouchers, which he does not support) and that he may backfire at the polls with teachers and educators. Feinberg sits on the Haverford school board, a wealthy district near Philadelphia, and reminded the President’s staff that middle-class students in well-resourced schools actually score at the top on international tests. We are ignoring poverty while adding ever more testing, which will drastically expand yet again this year in his district and many others. Similarly, Susan Gobreski of Education Voters PA argued that we ought to have a new national narrative of equity, and that we have choices and need to help the public see that we can make different ones.

For their part, the White House advisors and senior USDE staff seemed to agree. Roberto Rodriguez emphasized that we “need more investment in public education, not less” with a focus on early childhood education, curriculum, wrap around programs, and parent engagement. He reported on the 300,000 teaching jobs lost in recent years, noting the economic implications for the U.S. and warned that sequestration – which will happen if congress does not head off looming mandatory budget cuts this fall – will mean billions of dollars cut to Title I, special ed, higher ed, and other student programs.

Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the USDE, talked about the fact that NCLB will be up for renewal next year, and that we here at the community level need to keep talking about “the lunacy that this law has allowed to perpetuate.” Yes, those were his actual words. Think about that. Of those Americans who say they are very familiar with NCLB, nearly half now say that the law has made things worse in this country (and only 28% say it’s better). (See “What the Polls Say.”) And here was the top brass at the USDE agreeing, calling the fallout from this federal law “lunacy.”

Deborah Delisle, USDE Assistant Secretary noted that 30 states have now applied for NCLB waivers to gain some flexibility in dealing with its ever more stringent requirements. However, Pennsylvania is not one of them. Many in the room expressed serious frustration with Governor Corbett’s apparent preference to have our schools labeled failures and refusal to seek relief through the waiver program. And it was readily apparent that the PA Department of Education declined to send anyone to this White House forum, which was hardly a meeting of Corbett’s political foes (after all, Students First PA was there: that’s the group that funnels superPAC millions to the campaigns of legislators who promise to deliver vouchers and give away public funds to private and religious schools through tax credit schemes.)

Delisle also commented on the polarizing effect that NCLB has had on our nation. It has created a climate in which those who embrace the corporate-marketplace-inspired reform mantra of choice, competition, and test-based accountability smear professional educators and public school advocates as “defenders of the status quo” who only care about union perks and not children. But this educational “reform” movement of the past decade has been a bit like the king’s new clothes. A wide swath of America has lined the parade route – Republican and Democrat alike – loudly cheering for the king’s beautiful new royal robes of privatization, but there’s nothing there covering his privates.

This “reform” movement is premised on a false idea that American schools have been in steady decline for the past forty years, which is not supported by the evidence. Despite ample data to the contrary, these reformers continue to insist that our students are falling further and further behind their international peers and promote the NCLB inspired narrative of failing public education. (For an excellent analysis of the data, see Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.) What’s more, they accuse those who point out the obvious – that privatization is not working, that charter schools and tax credits are draining our public coffers of desperately needed resources, that we have to address the astonishing high rate of child poverty – of being satisfied with the persistent racial achievement gap and using poverty as an excuse.

We are at a cross-roads with public education in our country. If we are going to get serious about making sure that every student has the opportunity to attend a great public school – “A school,” as Assistant Secretary Deborah Delisle said, “that every one of us would send our child to” – then we have to get serious about restoring this country’s belief in the public good of public education. It’s time to name the elephant in the room, have a serious conversation about overhauling NCLB, and make the choice to adequately and equitably fund our public schools.

Jessie Ramey of Yinzercation and Sherry Hazuda, President, Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, at the White House, 8-30-12

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White House policy advisors and USDE senior staff participants:

Kyle Lierman, White House Office of Public Engagement
Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy
David Bergeron, Acting Assistant Secretary, USDE
Miriam Calderon, Senior Advisor, White House Domestic Policy Council
Lexi Barret, Senior Policy Advisor, White House Domestic Policy Council
Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach, USDE
Deborah Delisle, Assistant Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, USDE
Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Office of the Secretary, Director, Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, USDE
Brenda Dann-Messier, Assistant Secretary, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, USDE
Steven Hicks, Special Assistant for Early Learning, USDE
Betsy Shelton, Director of Public Engagement, USDE

Back to School, Back to the White House

It’s that time of year again – many of us are sending kids back to school this week. And Yinzercation has been invited back to the White House! This Thursday the White House and the U.S. Department of Education will host an “Education Forum with Pennsylvania Leaders.” The group will meet with President Obama’s senior administration officials to discuss “education programs and initiatives, including specific conversations about K-12, higher education and other focus areas.”

Last time I was there, I shook my metaphorical finger at some of the President’s policy advisors and implored them to stop participating in the national narrative of “failing public schools.” Return this nation instead, I pleaded, to its long standing belief in public education as a public good. This time, I intend to share the consequences of what happens when we lose sight of the common good served by our schools.

I will have to tell the White House about the many hundreds of teachers who will not be heading back into the classroom here in Southwest Pennsylvania, and what that will be like for our students, those out-of-work education professionals and their families, and our local economy. I will tell them about larger classrooms, lost librarians and nurses, cancelled special ed and tutoring programs, gutted arts and foreign language curricula, slashed school bus services, and even reduced course offerings in core subjects like reading and math. And I will tell them about the ultra-right billionaires that have pumped mountains of money into superPACs funding politicians who promise to send our taxpayer dollars to private corporations and religious institutions while over a third of our local school districts have been forced to raise property taxes to pay for schools. [Post-Gazette, 7-15-12]

I will try to explain how families are bombarded with expensive ads and billboards on our highways from those superPACs and private charter schools promising to “rescue” their children. How great swaths of people in our region of every stripe and political persuasion have become convinced that there is something horribly wrong with public education, even though they have great faith in the actual schools in their own neighborhoods. [See "What the Polls Say"] And how the rhetoric of failing schools has served as cover to cut $1 billion from public education in Pennsylvania, to pass laws making it impossible to see what is going on inside charters and scholarship organizations, to set up new tax credit programs draining hundreds of millions more from the public coffers that could have been used for our schools.

But I will also tell the White House about our incredible grassroots movement. How quickly it has grown and how effective we have been. How ordinary people care passionately about their public schools and how we’ve fought the rhetoric of failure with the simple truth and a commitment to the social good served by our public goods. It’s back to school time. And it’s time for the White House to commit to sending all our students back to a great school, with adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for public education.

What the Polls Say

Two polls out in the past week show some surprising findings for public education with important implications for our grassroots movement here in Pennsylvania.

First, Americans are now clearly saying that the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act has made education worse, not better. [Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, 8-20-12] Overall, 29% of those polled said that the decade old law signed by President Bush has negatively impacted our schools, compared to 16% who thought it has improved them. But among those surveyed who said they are “very familiar” with the law, 48% said NCLB has made things worse, versus only 28% who said education is better.

No Child Left Behind has arguably been a policy fiasco. It massively expanded the federal government’s role in setting local school policy and established a national narrative of “failing public schools.” By focusing narrowly on student achievement – measured only by highly problematic standardized test scores – the law has created a highly punitive system, devalued teachers and educational professionals, villainized teachers’ unions, introduced a lucrative private system of “educational consultants” and businesses, promoted corporate-style reform anathema to the public good, and undermined the public’s faith in their schools.

What’s really interesting is how similar the responses to this recent poll were across political and class lines, and between those with and without a current K-12 child in the household. The bulk of respondents in every demographic felt that NCLB had “not made much difference.” However, with only one exception, those who feel the law has damaged education outnumber – sometimes by as much as two to one – those who feel the law has improved things. That means that Republicans, Democrats, independents, and a large swath of folks across class lines agree on public education policy. Despite a massive effort by the extreme right to polarize the issue, Americans remain largely on the same page when it comes to their schools.

The one exception was among those earning less than $30,000 who split about evenly between those saying things are worse or better under NCLB. This group has the lowest proportion (21%) of people who feel the law has been a problem, and the largest proportion (22%) who feel it has helped. This finding has important class – and probably racial – significance and reminds us that, despite its obvious flaws, NCLB has focused national attention on the most struggling students who are often poor and minorities.

Because NCLB has set the national dialogue over much of public education policy for the past decade, it is encouraging that there is generally such widespread agreement as to its results. And even more encouraging that a great many agree that it is time to dismantle the NCLB boondoggle. In fact, “[t]he results from this survey are in line with a January Gallup poll, which found that Americans tended to favor either eliminating the law or keeping it with heavy revisions. Just 21 percent of those surveyed said the law should be kept in its original form.” [Huffington Post, 8-21-12]

The PDK/Gallup poll also revealed that 48% of those surveyed gave the local schools in their communities an A or B rating – the highest in twenty years. Yet when asked about the general state of American education, only 18% gave public schools the same high grades, while 30% gave them a D or F. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls this “the real accomplishment of corporate reformers” who have been driving “an unprecedented, well-funded campaign to demonize public schools and their teachers over at least the past two year, and by some reckoning, even longer.” [Diane Ravitch, 8-22-12]

For Americans exposed to that constant drumbeat of failing-public-schools, it’s remarkable that any still show support for public education. Yet when asked about the school their oldest child attends, over three quarters – 77% – of respondents gave their school an A or B (and only 6% gave it a D or F). Again, this is the highest rating in twenty years. Ravitch points out that this question “elicit[ed] the views of informed consumers, the people who refer to a real school, not the hypothetical school system that is lambasted every other day in the national press.” [See Diane Ravitch’s excellent full analysis of the poll.]

So when you ask parents about the real schools in their own communities where their actual children go, they are overwhelmingly positive. Similarly, 71% said they have trust and confidence in their teachers, regardless of the incessant bashing they are subjected to in the national media. And perhaps the biggest news for our movement: by far the largest problem facing our schools identified by survey respondents is lack of financial support. Overall 35% identified this option, and among those parents with children in public schools, 43% chose this as the number one problem in education, far outweighing other issues (such as discipline, etc.).

Given this last statistic, it should come as no surprise that another poll last week found Governor Corbett’s approval rating continues to sink. [Franklin & Marshall poll, 8-16-12] Forty-two percent of respondents were unhappy with the governor’s performance, up three points from the last poll in June, while less than a third rated him favorably, remaining steady at 32 percent. What’s more, when asked to rank the most important problems facing Pennsylvania today, people listed education at number three, right behind “unemployment” and “government or politicians,” and right before “the economy,” and “taxes.”

In its analysis of the poll, PoliticsPa concluded “negative feelings toward the government or conceived poor handling of education (particularly with continued ire over college tuition increases and slashed spending for public schools) are likely to account for Corbett’s poor polling.” [PoliticsPA 8-16-12] Indeed. This poll also demonstrates how much Pennsylvanians care about their public schools and just how effective our grassroots movement has been in keeping the spotlight on funding for public education.

We would not see education on the number three spot of Pennsylvania’s concerns if we had not raised our collective voices. And our grassroots movement dovetails others across the country, pushing back against the narrative of failing schools, and helping people to see that our number one concern really is adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for our public schools. Our part in this local and national conversation is working, and we must keep it up!

Taking the Public out of Public Education

Talk about putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis just picked Joe Watkins to be the Chief Recovery Officer (CRO) for the struggling school district in Chester Uplands. Under new laws passed with the budget this summer, the state can now appoint a CRO to develop a “financial recovery plan” for districts like Chester Upland over in Eastern PA and Duquesne, right here in the heart of Yinzer Nation.

The CRO has enormous power to close schools and convert them to charters, to cancel contracts with vendors, and to renegotiate teachers’ contracts. He can even force local school boards to raise property taxes. And if school board members don’t go along with the plan, the state actually now has the ability to prevent individuals from resigning their posts! In an op-ed piece today, state representative Marc Gergely, a local Democrat from White Oak, points out that this is a violation of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and calls it “utterly ridiculous and a dangerous abuse of state power.” (See Gergely’s excellent piece, reprinted below, about why local taxpayers should care.)

Handing Joe Watkins this kind of power was just what Governor Corbett had in mind when he pushed these educational “reform” bills through the state legislature at the last minute back in June. Watkins has been the chairman of the super PAC, Students First PA, backed by the fortunes of mega-billionaire “school choice” activist, Betsy DeVos, and her national organization, the American Federation for Children (AFC). (See “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money” for more on DeVos, the AFC and her Pennsylvania super PAC.) Over the past three years, DeVos and her colleagues, who include the ultra-right-wing Koch brothers, have funneled $2.5 million into Pennsylvania politics through this PAC alone.

Their investment has paid off big time. Governor Corbett appointed Joel Greenberg, an AFC board member and hedge fund trader from Philadelphia, to be on his education transition team. Greenberg is also one of the principle donors to the Students First PA super PAC, which spent this past spring handing out huge contributions to pro-voucher candidates. And now Corbett’s education secretary has tapped the PAC’s chairman to raid, er, watch the henhouse.

Watkins will oversee a school district where almost half the students already attend charter schools. In fact, Chester Uplands is home to the state’s largest charter school, Chester Community Charter, run by Vahan Gureghian’s management company. Remember him? Gureghian is Gov. Corbett’s single largest campaign donor – and another member of his education transition team – who has collected over $60 million in public taxpayer dollars through his charter management company, but has been fighting a right-to-know lawsuit for the past six years to prevent the public from learning his actual salary. Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Gureghian recently purchased two Florida beachfront lots for $28.9 million where they plan to build a 20,000 square foot “French-inspired Monte Carlo estate.” [See “Soaking the Public”.]

Watkins, in his new role as Chester Uplands CRO, will have plenty of opportunity to charterize more of the district’s public schools and there will be little the local school board can do to stop him. State Sen. Daylin Leach, a member of the Senate’s education committee, called Watkins an ideologue and the wrong choice to rebuild a strong public school system, saying, “It would have been hard to come up with a nominee who is more publicly associated with the effort to undermine public education.” [Newsworks.org 8-20-12]

I’ll point out again that not all charter schools are necessarily bad – especially those run by nonprofits, with locally controlled boards accountable to the public, and who hire accredited teachers and pay them fair wages. But student achievement at charter schools has been a mixed bag, despite years of promises that they would revolutionize education. In Chester Upland, some charter schools performed better and some performed worse than their traditional school peers, though Vahan Gureghian’s Chester Community Charter is on the state’s short list under investigation for possible cheating on the PSSAs.

As Lawrence Feinberg, a school board member in Haverford Township in Delaware County, aptly explains: “After 20 years there is no clear evidence demonstrating that charters or vouchers are systematically more effective than traditional public schools in improving student performance for students in high-poverty schools. What is clear is that charters can be extremely lucrative for owners and management companies.” [Keystone State Education Coalition, 8-21-12]

Watkins is now in a powerful position to force public funding into private hands. And other districts across the state – including Duquesne, York, and Harrisburg – will soon be getting their own CROs. Those of us who care about our public schools are going to have to fight hard to keep the public in public education.

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Failing grade for Corbett / A new law stomps on the rights of the Duquesne school district and others

State Rep. Marc Gergely, D-White Oak [Post-Gazette Op-Ed, 8-22-12]

The financial crisis in the Duquesne City School District should have been a wake-up call to state government that comprehensive education reform is needed immediately. Instead, Gov. Tom Corbett recently signed a new law written by legislative Republicans that stomps on the local rights of financially distressed school districts, like Duquesne and possibly Clairton and Jeannette in the future.

Property taxpayers in neighboring school districts should be worried, too. You could be on the hook for thousands of dollars for every student transferring into your district.

The bill passed with the state budget, which locked in last year’s unprecedented $1 billion in cuts to public schools and provided $49 million for the state’s 16 distressed school districts. But the extra money came with a huge catch. It’s now much easier for the state to take over a school district.

The bill narrowly passed the House despite strong opposition from some legislators, including me, in communities that will be harmed.

This school year, the state Education Department, will spend $6 million to appoint a chief recovery officer to replace boards of control in Duquesne, Chester-Upland, Harrisburg and York. Eventually the state could take control of up to nine school districts at one time.

Each CRO will have enormous power to develop and implement a financial recovery plan. Regardless of what’s in the best educational interests of students, the CRO can close schools or convert traditional public schools into nonprofit or for-profit charter schools. For Duquesne, that’s a huge obstacle. It’s so underfunded that charter schools avoid coming here. There’s no profit to earn.

However, changes are coming for Duquesne students before a CRO is named. After months of refusing to discuss Duquesne’s future, Education Secretary Ron Tomalis in early July told the West Mifflin Area and East Allegheny school districts to expect seventh and eighth graders from Duquesne.

Taxpayers in those districts will feel it, too. West Mifflin Area says it gets only about $11,000 to educate each Duquesne student, but the real cost is closer to $14,000. West Mifflin Area’s property taxpayers will pick up the difference.

First, property owners had to endure tax hikes because of massive state funding cuts, now they could be paying to educate students from other school districts.

In the name of saving money, a CRO has even more power, such as cancelling agreements with vendors and renegotiating teachers’ contracts. Most striking of all, the law can force a locally elected school board to vote to raise school property taxes. If it refuses, the state will go to court to appoint a receiver who will force through a tax hike.

The CRO even has the authority to prevent a school board member from resigning, which violates the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That’s utterly ridiculous and a dangerous abuse of state power.

Schools like Duquesne are struggling financially because communities lack the tax base to support them. Raising taxes makes the situation worse and delays the inevitable and more difficult decisions for a few more years.

That could eventually force other struggling districts like Clairton and Jeannette to send students to Elizabeth Forward, West Jefferson Hills, Penn-Trafford, Hempfield Area or Norwin.

We must do more than this misguided state takeover plan that’s not in the best interest of any school district. Ultimately, it fails to address the real issues, the true cost of educating diverse student populations and the fact that some communities lack the tax base to support quality schools.

We have an obligation to ensure every child in our community has access to a first-class education. Our decisions will affect each student’s education and ultimately the course of many lives. Instead of punishing communities with limited means by forcing a state takeover, we should work toward a fairer funding formula to allow all schools to be successful, regardless of their ZIP code.

Define Failing

It’s politically hot right now to talk about “failing” schools. To hear many legislators and school “reformers” tell the story, public education in the U.S. is circling the drain. Did you see Michelle Rhee’s obnoxious Olympic spoof ad? Remember the nasty radio campaign back in June, funded by the ultra-conservative and mega-rich Koch brothers, pushing the narrative of “students trapped in failing schools”? [See “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”] But the rhetoric of failure is not only misleading (and sometimes flat out wrong), it is having disastrous consequences on our schools.

The latest example of this comes courtesy of Pennsylvania’s recently expanded EITC corporate tax giveaway. The misnamed Educational Improvement Tax Credit program now has a companion called the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program, which is premised on the notion that our public schools are failures and that students must be rescued from them. To do this, the program borrows from the federal government’s No Child Left Behind, which has been labeling schools as failures for the past decade under one of the nation’s largest policy fiascoes. Under the new EITC program, Pennsylvania has developed a list of 415 “failing schools” and created a voucher-like system allowing students living near them to take public tax-payer money to go to private schools. (Students can also go to another public school in a different district, if they will accept them – more on that later).

But the whole system rests on faulty logic. First, the list of supposedly “low achieving” schools is deeply flawed. Published at the end of July by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the list uses results from the 2010-2011 PSSAs (standardized state tests given to all public school students in grades 3 – 8 and 11) to identify the bottom 15% of schools based on reading and math scores. [PDE list of “failing” schools.] However, a full third of the schools on that list actually reached their student achievement targets set by the state and federal government.

Yes, that’s right, a third of the schools on the state’s list made AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) or were “making progress” under the definition of No Child Left Behind. [See our annotated chart below from the Pennsylvania School Board Association’s analysis.] Those numbers hold true here in Yinzer Nation: in the ten counties of Southwest PA, 22 out of the 73 schools listed – 30% – made AYP or were showing progress. That includes both the schools identified as “failing” in Green and Butler counties, one of the two schools in Beaver county, and six of the sixteen in Fayette county. (There was one school on the list from Washington county, and no schools identified in Armstrong, Indiana, Lawrence or Westmoreland counties.)

What’s more, of the 13 supposedly “failing” schools in Allegheny county, seven of them have already closed. (Noted red on the above chart; see PPS 2012-2013 realignment plan.) Those seven schools accounted for over a quarter of the list (7/27) of Pittsburgh Public Schools. And eight of the 27 PPS schools also made AYP or were “making progress.” Again, that’s 30% of the list in the city of Pittsburgh. As the Pennsylvania School Board Association points out, “Labeling these schools as low-achieving when they have met the student achievement standards set by the state and federal government functions to create two separate and conflicting measurements for student achievement.” [PSBA 7-27-12]

If the state is really interested in rescuing students from failing schools, why didn’t it include charter schools on that list? Only two of Pennsylvania’s 12 cyber charter schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress status last year, and seven have never made AYP at all. (For details on charter school performance, see “Dueling Rallies.”) 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. [Stanford/CREDO report summary, 2011] Shouldn’t the state be rescuing students from these low-achieving charter schools?

The fact that the state just approved four new cyber charters suggests that this isn’t really about saving students from failing schools at all. Indeed, under the new EITC scholarship program, students need never have actually attended a failing school in order to take public money to a private institution. The law is written so that students only have to live in the attendance area for a school on the low-achieving list – they may never have even set foot in the building!

And Governor Corbett and his allies in the legislature have made sure that no one can look too closely at the results of the new EITC program. The scholarship organizations have no auditing requirements and almost no reporting requirements (despite the fact that they can take 20% of donations for their own administration), and there is no way for the public to learn if the scholarships actually help students in any way. “In fact,” the Pennsylvania School Board Association explains, “the EITC law prohibits state administrators from requesting any information related to academic achievement, making it impossible to measure the effectiveness of the program.” [PSBA 7-27-12] So students could be attending failing private schools with these scholarships – but since private schools do not have to administer the PSSAs, we would never know.

And then there’s the pesky problem that EITC diverts our public funds meant for public education – where those resources could actually address student achievement issues. But with draconian state budget cuts, school districts have been forced to cut even basic tutoring programs while continuing to be on the hook for students who leave. For example, there is no limit to how far away an EITC student can go with their publicly-subsidized “scholarship,” and the student’s home school district is legally obligated to provide transportation for up to ten miles. It’s no wonder local school districts are not buying into this program. Even those that did not appear on the state’s list – and could volunteer to receive students from “low achieving” schools – have shown little interest (only two have signed up in the whole state so far, and none in Southwest PA).

Interviewed by the Tribune-Review, Wilkinsburg School District Superintendent Archie Perrin “said the tax credit program is yet another means of siphoning needed resources from districts — particularly those with high percentages of students from low-income households — which already contend with declining state revenue.” [Tribune-Review, 7-27-12] And West Mifflin Area Superintendent Daniel Castagna explained that his district would not participate in EITC because “it’s a blatant attempt to privatize public education.” He and 23 other Allegheny County school superintendents had a conference call last week, and the majority concluded “that the opportunity scholarships would not help public school districts.” [Post-Gazette, 8-18-12]

The EITC program is clearly not about what is best for students. It is about giving corporations huge tax breaks while sending public dollars to private and religious schools, doing an end-run around our own state constitution and draining our public schools of desperately needed resources. It’s about labeling schools as failing and then using the rhetoric of failure to legitimatize the privatization of public education. Now that’s an epic failure.

A Vampiric Budget

Debated deep in the chambers of the Capitol Building, and signed by Governor Corbett into law near midnight on June 30th, the 2012-2013 Pennsylvania state budget has emerged into the sunlight over the past six weeks where the details sparkle. And not in a good way.

The implications of this budget – plus the Governor’s associated educational “reform” policies introduced this summer – are now quite clear. They threaten to continue sucking the lifeblood out of public schools. Yet there’s good news for our movement too: turns out our grassroots were planted in a patch of strong garlic and we’ve held some of the worst policies at bay. Here’s where we stand:

Flat funding = less funding. The new budget “level funds” K-12 education, essentially providing the same funding as last year’s budget. Our statewide outrage over Gov. Corbett’s proposed cuts to early childhood and Kindergarten preserved the $100 million block grant program. This is a major victory, but the flat funding effectively locks in the devastating $1 billion cuts the legislature made in 2011. And due to natural inflation, flat funding really means less funding, since school district costs for everything from electricity to toilet paper continue to go up.

16 districts get a little help. The legislature approved an additional $40 million to help 16 school districts in financial distress. The irony here, of course, is that many of those districts reached “distressed” status precisely because of state budget cuts. In Southwest Pennsylvania, the following three school districts will receive a total of $1.25 million in aid: Steel Valley ($559,026) and Sto-Rox ($440,974) in Allegheny County, and Jeannette City ($250,000) in Westmoreland County. I won’t sneeze at $1.25 million for those struggling schools, but to put it in perspective: the Governor and his allies in the legislature have slashed $172 million from school districts in this part of the state. So we’re still about $170.75 million short.

Cruel cuts elsewhere. Governor Corbett wanted to slash human services by 20%, but got away with 10% cuts to mental health, help for the homeless, and programs for people with intellectual disabilities. And he did nothing for public transit. These programs affect many families, their students, and ultimately our schools.

Corporations get more. What’s worse, these cuts come at the same time that the Governor and his allies continue to give away our public funds – our commonwealth – to private corporations. As expected, the legislature refused to halt the ongoing phase-out of the capital stock and franchise tax, costing us taxpayers another $275 million over two years. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center explains that this “is part of a decade-long pattern that will see the commonwealth spending $2.4 billion on corporate tax breaks in the new budget. That amount has tripled over the last 10 years and does not count the hundreds of millions of dollars lost annually to corporate tax loopholes.” And it’s mostly giant corporations that benefit from these tax giveaways, without any obligation to actually create jobs. [PBPC 2012-2013 Budget Analysis]

EITC gives away even more. The worst news by far is the “voucher in disguise” package that passed with this budget. Governor Corbett has succeeded in expanding the horribly misnamed “Educational Improvement Tax Credit” program, benefiting businesses that make donations to organizations that, in turn, make scholarships for students attending private schools. The giveaway funnels $100 million (up from $75 million) in public money to private and religious schools. And it creates a new $50 million program for students living in the attendance boundaries of “low-achieving schools,” as defined by the state. [See “2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?”] Even more depressing, the state has made sure there is scant public accountability for these giveaway programs with a 2005 law preventing the collection of any meaningful data on expenditures or student outcomes. And we’ve just learned that state Representative Jim Christiana, the Republican from Beaver who introduced the new EITC program, has received $170,000 from “school choice” super-PACs. [BeaverCountian.com, 7-30-12] We’ll be hearing a lot more about the influence of big money on our educational policies this fall for sure.

Charter schools expand. In another victory for our grassroots movement, we prevented Governor Corbett from pushing through his “state authorizer,” which would have wrested control from local school districts and allowed the state alone to authorize the formation of new charter schools. For now. The Governor has made it clear that this is a top priority for him this fall, so we can be sure to see it again. [Philly.com, 7-4-12] Corbett said he will also try again for legislation stripping the ability of local people to prevent the conversion of public schools into charter schools. [Delco Times, 7-1-12] And despite massive evidence that cyber-charter schools in particular are sucking up far more public dollars than it actually costs them to educate students, the legislature put off addressing the seriously flawed funding formula. [See “Trouble Seeing the Money” and “One Million Per Day” for details.] Yet within days of passing the budget, the state approved four new cyber charter schools, all with offices in Philadelphia, bringing the total number in Pennsylvania to sixteen. [Post-Gazette, 7-9-12]

Lax charter school regulations.  Meanwhile, the FBI has been busy investigating the Beaver County based PA Cyber School the past few weeks, as we’ve learned about millions in public dollars flowing to a network of businesses run by colleagues of the school’s founder, Nick Trombetta. [Post-Gazette, 7-15-12] To its credit, the state did tighten up charter school ethics rules, so that board members and employees are now covered by state Ethics Laws, and the charters will be required to make their annual audits public. [PBPC Education Policy Changes] But it also exempted charter school teachers from new mandates that will require various measurements of student achievement to be taken into consideration when evaluating teacher effectiveness. [Post-Gazette, 7-5-12] And the current Charter School Appeals Board is being replaced with an administrative staff that will oversee charter schools; this means that charter schools denied a charter by local school districts can now appeal to the administration and, if successful, remain under the oversight of this state entity.

In addition, the House passed, but the Senate rejected, an amendment that would have excluded companies doing business with charter schools from our Right-To-Know laws. [Philly.com, 7-5-12] Lawrence Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition explains, “That means that taxpayers would not have the right to see the budgets, check registers, payroll records or other financial records for facilities that they are paying for. [We] would not have the right to know the salaries of teachers, administrators, superintendents, or, for that matter, CEOs paid by a management company.  In contrast, these are all things that traditional school districts are required to provide by law.” ["Shameless..." 7-6-12] These are clearly efforts to do an end-run around real public accountability.

We have our work cut out for us. But we’ve built an incredible grassroots movement here in Pennsylvania dedicated to great public schools for all students, with adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding. We will keep fighting the demons of school privatization. Now if we could just enlist a few friendly werewolves…