It’s Education, Stupid

Is it any surprise that Governor Tom Corbett is woefully trailing his opponent, Tom Wolf, in the polls? The latest numbers released last week show Tom W. ahead of Tom C., 49% to 31%. With 60% of registered voters saying that Pennsylvania is “off on the wrong track,” survey respondents continue to name education as their number one concern. [Franklin & Marshall poll, Sept. 2014] In fact, education is now far ahead of “the economy,” which has traditionally been voters’ primary concern (going back to at least 2006 in these polls).

Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign against incumbent President George H.W. Bush featured the famous line, “It’s the economy, stupid.” In Pennsylvania this election cycle, “it’s education, stupid.” (Now, my mother taught me not to call people stupid; so please note, I am not calling you stupid, dear reader, I know you get this point – which is exactly the point!)

In fact, I said this very thing last week when I appeared on “Get to the Point,” a PCNC Friday night talk show. I had the chance to sit across from Bob Bozzuto, the Executive Director of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, and Katie McGinty, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate and now chair of the Fresh Start PA campaign supporting Tom Wolf. And for an hour, I did my best to steer the conversation back to education, education, education.

Jessie Ramey on "Get to the Point" with host Lenny McAllister, Katie McGinty of Fresh Start PA, and Bob Bozzuto, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Republican Party

Jessie Ramey on “Get to the Point” with host Lenny McAllister, Katie McGinty of Fresh Start PA, and Bob Bozzuto, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Republican Party (September 19, 2014)

Yesterday, we took this message directly to Gov. Corbett himself. Or at least we tried. The governor was in Pittsburgh for a rare visit, but not to meet with educators or students or parents. Rather, he was in town to meet with Marcellus shale corporate executives. Yes indeed. He reserves his elbow rubbing for the people who line his campaign coffers with huge donations to make sure he doesn’t tax their industry (which would help pay for our public schools). [Post-Gazette, 9-25-14] OnePittsburgh rolled out the “People’s Red Carpet” welcome outside the convention center to demonstrate who he is walking over.

Just to further prove how out of touch this governor is with Pennsylvania families, on Monday at his first debate with Tom Wolf, Gov. Corbett said that nurses, social workers, librarians, guidance counselors, and paraprofessionals don’t count. He was referring to the 27,000 educators who have lost their jobs since his historic budget cuts in 2011. Specifically, Gov. Corbett stated: “That’s a false number. Those aren’t all teachers. Those are people that worked in the system, that were part of the administrations. They weren’t all teachers.” [CSPAN archive] These were 27,000 adults our children had in their lives every day, working with them in their classrooms, helping them succeed in school, and we’re not supposed to count them as lost educators?

Election day is November 4th and it can’t come soon enough. Between now and then, Pittsburgh’s own folk legend, Anne Feeney, will be traveling around Pennsylvania with her “Crush Corbett Road Show.” Anne asked Yinzercation to create a flyer with information about the governor’s record on education, which she will be distributing on her concert tour. In closing, I leave you here with a copy, as the facts speak for themselves.

Corbett_CutsHurtKids_flyer

Save the date: Bob Herbert book event!

Save the date – you don’t want to miss this! We are hosting the national launch of Bob Herbert’s new book, Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America. You might remember Mr. Herbert as the award winning and longtime columnist for the New York Times. This book is especially exciting for us because Bob came to Pittsburgh several times to interview parents and teachers in our local grassroots movement and wound up writing three chapters on our fight for public education!

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After you mark your calendar, please RSVP on our Facebook event page, where you can also invite all your friends and colleagues and help us spread the word. Here are some more details:

Date:    Thursday, October 9, 2014

Time:    5:30 – 6:30PM, moderated discussion and Q&A.
Doors will open at 5 with student performances & children’s activities.
Followed by book signing.

Location:    McConomy Auditorium, Carnegie Mellon University, 5000 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh 15213.
Free parking in the garage.

Hosted by:    Yinzercation (we are profiled in the book!)

Moderator:    Tony Norman, columnist and associate editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Co-Sponsors:    Action United
American Federation of Teachers
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
Carnegie Mellon University:
–Center for Arts in Society
–Center for Africanamerican Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE)
–English Department
–History Department
Great Public Schools Pittsburgh
OnePittsburgh
Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network
Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee
Pittsburgh Collaborative for Working Class Studies
Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers
Point Park University School of Communication
University of Pittsburgh English Department

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Bob Herbert

And here’s more information about the book from the publisher to whet your appetite:

From longtime New York Times columnist Bob Herbert comes a wrenching portrayal of ordinary Americans struggling for survival in a nation that has lost its way.
In his eighteen years as an opinion columnist for The New York Times, Herbert championed the working poor and the middle class. After filing his last column in 2011, he set off on a journey across the country to report on Americans who were being left behind in an economy that has never fully recovered from the Great Recession. The portraits of those he encountered fuel his new book, Losing Our Way. Herbert’s combination of heartrending reporting and keen political analysis is the purest expression since the Occupy movement of the plight of the 99 percent.

The individuals and families who are paying the price of America’s bad choices in recent decades form the book’s emotional center: an exhausted high school student in Brooklyn who works the overnight shift in a factory at minimum wage to help pay her family’s rent; a twenty-four-year-old soldier from Peachtree City, Georgia, who loses both legs in a misguided, mismanaged, seemingly endless war; a young woman, only recently engaged, who suffers devastating injuries in a tragic bridge collapse in Minneapolis; and a group of parents in Pittsburgh who courageously fight back against the politicians who decimated funding for their children’s schools.

Herbert reminds us of a time in America when unemployment was low, wages and profits were high, and the nation’s wealth, by current standards, was distributed much more equitably. Today, the gap between the wealthy and everyone else has widened dramatically, the nation’s physical plant is crumbling, and the inability to find decent work is a plague on a generation. Herbert traces where we went wrong and spotlights the drastic and dangerous shift of political power from ordinary Americans to the corporate and financial elite. Hope for America, he argues, lies in a concerted push to redress that political imbalance. Searing and unforgettable, Losing Our Way ultimately inspires with its faith in ordinary citizens to take back their true political power and reclaim the American dream.

Legislators Back to – This?

Welcome back, legislators. I know today is your first day back in session after two months off for your summer break. A lot has happened since the beginning of July. But it’s hard to leave the sunshine and put away your flip-flops. I get it. So maybe you just need to ease into things.

Maybe that’s why the very first thing the Senate Education Committee will consider when it meets tomorrow morning is a bill that would allow teachers and other school staff to carry concealed guns. Because you can’t actually be serious. You’re planning to sip your coffee, shake the sand out of your briefcase, and then vote a quick “no” on this ridiculous legislation, right?

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Don White (a Republican from Indiana, PA), said that, “we must look at all options when it comes to improving the safety and security” of our schools, and that teachers need “more choices … to protect students.” [The Morning Call, 9-12-14] Um, yeah. Because gun toting teachers are a great idea and really protect kids. Not. While you were sitting by the pool last week, did you happen to see the story about the Utah teacher whose legally concealed gun went off in the bathroom, sending her to the hospital with injuries from flying toilet shrapnel? I kid you not, you can’t make this stuff up. [Tribune Review, 9-11-14] And this begs the question: what if that had been a child in her classroom rather than a potty that she managed to accidentally blow up?

While you are busy debating the supposed merits of permitting such scenarios to occur in Pennsylvania classrooms, let us remind you of the real danger our children are facing every single day: the de-funding of their public schools. Our students have been back in their classrooms for three weeks now without the resources they deserve. Because of four years of draconian state budget cuts and austerity, our kids are missing 20,000 of their teachers, countless programs, and basic supplies.

The situation in Philadelphia is so bad that parents there are suing the state. [The Notebook, 9-11-14] Last year, families from across that city filed 825 complaints with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (which has been running Philadelphia schools for the past 13 years) in a campaign organized by Parents United. The complaints detailed serious threats to student health and safety, over-crowding, missing textbooks, and a lack of critical services causing direct harm to kids. Yet the state did not investigate a single complaint and now parents are forced to sue to hold decision makers accountable for conditions in the schools.

Last week Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neill wrote a great article about Pittsburgh Manchester K-8, two years after our “Manchester Miracle” at that school. Despite thousands of new books donated by the community and a gorgeous new library space – and despite amazing volunteers such as Mr. Wallace Sapp and Mr. Joseph Kennedy featured in the article – Manchester still only has a librarian once a week and some of the starkest disparities in the city. [Post-Gazette, 9-11-14] My own middle school children do not have library at all! That’s right: at a school with one of the largest “achievement gaps” in Pittsburgh, not one middle school student has access to a single library book.

Dearest legislators, our kids need more library books in their lives, not guns. This crazy bill you will be talking about disrespects our children who face an epidemic of gun violence in their lives. (You might recall the piece I wrote last year after one particularly grueling week in which three different children at our school lost family members to gun violence). So, Senator White, if you and your colleagues are serious about protecting our children in their schools, you could start by funding them – adequately, equitably, predictably, and sustainably. You can even leave your sunglasses on, if it makes you feel better.

33 More Hours for Learning!

We scored a big victory in Pittsburgh last night! The school district and school board agreed to substantially reduce testing for students in grades K-5. The biggest winners are children in grades 3-5, where testing will be cut from 85.5 periods a year to 41.5 periods. At 45 minutes per period, that is 1,980 minutes of instructional time – or 33 hours of real learning time – that our children just got back in their lives.

Thirty-three hours! And that’s just in test-taking. When tests are eliminated, students also gain back time that had been dedicated to test-prep, so there is a multiplier effect here, too.

School board member Sherry Hazuda looked at those numbers and said, “No wonder people are complaining when you see it like that.” [Post-Gazette, 9-9-14] Indeed. We certainly have been complaining. We’ve also been meeting with the district, legislators, and other decision makers to provide evidence of the negative impacts of high-stakes testing. [See “High Stakes for Students”] Last night, board member Carolyn Klug pointed out one of those impacts, explaining that with these testing cuts students will not only have more time to learn, “it will reduce stress as well.” [Post-Gazette, 9-9-14]

The specific testing cuts include the elimination of the TerraNova and some Curriculum Based Assessments (CBAs). In its presentation to the board, the district noted that the relatively new CDT tests would continue, but the scheduled is marked as “negotiable.” Some teachers have told me the CDTs provide some useful information, while others (including principals) have shared they do not find them helpful at all. Either way, the CDTs are computer hogs: they are given on-line, meaning the entire computer lab is not available for weeks on end throughout the school year during the various testing windows. This is particularly problematic with increased class sizes: at my children’s school, many classes far exceed the number of working computers in the computer lab.

The district also plans to continue the GRADE assessment. I wrote about this particular test last fall when a Pittsburgh teacher shared her experience giving the test to her struggling students. The teacher felt she was being forced to practically abuse these children with a poorly designed test (purposefully created this way to fail a set percentage of test takers to “norm” the results into a nice bell curve) and that it undermined the learning community they had worked so hard to build together. That post went viral and was published by the Washington Post. [See “Testing Madness”]

So there is still room for improvement, but this is a fantastic start. Allison McCarthy, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, told the school board that they are also planning to reduce testing for students in grades 6-12. I applaud Pittsburgh for taking this important first step.

And we are not alone. The school board in Florida’s Lee County recently voted to opt the entire school district out of that state’s high-stakes tests! [Washington Post, 8-28-14] Immediately following that vote, Palm Beach County school board starting discussing doing the same thing. [Sun Sentinel, 8-29-14] There is growing recognition around the country that high-stakes testing is hurting children, negatively affecting their learning, and narrowing their curriculum.

What’s more, research is stacking up against the use of student test scores to measure teachers and entire schools (which is one of the major reasons we’ve seen an explosion in the number of tests each year). For instance, the American Statistical Association (ASA) released a report this spring strongly warning about the limitations of using student data to evaluate teachers through Value Added Modeling (VAM). The ASA concluded: “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores” and that “Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” The statistical researchers concluded, “This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.” [American Statistical Association, 4-8-14]

So while I am enormously encouraged by Pittsburgh’s efforts to reduce the overall number of tests, we still have a ways to go to tackle the full consequences of high-stakes testing on our kids. Still – 33 hours restored to teaching and learning! Hurray!

Hurting the Poor

I don’t know how Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, can keep a straight face when he talks to reporters. Again and again he declares that Governor Corbett “has increased state funding for public schools by $1.5 billion” over the past four years. [Post-Gazette, 8-28-14]

Anyone with half a brain or with a school age child can tell you that’s a load of hogwash. Sometimes having school age children makes us parents operate with only half a brain, but we can still tell you that Pennsylvania kids are sitting in larger classes, with fewer of their teachers, and missing critical books, supplies, academic courses, and programs.

Of course, what Mr. Eller means is that Gov. Corbett collapsed a bunch of line items into the Basic Education Funding portion of the budget, so that he could say that this single line item increased. Meanwhile, he decimated overall state funding for public schools. Gov. Corbett also likes to tout the additional dollars he put into pension payments (as required by state law) when he calculates that $1.5 billion figure, but will not account for the fact that he slashed charter school tuition reimbursements for districts, Accountability Block Grants, School Improvement Grants, or other programs such as the Education Assistance and High School Reform programs.

As the following graph clearly illustrates, even allowing for increased state contributions to pension payments, our schools are still not receiving the level of preK-12 funding that they were back in 2008-09! (In this chart the federal stimulus dollars are in yellow and pension dollars in light blue: check out the dark blue columns to see how our schools have been set back more than six years in budget cuts.)

PAbudget_w_pensions

But this is more than a rhetorical debate over which line items to count. Four years into this mess it is now clear that these historic budget cuts have hurt our poorest students the most. A new report out this week analyzes state funding per child and finds that budget cuts to the most impoverished school districts were more than three times as large on average as those made to the wealthiest districts. What’s more, using the state’s own data, the report demonstrates that class sizes increased more in high poverty districts and that reading and math scores declined the most for students living in poverty. [Budget cuts, student poverty, and test scores: Examining the evidence, PSEA August 2014] Look at the disparity in chart form:

Graph-AverageFundingChangePerStudent201011-201415

[Source: PSEA, 8-25-14]

What does that look like here in Southwest Pennsylvania? Just look at the following table of the ten biggest losers in Allegheny County on a per-student basis. Pittsburgh tops the list of districts most harmed by budget cuts with an average per-child loss of $1,038, followed by a parade of high-poverty school districts. It’s worth noting the story of race here, too, as these districts have a large proportion of students of color. Compare these numbers to Fox Chapel, which has “only” lost $36 per student (no students should be losing money for their education), or Mt. Lebanon ($9), or my alma mater, Upper St. Clair, which has actually gained $4 on a per-student basis.

MostHarmedDistricts

 LeastHarmedDistricts

Perhaps Gov. Corbett should spend more time explaining why his policies are hurting poor kids than trying to convince us that he has increased spending on public education. We parents just aren’t that gullible.

Back to School

I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t ready to put the kids on the school bus this morning. I never want summer to end! And this was a particularly busy summer for public education advocates, so we have a lot to catch up on. But first, I need one minute of your time: please take this very quick straw poll to help guide our work together this year. What do you think should be the priorities for Yinzercation in 2014-15?

Now here’s a brief look at some of the issues that have been percolating in the summer heat:

Governor’s race: Yinzercation has been asked by various community partners to work on get-out-the-vote and voter registration efforts. If you are interested in helping to staff a table at a new community event in the Hill District on Monday afternoon, September 1st (Labor Day), please let me know.

State budget / fair funding: Remember that fantastic bus trip to Harrisburg with parents that we organized back in June? While the Governor and legislature wound up passing a sorry budget for our kids, we did get our message out. And as a result, we’ve been invited to host a meeting here with the entire Allegheny County legislative delegation. Want to be a part of this special opportunity? Let me know!

High-stakes testing: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did a 180 last week and finally acknowledged that students are being over-tested. He agreed to allow states to wait another year before implementing teacher evaluation systems based on high-stakes tests, though Pennsylvania will not delay its own state-mandated system. [Post-Gazette, 8-22-14] He could have said much more, but it’s a start. In related news, Pittsburgh Public Schools will be voting this week on some assessment changes: we want to strongly encourage the district’s efforts to 1) reduce the overall number of tests, 2) reduce un-necessary and inequitable stakes associated with too many tests, and 3) focus on quality assessments that provide meaningful and timely feedback to students and teachers.

Equity and resources: Is your school starting the year with equitable resources? Do your students have the books and supplies they need? We want to know! (Drop me a line.) Some parents worked all summer to get students what they deserve. Kudos to Mr. Wallace Sapp and the other parents and community members in Manchester for the successful launch of their Math, Mud, and More summer camp. Mr. Sapp also met with Sen. Fontana and Rep. Wheatley to talk about public education issues.

Charter reform: Over the summer, the Pittsburgh school board voted unanimously to decline a proposed expansion of the Environmental Charter School, which is now in the process of appealing to the state board. In a series of packed public hearings, parents raised a host of critical equity issues, noting “About 28 percent of ECS students are eligible for subsidized lunch, compared to 71 percent in district schools … 21 percent of students are black, compared to 54 percent in district schools … [and] zero percent are English language learners, compared to about 3 percent in district schools.” [Post-Gazette, 7-23-14] While charter schools continue to be contentious and sometimes divide our community, there is clearly still a strong need for public dialogue about the role of charters, civil rights, and state reforms aimed at funding, accountability, and transparency.

School closings: I learned this summer in a meeting of the Mayor’s Task Force on Education that Pittsburgh superintendent Dr. Lane does not intend to bring forward any more recommendations for school closures unless asked to do so by the Board of Directors. This doesn’t mean we won’t eventually see more school closures, of course, but it’s a good sign that we have more room for conversation and creative thinking, such as that put forward by an activate group of Woolslair parents who have proposed an exciting new STEAM model for their school.

Discipline and school climate: Pittsburgh Public Schools released a new student code of conduct that represents a positive step forward in addressing equity and school-to-prison pipeline issues. [Post-Gazette, 8-5-14] I’m pleased to see the way in which the district is trying to de-criminalize minor infractions (such as mobile phone use), though we will need continued public conversation, professional development, and building leadership to see real change.

 

And so it’s back to school this week, and back to work fighting for the public education that all our children deserve. Did you take the quick straw poll yet to help focus our work together this year? Please take one minute to vote for your priorities. What’s most important to you?

Still no Budget

When I left for Alaska ten days ago, parents, teachers, and community members from across the state were still camped out at the Capitol building keeping a vigil for a better budget. The group from Pittsburgh included many ActionUnited volunteers, who worked around the clock.

Volunteers keeping vigil at night with glow-in-the-dark signs!

Volunteers keeping vigil at night with glow-in-the-dark signs!

Delivering coffee to the Governor's mansion.

Delivering coffee to the Governor’s mansion to tell him to “Wake up and smell the coffee: you are hurting Pennsylvania’s children!”

ActionUnited volunteers from Pittsburgh stayed in the capitol around the clock

ActionUnited volunteers from Pittsburgh stayed in the capitol around the clock

Having just returned to the lower-48, I fully expected to see news of a final state budget. Oh, but no. In case you haven’t been paying attention, or have been off-line in the wilderness like me, here’s the current situation.

The Pennsylvania legislature has passed a budget – full of problems – but the Governor has yet to sign it. He is currently holding out because he did not get the pension reforms he wanted. Yet if he doesn’t get his signature on the page before Friday, the budget will go into effect without his stamp of approval. [Patriot News, 7-8-14]

Unfortunately, either way, we’re looking at mostly more bad news for public schools. The budget passed by the legislature once again flat funds the basic education line, which provides the bulk of support to school districts. It does increase special education funding by $19.8 million, which is most welcome after six years of flat funding in this area. However, as Ron Cowell of the Education Policy and Leadership Center points out, “it’s important to note that special education costs to districts have risen more than $400 million during that time.” [Post Gazette, 7-5-14]

The budget sitting on the Governor’s desk also includes a slight increase in education funding through block grant programs. These generally come with strings attached and are less helpful to districts that are desperately struggling to provide basic educational programs. The increase is also $141 million less than what Gov. Corbett initially proposed back in February.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment with this unsigned budget is that it relies on unicorns to pay the bills. We just finished the 2013-14 fiscal year last week short by a half-billion dollars. Sharon Ward of the PA Budget and Policy Center explains that legislators “magically wiped away that inconvenient truth through creative accounting.” Then for the new budget, “lawmakers used one-time transfers, overly rosy revenue projections, and accounting tricks to close a $1 billion projected revenue gap.” For instance, this budget assumes that there will be revenue from new gas drilling on public lands – but that will depend on the outcome of a case still winding its way through the courts. It also assumes there will be revenue from a Philadelphia casino that hasn’t even been built yet! [Philly.com, 7-9-14]

This kind of magical thinking is a recipe for disaster. Overall, Pennsylvania collected less in revenue in 2013-14 than it did the year before. Yet the new budget for 2014-15 counts on adding $1 billion more than we managed to take in this past year. [PA Budget and Policy Center, 7-7-14] Where are we really going to get this money?

Having just returned from mineral-rich Alaska, it’s astonishing to me that Gov. Corbett will not even consider a severance tax on Marcellus shale. Every other major gas producing state has one. Our local guide in Juneau proudly pointed to the Alaska Permanent Fund building and explained that every person in that state gets an annual check, usually between $1,000-$2,000, drawn from oil revenues.

Meanwhile, school districts in Pennsylvania are forced to raise property taxes yet again. Last week, just after the House passed the current budget, the Shippensburg school district voted to raise local taxes to make up for the shortfall in state support it had been expecting. [Philly.com, 7-9-14]

Alaska was gorgeous. But I would like to be able to stay here in Pennsylvania and send my children to properly funded schools. We may not have glaciers, but we do have eagles again, right here in Pittsburgh. Now if only we could fund public education.