Top 10 Success List

It’s that time of the year for Top 10 lists. Today is also the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year, and the day when we celebrate the return of light. In 2012 we continued to see real threats to public education, and plenty of frustration and disappointment, but it has also been a year full of light – the kind that shines when people pull together and work for equity, social justice, our children, and the public good. This is a good time to remember our successes and achievements, a year when our grassroots movement:

  1. Saved $100 million from being cut in this year’s state education budget. [“A Vampiric Budget”] This was a true state-wide victory and a clear demonstration of the power of our grassroots voices when we work together. And by saving that money, we preserved early childhood and Kindergarten programs.
  2. Prevented vouchers, Governor Corbett’s much coveted legislation. This is a particularly big deal when you consider how desperately the corporate-reform-movement wants this key privatization bill, which would send public dollars to private and religious schools: some of the wealthiest people on the planet poured millions into our state trying to secure vouchers. [“The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly”] But we prevailed.
  3. Rallied 250 people outside in a February snowstorm … and then just kept growing. [“250 Rally in a Snowstorm”] Strong voices have been speaking out for public education for some time, but this year saw the real birth of a movement, with hundreds and then thousands of people throughout Southwest Pennsylvania coming together to fight for our schools. We held sidewalk parties to call our legislators [“Yinzer Nation is on the Phone”]; mock bake sales to protest budget cuts and corporate giveaways [“Our (Grass) Roots are Showing”]; and candlelight vigils for the teachers lost to those budget decisions [“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”]. Yinzercation is proud to be a part of this movement, and we now regularly reach over 1,200 blog subscribers and Facebook users.
  4. Gained national attention. When we broke the news that the Pittsburgh Opera planned to give Governor Corbett a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to education, our protest went viral, garnering media coverage from coast to coast. Our Operatic Rally also received wide media attention, including not one but two political cartoons by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Rob Rogers. [“Encore! Encore!”] And many of our pieces have been published in the national media and re-blogged on websites across the county, allowing our voices to join the broader conversation. [See the “Media” tab.] Just two days ago, our article on “Teacher Heroes” got picked up by AlterNet.org, where it has already been shared on Facebook over 1,800 times.
  5. Defended democracy. The Governor and far too many Pennsylvania legislators tried to pass a “state-authorizer,” which would have removed control from local, democratically elected school boards and allowed the state to charter schools. This legislation, which centralizes power with state political appointees, has been introduced in other states as part of the corporate-style reform agenda and blocking it here was a real win. We also successfully fought back against efforts to exempt charter schools from our state’s Right to Know Laws: these were blatant attempts to hide charter school operators from public scrutiny. [“A Victory”] These achievements were in the policy weeds, and we should be especially proud of energizing our networks around such seemingly dry issues – that wind up having a huge impact on us all.
  6. Sparked a Manchester Miracle. We filled empty school library shelves with thousands of donated books and launched a community movement to create a beautiful new space for Pittsburgh Manchester K-8, while calling attention to persistent equity issues. The Miracle received widespread media coverage, including a front-page article in the paper, and continues even now as volunteers work to fill more empty school library shelves. [“The Manchester Miracle.”]
  7. Engaged student voices. When kids talk, adults listen; and when students advocate for public education their voices are empowering. Students traveled to Harrisburg with A+School’s TeenBloc program to talk about equity [“Valentines & Love for Public Schools”]; others worked with Carlow University’s Youth and Media Advocacy Project to design billboards and bus shelter ads protesting state budget cuts [“A Sign in Harrisburg”]; and a “WriteNow!” event sponsored in partnership with the Western PA Writers Project at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum attracted hundreds of children with their parents to engage in advocacy for public education [“Writing Back”].
  8. Exposed the money trail leading from extraordinarily wealthy, out-of-state donors to political campaigns here in Southwest PA. [“It’s Raining Money”] We linked that same money and agenda to state policy efforts, such as the push for parent-trigger laws brought here by the ultra-right makers of the film, “Won’t Back Down.” [“We Won’t Back Down, Either”]
  9. Built networks with community partners. Our movement succeeds because we work closely with organizations such as the ones mentioned above, as well as groups of advocates in places like the Steel Valley and South Fayette. We’ve partnered with the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) and OnePittsburgh at the local level; joined forces with other grassroots groups across Pennsylvania; and worked at the state level with Education Voters PA. Nationally, we’ve connected with Parents Across America, United Opt Out, and others. [See the “Resources” tab.]
  10. Earned recognition from the White House, with two invitations to meet with the President’s senior policy advisors. [“The Elephant at the White House”] From testimony before County Council [“UPMC’s Fair Share”] to talking with the chief power brokers in Washington, D.C., we are making our voices for public education heard.

Yinzercation is going on a brief winter break to hibernate with some cookies, but we’ll be back in the New Year, ready to start on a new Top 10 list of achievements in this incredible grassroots movement for our public schools.

 

Help grow our grassroots movement for public education: join other volunteer parents, students, educators, and concerned community members by subscribing to Yinzercation. Enter your email address and hit the “Sign me up” button to get these pieces delivered directly to your inbox and encourage your networks to do the same. Really. Can you get five of your friends to subscribe? Working together we can win this fight for our schools.

Corporate Grinches

It’s legal – for now – but it stinks. Corporations are rushing to stuff their stockings with our public tax dollars before the New Year when the law changes. Right now companies are allowed to buy giant office buildings here in Pittsburgh without paying a penny in deed transfer taxes, which means millions in lost revenue for the school district, city, and state. These corporate Grinches are stealing public education.

Last year, a New York group under investor Mark Karasick bought the U.S. Steel Tower – one of the signature pieces of our downtown skyline – for $250 million. [Post-Gazette, 11-17-11] Using an “89-11” tax loophole, the real estate investors agreed to purchase 89% of the property up front, then the remaining 11% in three years time, handily avoiding the deed transfer tax. Because the school district receives 1% from this tax, that particular transaction cost Pittsburgh Public Schools $2.5 million right at the very moment Governor Corbett was brutally slashing the education budget. Two and a half million dollars could have saved a lot of those teaching jobs the District was forced to eliminate.

These things have been going on for years, with legislators crafting tax policies full of holes and then looking the other way as corporations moved in to take full advantage of these gifts from the public coffers. The U.S. Steel Tower sale tipped the scales, however, and State Senator Jim Ferlo (a Democrat from Highland Park) introduced an amendment to close the 89-11 loophole. I applaud Senator Ferlo and our state legislature for moving on this bill, and Governor Corbett for signing it into law this past summer. At the time, Senator Ferlo said, “We must not tolerate overt tax avoidance policies in the tax code that let big business off the hook and leave everyone else holding the bag.” [Post-Gazette, 7-12-12] I agree, and would add that those ultimately left holding an empty bag are our kids, whose public schools are being actively de-funded.

Unfortunately, the 89-11 rule doesn’t disappear until January 1st, so investors had a strong incentive to get their holiday shopping done early this year and close on some big real estate transactions. Another New York firm, KKR & Co. LP just bought the Del Monte Center office building over on the North Shore for $52 million. KKR also acquired the Del Monte company itself last year, so the investment firm is now a major corporate citizen of this city. But they won’t be handing over a dime in transfer taxes to our schools, which means a loss of over a half a million dollars for public education in Pittsburgh. [Post-Gazette, 12-19-12] Too bad their idea of corporate citizenship is to bilk taxpayers and our students of desperately needed revenue.

And KKR has some company. The group that just sold them the Del Monte building is selling another six-story office building on the North Shore: the California investment group IRA Realty Capital is buying the Equitable building for $31 million. This deal will cost Pittsburgh taxpayers over $300,000 in lost money for our schools. [Post-Gazette, 12-19-12] That’s a lot of library books for our ten schools that had empty shelves at the beginning of this school year.

Ah, but wait, it gets worse. The Del Monte and Equitable buildings were both owned by a real estate group contracted by the Steelers and the Pirates to manage the development of property between the two new stadiums. That group, the Continental Real Estate Cos. from Columbus, Ohio, received millions in taxpayer-funded infrastructure upgrades on the North Shore to support the development work. Ira Weiss, lawyer for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, notes that, “These developers come to the taxing bodies, extract concessions from them in the way of tax increment financing and other devices, then turn around and put a dagger in the back of these taxing bodies when they have a chance.” City Controller Michael Lamb called it a “slap in the face.” [Post-Gazette, 12-19-12] I’ll say. These two transactions alone constituted nearly a one million dollar slap in the face to every single student in Pittsburgh.

And KKR & Co. and IRA Realty Capital can welcome another corporate scrooge to their ranks. Highwoods Properties of North Carolina, which already owns PPG Place, just bought the EQT Plaza skyscraper downtown for $99.2 million. Crossing that sale off its wish list before the January 1st deadline means Highwoods will not pay our schools close to one million dollars. [Post-Gazette, 12-19-12] You know, a million here, a million there, and suddenly you are talking about real money.

If only the season had our corporate citizens in more of a giving mood. Of course, they are only doing what is legal (for the next two weeks). And really, they are only doing what our legislators allowed them to get away with until recently. This is how companies are supposed to behave – they are beholden to their shareholders and not to the communities that host them or offer them sweet deals to set up shop. They will find every tax loophole and even petition to lower their property assessment, as Rivers Casino is doing now, to try to reduce their obligations to our city and schools. (See “Rivers Casino’s Fair Share” on how this will cost Pittsburgh schools another $3 million.)

Corporations do not exist for the public good, but our legislators are supposed to: we must insist that our representatives protect our schools. The way things are going, the Pittsburgh school district is facing bankruptcy in 2015. [Post-Gazette, 12-5-12] It’s time for all corporations to pay their fair share. If you want to join the chorus of voices calling for just this, please come to the press conference today on the North Shore at 2:30PM to demand that Rivers Casino makes good on its promise to the students of Pittsburgh. Bring your little Cindy-Loo Whos. Even the Grinch had a change of heart.

Teacher Heroes

I didn’t want to send my kids to school this morning. After the shootings on Friday at Sandy Hook elementary, I suspect like many parents across the country I just wanted to keep my kids by my side and not let them out of my sight. With the horrifying news all over the media this weekend, I talked to our boys a little about what happened, mostly to assure them that they would be OK in their own school.

“Mr. Sikorski keeps your school very safe,” I told them. That’s their principal, and as I said it, I had to fight back tears thinking about the Sandy Hook principal who literally gave her life for her students. “Your teachers care about you and will keep you safe,” I reassured them. They seemed satisfied with my explanation and went out the door to the school bus this morning with confidence like any other day, but I could not get the image of teachers fighting for their students out of my head. These are the teachers we send our children off to every day, asking them to shape and nurture young minds. We never ask teachers to pledge their lives for our kids, but now we know what those trusted adults would do in the most terrifying of situations: an entire building of teachers and staff demonstrated just how clever, cunning, bold, fearless, and courageous they would be in defense of their students.

Reporter Dave Lindorff noted in a column yesterday that the Newtown, CT school board had a $1 million budget cutting plan last year and is currently debating eliminating the elementary school’s music and library programs. Yet those music and library teachers stayed with their students and protected them during the attack. And all of the Sandy Hook teachers are members of the American Federation of Teachers. [Nation of Change, 12-16-12]

There are far too many people in the current corporate-style reform movement pointing fingers at teachers and their unions, blaming them for all of our public education woes. (The head of Tea Party Nation actually just blamed “radical” teachers and unions for the Sandy Hook massacre itself. [Right Wing Watch, 12-17-12]) After a lecture I gave on our grassroots movement yesterday, someone in the audience came up to ask me, “But don’t we need to get rid of all the bad teachers?” Another person asked, “In light of Friday’s shooting, why aren’t you talking about the problem with school security?” Now we are hearing that the Sandy Hook shooter broke his way into the school and that the principal and staff had a well-rehearsed security plan. [Post-Gazette, 12-17-12]

When I look at our public schools, I do not see a security crisis (though surely schools ought to have a security plan and follow it). I do not see a crisis of bad teaching (though we surely ought to be offering “bad” teachers some assistance, and helping others to exit the profession when teaching is not their right life choice). I do not see a crisis of radical teachers or greedy teachers unions.

We surely have a crisis of gun control and mental health services in this country. But the real crisis in public education is about a lost belief in the public good. It’s a crisis of faith in the common good served by our schools. The forces of privatization feed on that lost faith, insisting that we close more neighborhood schools and hand others over to charter management companies, that we introduce more competition and choice, that we hold teachers and schools “accountable” for low student test scores by punishing them. It’s that lost faith that allows legislators to slash education budgets and forces school districts to eliminate music and library programs for our kids. When we stop believing in public education as a public good, we allow our public tax dollars to flow to private schools and giant international corporations while we demand more and more tests without asking if our students are really learning anything.

When I look at our schools, I see teachers heroically trying to teach our students – without the resources they need, with mind-numbing canned curricula and prepping for high-stakes testing forced upon them, in classrooms with ever larger numbers of kids. I’m pretty darn sure that the vast majority of our nation’s teachers are heroes every single day. That’s why I let my kids get on the bus this morning. And that’s why – even with tears running down my cheeks for those kids, those teachers, those families – I return to the fight for our public schools.

 

Help grow our grassroots movement for public education: join other volunteer parents, students, educators, and concerned community members by subscribing to Yinzercation. Enter your email address and hit the “Sign me up” button to get these pieces delivered directly to your inbox and encourage your networks to do the same. Really. Can you get five of your friends to subscribe? Working together we can win this fight for our schools.

Students and Sequestration

When students speak, we need to listen. And when students advocate for their own public education, their voices speak truth to power. Yesterday, two Pittsburgh students made themselves heard loud and clear with eloquent letters to the editor about the impact of budget cuts on our schools. (See full text at the bottom of this post.)

Both students were speaking specifically about the looming federal tax and spending cuts that will come with sequestration. That’s the “fiscal cliff” that we’ve been hearing so much about – which, according to economists is actually the wrong metaphor, since it is more of a slope – that will trigger automatic, across the board budget cuts to departments including education, unless Congress gets its act in gear and makes a deal. Those cuts would be felt starting next fall, for the 2013-14 academic year, and would hit programs such as Title I and Head Start, which provide support for low income students.

The Pittsburgh Public School District alone estimates that it will lose $3.5 million next year if sequestration takes effect. That’s an 8.2% decrease in funding that it simply cannot afford, and would take a huge bite out of direct support for equity programs. [Post-Gazette, 11-20-12] I applaud the Pittsburgh Public School Board, which took a stand a few weeks ago and passed a resolution opposing sequestration. This Board has not been terribly vocal on many policy issues affecting public education, and this could signal a welcome change as we all stand together for our schools.

Federal funds account for only about ten cents out of each dollar for most school districts. But as with most budget cuts, some of the poorest districts will be hit the hardest. (To view the impact of sequestration on your school district, see this data which I have pulled from an analysis performed by the American Association of School Administrators: Impact of Sequestration on PA School Districts.) And while both of the students writing letters yesterday to the Post-Gazette are rightfully worried about the potential loss of federal dollars, they also expressed a real understanding of what is happening to our public schools.

Angelina Winbush, a senior from Bloomfield, tutors students in a Pittsburgh Public School that lacks enough textbooks for children to take home to study. “Inadequate funding for education is not only causing a textbook shortage,” she said, “it is causing art programs to vanish, teachers to be laid off, schools to close and students to drop out.” Winbush argues, “Education is not a gift — it is an investment in our nation’s future.”

Lamar Shields, a Pittsburgh Public School graduate from Homewood, now attends Community College of Allegheny County and hopes to transfer to the University of Pittsburgh to study child psychology. He writes, “Our schools need enough support to keep class sizes small and higher education needs to be affordable.” He worries that additional budget cuts “may cause teacher layoffs, and consequently larger classes, leading to less attention and support for students.” Both of these students argue that it’s time to allow the Bush era tax cuts for the top 2% of earners in this country to expire.

Wise words from two young people. Our legislators had better be listening.

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Invest in education, not in top earners

In response to “Little Movement Is Made on Fiscal Cliff Budget Talks” (Dec. 7), instead of extending the Bush tax cuts for the highest-earning 2 percent, we can better serve our nation by investing in education.

As an active volunteer within the Somali refugee community in Pittsburgh, I have spent much time helping Somali students with their homework. One of my regular students whom I tutor is a 10th grader studying at her neighborhood Pittsburgh public high school, working toward her dream of becoming teacher. She is incredibly studious and takes academics seriously.

I was surprised to learn during a tutoring session that her school has an insufficient number of books and thus does not allow students to take textbooks home. Inadequate funding for education is not only causing a textbook shortage, it is causing art programs to vanish, teachers to be laid off, schools to close and students to drop out.

Education is not a gift — it is an investment in our nation’s future. But as long as only our suburban and private schools can afford new books, science equipment and educational innovations, our country is at risk of being left in the dust by countries that have fully recognized the role of public and nationally subsidized education in creating a strong economy. We must fight to end the Bush administration tax cuts for the top 2 percent so that a good education is not a privilege but an opportunity for all.

ANGELINA WINBUSH
Bloomfield
The writer is a high school senior.

Help the students

I am a recent graduate of Pittsburgh Public Schools and a student at Community College of Allegheny County, and I am extremely concerned about the potential cuts to education. Our schools need enough support to keep class sizes small and higher education needs to be affordable.

When I was in elementary and high school, there was at least a handful of kids in most classes who would act up and distract other kids in the class. Kids act out when they’re confused or behind. Sometimes I was one of those kids. I didn’t learn everything I was supposed to learn.

I’ve been a student at CCAC for three years, and I have overcome tremendous obstacles to make it this far. I am finally really learning how to study effectively. My vision is to transfer to the University of Pittsburgh and become a child psychologist.

I want to help children where I went wrong, but there are potential federal cuts to education that would compromise my dream of students being well-supported and able to afford higher education. These cuts may cause teacher layoffs, and consequently larger classes, leading to less attention and support for students. Such cuts would also slash certain programs that make college financially feasible for some students.

Instead of cutting education or any of the programs that strengthen our communities, like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other human services, we should allow the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent of earners to expire.

LAMAR SHIELDS
Homestead

International Test Panic

Stay calm and don’t panic. You’re about to start seeing a whole new wave of alarmist rhetoric over the state of U.S public education with the release yesterday of two new international tests. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS, conducted every 5 years) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, conducted every 4 years) both just announced their 2011 results. [TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center]

This is where headlines, such as the one in today’s Post-Gazette, start to scream things like “U.S. Students Still Lag Globally in Math and Science, Tests Show.” Then the hand-wringing commences over the fact that the U.S. ranks behind South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan (in fact, these tests put us 11th in fourth-grade math, 9th in eighth-grade math, 7th in fourth-grade science and 10th in eighth-grade science). [Post-Gazette, 12-12-12] But the headlines and articles inevitably fail to mention several key points.

First, the U.S. has never been at the top of these comparative tests. In fact, in the 1960s when the first international math and science tests were conducted, U.S. students scored at the bottom in nearly every category. Over the past fifty years, U.S. students have actually improved – not declined as so many of the pundits would have you believe. [For an excellent summary and analysis, see Yong Zhao, 12-11-12] Rather than falling behind our international peers, U.S. students have been making slow gains. We may not be where we want to be, but the “falling” metaphor implies the exact opposite direction of where we are headed.

Second, these tests are often comparing apples and oranges. For example, some countries do not test all of their students, particularly in older grades as they siphon off those who will not go on to college. In essence, this leaves just their university-bound students to take the exams compared to all U.S. students, college-bound or not. [Dave F. Brown, Why America’s Public Schools are the Best Place for Kids: Reality vs. Negative Perceptions, Rowman & Littlefield, 2012, p. 42.]

Third, what these international tests really seem to report is the effect of the United State’s unbelievably high child poverty rate. When you look just at students from our well-resourced schools taking these tests, they actually score at the top of the heap. [For an excellent analysis, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, 12-15-10] But a whopping 26% of our country’s children from birth to age five live in poverty – yes, 26 percent – and over 23% of our kids under the age of 18 live in poverty. Our child poverty rate puts us second in the entire developed world – only Romania scores worse than us. [See “Poverty and Public Education”]

Valerie Strauss, education writer for the Washington Post, said the real headline we ought to be seeing is, “U.S. low-poverty schools do much better than high-poverty schools in international tests.” She points out that this holds true for all standardized tests and “that continues to be the real story in U.S. education, not how American students’ scores stack up against Singapore or the South Koreans.” [Valerie Strauss, Answer Sheet, Washington Post, 12-11-12]

The fourth point we ought to remember is the way in which the hype over these international tests has reinforced the notion that we need ever more testing to measure our children. I am not opposed to student assessment – I want our teachers to be able to assess student learning using valid tools. Bring on the weekly spelling quiz or end of unit test. But I am opposed to high-stakes-testing in which our children are subjected to mountains of high-pressure, poorly designed tests, which are then used to label and punish our kids, our teachers, and our schools. Yinzercation’s intrepid librarian Sheila May-Stein has written a heartfelt description of what it’s like to be a teacher forced to give these high-stakes, standardized tests in our schools. I encourage everyone to read her piece, “Outside the Lines,” as we start a discussion around Opting-Out of this testing madness.

Rather than wringing our hands over how far we rank below Taiwan, we ought to be fretting over how we will address child poverty and get to the business of how we will adequately and equitably fund our public schools.

When Foundations Go Bad

Money talks. And sometimes money buys contracts with companies that have an agenda to privatize our public schools. That appears to be the case with Philadelphia’s prominent William Penn Foundation: last week parents in that city accused the venerable foundation of contracting with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to develop a plan to close dozens of public schools while opening many more charter schools. They charge the foundation and consulting company with essentially acting as lobbyists to influence policy decisions in the School District of Philadelphia. Here’s why we should care in the rest of Pennsylvania when good foundations go bad.

Parents United for Public Education – a fantastic group of Philadelphia public education advocates that organized back in 2006 (Yinzercation’s big sister) – filed a complaint with the City Ethics Board requesting a formal investigation of BCG’s behavior. Joining Parents United in the complaint was the Philadelphia Home and School Council and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP. The groups had requested a legal analysis by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia before making their decision to file the charges, saying, “Just a week before the District is expected to announce dozens of school closings which will throw our city into turmoil, we believe the public deserves to know the full influence of private money and access on decisions that impact us all.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

It turns out that the William Penn Foundation signed a contract with BCG explicitly stating that the group would recommend expanding charter schools, target 60 public schools for closure, and influence labor negotiations. [The Notebook, 7-9-12] Philadelphia has a state-imposed “School Reform Commission” (SRC) and could be the poster-child for what a state-privatization plan does to a city. [For details, see “This is What Privatization Looks Like.”] Parents United discovered that the Boston Consulting Group’s contract actually specified that it would influence the SRC before an important vote it made back in May. That’s when the commission decided that, despite the District’s severe financial crisis, it would approve adding 5,416 new seats in charter schools across the city (expanding charters from 25% to 40% of the entire District) at an eye-popping cost of $139 million over the next five years. [The Notebook, 7-19-12]

The William Penn Foundation clearly got what it paid for with the Boston Consulting Group. With unprecedented access to key decision-makers as well as data from the District, the BCG has been acting as a lobbyist on behalf of the privatization agenda, able to push their plans behind closed doors. As Parents United points out, “No such access has ever been afforded to parents and community members who had to settle for limited information and public meetings.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

And it gets worse. The foundation solicited private donors to help fund the BCG contract and then kept their identities a secret by funneling the dollars through a separate agency. Those donors include individuals and groups affiliated with charter organizations. [The Notebook, 6-6-12] As Parents United explains, this lack of transparency matters, “because under this shrouded arrangement, the public can’t know whether the work BCG did was for the District’s benefit or for the benefit of its donors. From our viewpoint as parents, this is not philanthropy. It’s something dramatically different….” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

What’s more, this kind of thing is going on all over the country, with big-money foundations investing their philanthropic resources in corporate-style education reform. These include the Broad Foundation (which has trained a large number of urban school superintendents, including Pittsburgh’s own current and immediate past leader, in corporate-style management practices) as well as the Gates Foundation (which has given Pittsburgh Public Schools $40 million for teacher evaluation efforts). I agree with Parents United that, “what we’re seeing across the country is an unprecedented level of private money shaping public policy under the guise of philanthropy. Too often that agenda has centered around a radical dismantling of public education, increased privatization, and disruptive reform that has sent many districts spiraling into chaos and sustained turmoil.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

If there’s any good news here, it’s that the Philadelphia grassroots movement for public education is making a real difference. Just one week after Parents United sent its letter of intent to file an ethics complaint, the William Penn Foundation board met; one week later, the foundation’s president, Jeremy Nowak, publicly announced his resignation. Nowak had been widely regarded as the guiding force behind the foundation’s turn towards school privatization. Parents United co-founder Helen Gym, noted that, “William Penn, under [Nowak's] stewardship, went from being this beloved Philadelphia foundation to being a controversial and very conservative promoter of a very special kind of reform agenda.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 11-30-12]

The lessons for us here on the other side of the state? We must pay attention to the role of large foundations, which are increasingly entering the “education reform” business with little more than an ill-formed notion that school privatization will cure what ails us. Southwest Pennsylvania is also home to many venerable foundations with a proud history of supporting children, families, and education. It’s time for these foundations to partner with our community – in full transparency and with parent participation – to tackle the serious equity, policy, and resource issues confronting our schools. Foundations can absolutely be a force for public education and for the public good. How about it Pittsburgh Foundation, Heinz Endowments, Grable and others – are you ready to be vocal advocates for our public schools?

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Help grow our grassroots movement for public education: join other volunteer parents, students, educators, and concerned community members by subscribing to Yinzercation. Enter your email address and hit the “Sign me up” button to get these pieces delivered directly to your inbox and encourage your networks to do the same. Really. Can you get five of your friends to subscribe? Working together we can win this fight for our schools.

Rivers Casino’s Fair Share

Now Rivers Casino wants to shortchange our kids $1 million per year. What is it with these large corporations that promise to do good things for our community and then try to wriggle out of paying their fair share to support our schools?

This week, we helped to make headlines by testifying at a special County Council hearing about UPMC’s tax-exempt status and its duties as a public charity. [See “UPMC’s Fair Share”] Several news sources featured our message about the impact of UPMC’s vast landholdings on local school districts. [For some great coverage, see KDKA TV, 12-5-12 and WESA 90.5FM, 12-6-12]

In the case of the Rivers Casino, we are talking about a business that promised to bring revenue to our city and schools when it opened back in 2009. The casino made that promise in exchange for its license to operate a gambling establishment that many did not want in our fair city and on prime riverfront property. But practically as soon as they opened, Rivers Casino started petitioning to reduce their property assessment, which would directly reduce revenue for our community. In fact, between 2009 and 2012 they sought to slash their assessment by half, on average, which would have meant a loss of $3 million for the Pittsburgh Public School district alone.

Fortunately, this August the Allegheny County Court ruled against the casino. [Post-Gazette, 8-25-12] But now Rivers Casino is back at it, attempting once again to lower its 2013 assessment. If they succeed in getting the property assessed at what they claim is its current value, the result will be a $1 million loss for our schools every year. Meanwhile, the casino has taken in over $1 billion in revenue since it opened three years ago. [Opinion and Order of the Court, 8-23-12] And it wants to take money away from our children?

But wait. It gets worse. The majority owner of Rivers Casino is an investment fund managed by Walton Street Capital. This Chicago based company (co-founded by billionaire Neil Bluhm, an ally of President Obama) takes money from various sources and invests it in this particular fund, which then profits when the casino profits. Guess who sends their money to Walton Street Capital? Teachers. That’s right. According to an analysis done by UNITE HERE (the union currently organizing Rivers Casino workers), the following teachers’ pension funds have invested in this particular fund [data from Walton Street Wrecks.org]:

  • Chicago Teachers Pension Fund
  • Illinois Teachers Retirement System
  • Indiana Public Retirement System
  • New Jersey Division of Investment / State Investment Council
  • New York State Teachers Retirement System
  • Teachers’ Retirement System of Louisiana (TRSL)
  • Teachers’ Retirement System of Texas (TX TRS)

So, indirectly, public school teachers in at least six states own a stake in Rivers Casino here in Pittsburgh. Perhaps they will join us in calling for the casino to live up to its promises to our community.

UNITE HERE has started an on-line petition where we can join together in asking Rivers Casino to stop trying to wiggle out of its commitment to our public schools. Think about Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8, home of our very own Manchester Miracle, just a stone’s throw away from the casino and without books in its library. Please sign the petition today, and spread the word: perhaps you even know a teacher or two in one of those states listed above. After what Pittsburgh has given Rivers Casino – including a hefty piece of our beautiful skyline now occupied by their parking garage – it’s time for them to stop the legal maneuvering and pay their fair share for our kids.

UPMC’s Fair Share

$8.5 million. That’s how much the healthcare giant UPMC could be sending to Pittsburgh Public schools if it were to agree to a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) plan. It already does this for the South Fayette school district here in Allegheny County, as well as a school district up in Erie, PA. [See the Post-Gazette’s special report, “UPMC: Forging a Giant Footprint,” September 2012].

I’ve been asked to testify before County Council later today about the impact of UPMC’s massive stock of tax-exempt property on our schools. UPMC is actually the largest landholder in Allegheny County. Its tax-exemptions are a privilege that we grant to institutions serving the public good and we here in the community must hold UPMC up to its responsibility as a public charity. Either UPMC needs to behave like a charity and support the community through PILOTs, or operate as a for-profit corporation and pay taxes. Here is what I will be telling our County representatives:

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Good evening ladies and gentlemen of our County Council. My name is Jessie Ramey and I am the mother of two Pittsburgh Public school students. I also teach history at the University of Pittsburgh and write about public education policy at Yinzercation, which is the on-line home of a large grassroots movement here in Southwest Pennsylvania fighting for our public schools. We are the ones behind the amazing Manchester Miracle you might have heard about – filling that school with library books – as well as the Pittsburgh Opera protest back in May.

We are all volunteer parents, students, teachers, and concerned community members. And we’ve been forced to buy library books and fight for arts education precisely because our public schools are not getting the resources they need.

UPMC calls itself a public charity and exempts itself from paying property taxes – the very taxes our schools depend on to survive. Yet UPMC gobbles up property all over Allegheny County, opens branches all over the world, and behaves like a big-money global corporation. Meanwhile, the 42 school districts in our county are struggling like never before. Our children have lost hundreds and hundreds of teachers, tutoring programs, summer school, music, art, languages, gifted and special education. Schools have been forced to slash textbook budgets, custodians, transportation, sports, and even early childhood education programs.

Our kids can’t afford UPMC’s tax breaks. The Post-Gazette’s recent special report estimated that UPMC could be paying $8.5 million to the Pittsburgh Public Schools alone if it were to pay its fair share on all its property in the city. UPMC has already entered into an agreement with the South Fayette School District here in the county. $8.5 million would let us hire back the teachers my kids lost this year…and restore our after school tutoring program…and put a full time librarian in every school.

Now I just want to say, I appreciate UPMC’s pledge to the Pittsburgh Promise program. But those dollars do not go to the school district. Also, they only benefit those living in the city of Pittsburgh. And it’s not the same as regular, sustainable, and predictable income for our schools.

School districts in this state are particularly vulnerable to tax-exempt property. That’s because Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom ten out of all fifty states in this country in the proportion of school funding provided at the state level: that pushes responsibility for schools down on our local communities, which have no choice except to raise property taxes. When you have a giant charity, acting as a corporation, coming in and taking more and more of that property off the tax roles, our kids wind up paying the ultimate cost.

This community is coming together right now and demanding that we hold UPMC accountable as a public charity. Public charities must exist for the public good. For the sake of our children and public education, it’s time for UPMC to pay its fair share.

Waiver No Favor

So Pennsylvania just joined 44 other states in the country that have already applied for a waiver from No Child Left Behind. It’s about time, you might say. But before you go getting excited that our state has suddenly become pro-public-education, let’s stop and take a look at what this really means. It turns out a waiver is no favor for Pennsylvania.

First, we have to remember what No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is all about. While some educators appreciate the way it renewed focus on the lowest achieving students and the racial achievement gap, the act had many other consequences. NCLB established a system of failure and blame, accusing teachers of poor performance when their students did not do well on the tests, and then labeling schools as failures when their students struggled.

NCLB effectively created “teaching to the test” and “canned curricula” giving teachers less and less control over their classrooms, while students spend more and more time preparing for tests and practicing test-taking skills. Students are certainly learning how to take standardized tests, but not actual content. [For details, see “Testing and More Testing.”] The massive increase in school time spent on test preparation inevitably detracts from time on other learning tasks and the laser focus on reading and math tests has drastically narrowed our school curricula: we’ve lost music, art, library, history, science, languages, and more in the quest for higher standardized test scores in these two single areas. And schools that fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) using these test scores are threatened with punitive sanctions, including loss of funding, transfer to a private charter school operator, or complete closure.

High-stakes-testing has therefore set the stage for a plague of cheating scandals as desperate students, teachers, school districts, and even states try to game the system. (See how this has made Pennsylvania’s own Secretary of Education “A Liar and a Cheat” and how the feds just slapped down his latest scheme in “Talking Turkey About Charters.”) NCLB set the unrealistic target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students in reading and math by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed.” What’s more, our kids are expected to score proficient on tests that are normed – which by definition follow a bell curve, with half of the test takers always scoring above the mean, and half scoring below. Education historian Diane Ravitch points out:

“No matter how hard you try, a bell curve is still a bell curve. There is no district in the nation where 100% of the children are proficient. The children who are most advantaged cluster in the top half; those who are least advantaged cluster in the bottom half. This is true of the SAT, the ACT, state tests, federal tests, and international tests. And, if you step back, you must wonder why the standardized tests–whose flaws, inaccuracies, and statistical vagaries are well known–have become the measure of all education. No private school in the nation is subjecting its children to this mad scramble to live up to the demands of Pearson and McGraw Hill’s psychometricians.” [“Waiver Madness,” DianeRavitch.net, 9-28-12]

In Pennsylvania, the number of districts making AYP fell from 94% in 2011 to 61% this year. So you would think applying for a waiver would be a good thing, freeing us from the ridiculous binds of this federal act that expects all our children to be proficient a short 18 months from now, and will ultimately wind up “failing” every single school district in the nation. Ah but wait. In exchange for a waiver from this insanity, states must agree to new mandates that are at least if not more harmful than NCLB itself.

This fall, the state of Vermont actually withdrew its request for an NCLB waiver, stating “it has become clear that the USED [U.S. Department of Education] is interested in simply replacing one punitive, prescriptive model of accountability with another.” Under a waiver, Vermont would still have been required to use a single high-stakes standardized test (like Pennsylvania’s PSSAs or Keystone Exams) and then would also have to use those test results for the bulk of a teacher’s evaluation. The state called these “heavy handed methods,” and had been negotiating for flexibility with USED, but determined, “the term ‘flexibility’ is a misnomer.” [Diane Ravitch.net, 10-19-12]

In naming the entire state to her Honor Roll of public education advocates, Diane Ravitch noted that Vermont’s commissioner told the feds, “We cannot continue to expend energy requesting a detailed accountability system that looks less and less like what we want for Vermont. We do not have confidence that the requirements we are being asked to meet is the formula for success.” What’s more, the state refused to lower its cutoff scores as most other states have done to try to get more of their students over the AYP threshold. As a result, while Vermont’s students score consistently well on national exams (such as the NAEP), more than 70% of its schools are not making AYP. [“An Entire State Joins the Honor Roll,” Diane Ravitch.net, 10-19-12]

While Vermont’s withdrawal of its waiver request reflects a clearly reasoned stand on the harm being done to our schools in the name of NCLB and testing, our state’s long holdout was anything but. Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis said his “overriding concern” in not applying for the waiver until now, was that the waiver would force the state to change the way it performs standardized testing and that any few federal laws could then render those changes obsolete. Based on his conversations with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Sec. Tomalis now feels there will be no new federal legislation and appears more than willing to go along with making changes to our testing system to please NCLB waiver requirements. [Post-Gazette, 11-28-12]

What’s more, Tomalis had already applied for a two-year freeze on student testing targets, but the USED turned him down. So rather than taking a principled stand like Vermont, Pennsylvania is going along with the vast majority of other states in the country, ready to do what the USED tells them to do. And this is where it gets dangerous.

For instance, in New Jersey, the waiver requirements imposed on that state have created yet a new labeling and blame system: the Garden State will now make a list of 75 “priority” and 183 “focus” schools that will receive mandated interventions, including possible closure or conversion to charter schools. Forty-five parent groups and civil rights groups have petitioned U.S. Secretary Duncan to stop the process, which will affect the poorest schools with the highest percentage of African American and Latino students. The coalition noted that the state has also classified 122 “reward” schools, which will receive financial bonuses, and are located in the wealthiest districts in the state. They concluded, “The blatant economic and racial inequity built into this classification system harks back to the days when such segregation and inequity were policy objectives for our State.” [Save Our Schools NJ, 10-15-12]

And if imposing new, damaging systems on our states was not bad enough, consider the fact that the entire waiver process itself is illegal. U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan is blatantly circumventing federal law in issuing these waivers. As Diane Ravitch points out, “It is not the prerogative of any federal official–not even a cabinet member–to decide to disregard a federal law … If the law stinks, as NCLB does, revise it. That’s the way our legal system works. Once the precedent is set, any future cabinet member may decide to change the laws to suit his or her fancy.” [“NCLB Waivers and Junk Science in New York,” DianeRavitch.net, 8-31-12]

The bottom line is, waiver or no waiver, the high-stakes-testing culture of failure and blame being foisted upon our kids and our schools is a national travesty. In 2014 we are supposed to have 100% of our students proficient in reading and math. What we will actually have is 100% of our schools failing to make AYP. And under all these waiver systems, we will have even more of our poorest, African American, and Latino schools targeted for closure or handed over to private charter school operators. This is the state experimenting with our most struggling kids through school privatization, disrupting lives and communities. It’s insanity and it’s time to stop the madness.

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