D.E.B.A.T.E. Today

D- Democracy
E- Education
B- Be there
A- At 6PM
T- To learn
E- Exciting!

That about sums it up. But here are a few more details. You haven’t heard from me in over a week because Yinzercation and the PA Interfaith Impact Network have been super busy organizing the Democratic Candidate Gubernatorial Education Debate. (That spells DCGED and isn’t nearly as exciting as D.E.B.A.T.E.!) Dozens of community volunteers have been hard at work on this event, now all you have to do is show up.

Really. This is important. We want to show these candidates that Southwest Pennsylvania is serious about public education and that it needs to be a top priority in Harrisburg. Over 200 people have already RSVPed on the Facebook event page. Have you? Can you help spread the word?

BE THERE TODAY. Tuesday, April 8th  at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12
515 N. Highland Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15206
(Bus Service: 89 and 71B. Free parking across the street at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.)

Doors open at 6PM with music by the Obama Steel Drum Band. Bring your questions for the candidates! The doors will close promptly at 6:50PM for the live broadcast, which will be moderated by WPXI’s Lisa Sylvester. Please allow time to get through security.

With last week’s horrible Supreme Court decision allowing unfettered campaign donations from the super-rich, it will be getting even harder for ordinary folks to get the attention of candidates and elected representatives. (If you have a few extra million laying around for political contributions, let me know!) We produced this entire event with a budget of $0. Yes, zero. This is as grassroots as it gets. And this is our chance to help these candidates see what real people really care about. So please re-arrange your schedule if you have to. See you tonight!


Education Debate

Who is running for governor of Pennsylvania? What will the candidates do to help our schools? How will they support public education as a civil right and a public good?

So far this primary season, Governor Corbett has declined invitations to debate. He does have someone running against him in the Republican primary, but political analysts give his opponent almost no chance of bumping the incumbent from the ticket. I look forward to debates this fall when Gov. Corbett will be asked to publicly defend his record on education. But right now we need to know more about the Democratic candidates vying to take on the governor in the general election.

That’s why the PA Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) and Yinzercation decided to co-host a Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate education debate. This will be the only debate in Pennsylvania focused exclusively on education issues! And all of the major candidates have committed to coming: Rob McCord, Katie McGinty, Allyson Schwartz, Jack Wagner, and Tom Wolf.

Please mark your calendars now and plan to be a part of this event:
Tuesday, April 8th  at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12
515 N. Highland Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15206
(Bus Service: 89 and 71B. Free parking at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.)

Doors open at 6PM with student performances. The debate begins 7PM, with doors closing promptly at 6:55PM for the live telecast, which will be moderated by WPXI’s Lisa Sylvester.

Do you have a question for the candidates? This is your chance to ask the people who want to govern our state where they stand on education issues! Email your question to education@piin.org by April 1st. Or you can tweet it ahead of time to #PGHed or bring it with you to write on the question cards we will have available during the seating hour.

This is truly a community event with a wide range of co-sponsors, including: the Black Political Empowerment Project; the Greater Park Place Neighborhood Association; the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh; the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee; the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition; and the YMCA Youth and Government Club at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12.

For more information, updates, and to RSVP, please see our Facebook event page. And while you are there, please invite your friends – this is an entirely grassroots event with no budget and we are counting on you to help us spread the word. Can you volunteer on April 8th? We need lots of hands to make the evening a success – please let me know. This is participatory democracy in action!



It’s spring and the birds are tweeting. And so are education advocates! Do you tweet? I mean in the sense of using Twitter, not singing with sparrows. I found myself dragged rather reluctantly into the Twitterverse just over a year ago. As a historian fond of words, nuance, and careful argument, I find it incredibly difficult to say anything in 140 characters or less. But I’ve had some great teachers (thank you Pam and Sheila!) and have learned to appreciate Twitter’s grassroots power.

Here are just two examples of ways that Twitter can connect and amplify our voices at the state and federal level. If you tweet, please consider taking part!

Twitter Chat on PA Education Funding
Next Tuesday, March 25th at 8PM there will be a “live chat” on Twitter with school leaders from throughout the state. You are invited to join the conversation using the hashtag #PAEdFunding: you can just lurk and learn, or you are welcome to participate and share your thoughts on public education funding. The four hosts are:

  • @PASASupts – Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators
  • @PSBA – Pennsylvania School Boards Association
  • @PASBO_org – Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials
  • @PARSS2go – Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools

Here’s some good information about twitter chats from the PA School Board Association:

If you’ve never tweeted before, join us. It’s a simple, free and fast-paced way to communicate and share information. Here are directions and a few tips:

How to Get Started: Log-on to www.twitter.com, sign-up, create your profile, find people and organizations you are interested in following and start tweeting out messages in 140 characters or less.

What is a Twitter Chat? Twitter chats happen when a group of people all tweet about the same topic using a specific tag (#), called a hashtag, which allows it to be followed like a transcript on Twitter. The chats are at a specific time, once, and often repeated weekly or bi-weekly at announced times.

Follow the Conversation or Check Back Later: To follow a Twitter chat live or to read the conversation later, log-on to Twitter, click on the #Discover link, then search for #PAEdFunding. By searching for or clicking the hashtag on a tweet, you can see all of the recent tweets on that topic. Then, read, reply and post your own thoughts and messages.

It’s That Easy to Join the Conversation: Tell your friends and colleagues, anyone who wants to learn more about education or wants to join the movement to establish a fair and predictable way of distributing state education dollars to ensure equity and adequate support for all schools regardless of where students live. Join us!

Twitter Storm for a Federal Hearing
The national Network for Public Education (NPE) is calling for congressional hearings into the overuse and misuse of high-stakes testing. Their resolution, passed following the first national conference two weeks ago, has been picking up steam. [For more on that conference, see “We are Many.”] I am pasting the full text of that resolution below, so you have a chance to read the eleven very thoughtful questions that NPE is asking our federal legislators to investigate. But first we need to urge them to hold a hearing.


Tomorrow, Wednesday, March 19th, from 8-10PM, NPE is hosting a “twitter storm.” The idea is to get lots of people tweeting about the same thing at the same time to amplify the message. Learn more about the twitter storm here. You can also use a new tool called, Thunderclap, which calls itself a “crowdspeaking platform that helps people be heard by saying something together. It allows a single message to be mass-shared, flash mob-style, so it rises above the noise of your social networks.” I can report that it only takes a few seconds to sign up to participate in the NPE Thunderclap, which will automatically send a tweet out for you at the same moment as other participants.

Try it tomorrow and let us know how you weather the storm. It must be the promise of spring temperatures because I feel like chirping, I mean, tweeting!

Resolution from the Network for Public Education, March 2, 2014:
We are writing to request that the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee hold hearings to investigate the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized testing in the nation’s K-12 public schools.

Starting with No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001, which mandated standardized testing of every student in grades three through eight, many states have since rolled out testing in additional grades. This emphasis on testing has increased under policies of the Obama administration, such as Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers, that tie test scores to teacher and principal evaluations and school “turnarounds” and closures. There is a danger that tests now seem to have become the purpose of education, rather than a measure of education.

The tests were initiated to measure whether schools were delivering an education of high quality to every child. It makes sense to determine whether all students are achieving at a minimum level of proficiency in English and math, and standardized tests can help discern whether they are.

Our concern is that high-stakes testing in public schools has led to multiple unintended consequences that warrant federal scrutiny, including the following questions, among others.

Do the tests promote skills our children and our economy need? The most popular form of tests today are multiple-choice because they are easy and cheap to grade. But many educators and parents worry that teaching children how to take these tests doesn’t teach them how to think. The new standardized exams from the multi-state testing consortia do not appear to be significantly better, and will likely be scored by computers, which cannot gauge higher order thinking.. The challenges of the future and our nation’s economic success require the ability to solve and identify new problems, think creatively, and work collaboratively with others.

What is the purpose of these tests? Assessments should be used as diagnostic tools, to help teachers figure out where students are in their learning. But in most states, teachers are forbidden to see the actual test questions or provide feedback to students. Teachers do not see how their students answered specific test items and learn nothing about how their students are doing, other than a single score, which may arrive long after the student has left their classrooms. Thus, the tests have no diagnostic value for teachers or students, who do not have the opportunity to review and learn the material they got wrong.

How good are the tests? Problems with the actual content of tests have been extensively documented. There are numerous instances of flawed questions and design, including no right answer, more than one right answer, wording that is unclear or misleading, reading passages or problems that are developmentally inappropriate or contain product placements, test questions on material never taught, and items that border on bizarre, such as a famous example that asked students to read a passage about a race between a pineapple and a hare. Tests are not scientific instruments like barometers; they are commercial products that are subject to multiple errors.

Are tests being given to children who are too young? In many states, high-stakes standardized tests are required for even the youngest school children. In Chicago, for instance, Kindergarten students face four standardized tests two or three times a year and can spend up to a third of their time taking tests. Children of this age typically do not know how to read or even hold a pencil or use a keyboard. Subjecting 5-year-olds to a timed test is not only hopeless from a practical standpoint, but subject children to undue stress.

Are tests culturally biased? Every standardized test in the world is an accurate reflection of socioeconomic advantage and disadvantage. Thus, students from racial and ethnic-minorities, students with disabilities, and students of lower socioeconomic status tend to have lower scores than their more advantaged peers. Further, test results are often used as rationales for closing schools that serve low-income communities of color.

Are tests harmful to students with disabilities? Over the past few years, there have been numerous instances in which children with significant health situations, even undergoing life-saving procedures, were pressured to complete required tests – even from their hospital beds. Children with severe brain disorders have been compelled to take a state test. Recently in Florida, an eleven-your-old boy who was dying in hospice was expected to take a test. Such behavior defies common sense and common decency.

How has the frequency and quantity of testing increased? Testing is taking significant time away from instructional learning time. In Chicago, elementary school students take the REACH, the TRC, the MAP, the EXPLORE, the ISAT, and DIBELS every year. In North Carolina, third-grade students are tested in reading 36 times throughout the year – in addition to other standardized tests. Middle schools students in Pennsylvania may take over 20 standardized tests in a single school year. High school students in Florida can have their instruction disrupted 65 times out of 180 school days by testing. In New York, the time taken by state exams has increased by 128%. When so much time is devoted to testing instead of teaching, students have less time to learn.

Does testing harm teaching? Now that test scores are linked to principal and teacher evaluations in many states, teachers engage in more test prep because they are pressured and afraid, not because they think the assessments are educationally sound. Principals are nervous about their school’s scores. Many educators have admitted they are fearful of taking students on field trips, engaging them in independent projects, or spending time on untested subjects like science or history, art or music because it might take time away from test prep. As a result, the curriculum has narrowed and students have lost their opportunity for a well-rounded education.

How much money does it cost? It is difficult to calculate the entire costs of standardized testing – including the many classroom hours spent on test prep. But it is well known that nearly every state is spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to develop more high-stakes tests for students, and requiring local districts to spend hundreds of millions more to get their students ready to take them. In addition to the cost of the tests and the interim tests, there are added costs of new curriculum, textbooks, hardware, software, and bandwidth that new tests require. There are also opportunity costs when money allocated for testing supersedes other education expenditures, such as libraries, art and music programs, social workers and guidance counselors, and extra-curricular activities.

Are there conflicts of interest in testing policies? In many states, a company that has a multi-million dollar contract to create tests for the state is also the same company that profits from producing curriculum and test prep materials. In some states, a single testing company has been able to win a contract worth many millions of dollars by lobbying and engaging in backdoor influencing of public officials. In other states, school districts buy textbooks from the same company that makes the tests so their students have an advantage on the tests.

Was it legal for the U.S. Department of Education to fund two testing consortia for the Common Core State Standards? According to federal law and regulations, the U.S. Department of education is not allowed to supervise, direct, or control curriculum or instruction. Yet the funding of testing consortia directly intervenes in the curriculum or instruction of almost every public school in the nation, as the tests will determine what is taught and how it is taught.

We believe that every child in the United States deserves a sound education. Every child deserves a full curriculum in a school with adequate resources. We are deeply concerned that the current overemphasis on standardized testing is harming children, public schools, and our nation’s economic and civic future. It’s our conclusion that the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized tests may now warrant federal intervention. We urge you to pursue the questions we have raised.

Strategies to Reduce High-Stakes Testing

News flash: I am not against testing. Most parents, teachers, and even students agree that we ought to assess what students learn. Quality assessments help children learn and provide meaningful information to teachers to help them meet the needs of individual students. Tests ought to align with the curriculum (and ideally be designed by teachers) and give timely, informative results to parents and students. Yet the skyrocketing use of high-stakes-testing in our classrooms (such as the PSSAs, Keystones, GRADE, CDTs, CBAs, and many others) does not appear to meet these requirements.

Significantly, as we talked about in yesterday’s post, parents and educators are increasingly worried about the high-stakes for students attached to high-stakes testing. That piece has been getting a lot of attention: there are several thought provoking comments on the blog (and I encourage you to contribute your own), and the Washington Post just published the article. [Washington Post, 3-11-14]

So as we think about the growing negative consequences for students, what can we do together to address the over-use and misuse of high-stakes-testing? Here are some strategies:

  • Sign the petition: ask the Pittsburgh Public School board and administration to review all required tests; reduce unnecessary assessments; and end the use of high-stakes tests to make decisions that have an inequitable impact on students. Sign the petition here.
  • Talk to the school: share your concerns about high-stakes testing with your child’s teachers and principal. Find out which tests they support, or do not support, and why.
  • Ask for alternatives: ask teachers for evidence of your child’s authentic learning, such as projects and portfolio pieces. What do teachers feel is a good demonstration of what your child has actually learned?
  • Tell the media: write a letter to the editors about the overuse and misuse of testing.
  • Spread the word: share your message with your religious, community, or parent group. Host conversations and find out what others are experiencing.
  • Meet with legislators: take a group and visit your elected officials, especially state legislators. They need to hear from their constituents.
  • Come to the debate: ask the Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidates where they stand on high-stakes testing and what they plan to do: Tuesday, April 8th, 6PM at Pittsburgh Obama (more information coming soon).
  • Support a federal hearing: ask your federal representatives to support the Network for Public Education resolution calling for a congressional hearing into testing. See the resolution’s list of 11 essential questions that our legislators ought to ask in that hearing: Washington Post, 3-9-14.
  • Consider opting out: learn more about opting students out of high-stakes testing at United Opt Out and at the new national coalition, Testing Resistance and Reform Spring.

What would you add? How can we work together to promote more learning and less testing?


High-Stakes for Students

As we enter the March Madness of testing season, many parents and teachers have become increasingly concerned that the high-stakes attached to so many tests are actually harming our students and schools. There is particular concern about the disproportionate impact high-stakes-testing may be having on our poorest students, most struggling students, English Language Learners, and students of color.

So what are the “high-stakes” for students in high-stakes testing? Examples we’ve been hearing from parents and educators across Pennsylvania include:

  • Lost learning time: there’s less time for learning with testing and test prep (for example, Pittsburgh students now take 20-25, or more, high-stakes tests a year, with new tests this year in art and music).
  • Reduced content knowledge: students are learning how to take high-stakes-tests, but cannot demonstrate subject mastery when tested in a different format. [Koretz, 2008]
  • Narrowed curriculum: with a focus on reading and math scores, students lose history, world languages, the arts, and other programs.
  • Shut out of programs: stakes exclude students when test results count as extra weight in magnet lotteries or for entrance to gifted programs or advanced courses.
  • Diverted resources: schools that perform poorly on high-stakes-tests are labeled “failures” and sometimes have resources taken away from them; the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on testing in Pennsylvania are not available for classroom education.
  • School closures: schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of test scores can be threatened with closure. These schools are usually in communities of color.
  • Loss of curiosity and love of learning: bubble tests are developmentally inappropriate for the youngest learners; emphasis on “skill drill and kill” fails to stimulate children’s imagination and limits their natural curiosity.
  • Blocked access to facilities: many schools find their computer labs taken over by testing for weeks on end and not available for learning.
  • Harmful stress: children are pressured to not only demonstrate their knowledge but to represent the effectiveness of their teachers and their schools. Teachers are reporting children throwing up, losing control of their bowels, and increased commitments for psychiatric and anxiety issues.
  • Internalized failure: struggling students forced to repeatedly take normed tests (which are designed to fail a certain portion of test-takers) begin to believe they are “bad” or “worthless” students who cannot succeed in school.
  • Grades: some high-stakes tests are included in students’ grades.
  • Graduation requirements: the NAACP has protested Keystone graduation exams, saying they force too many children out of school on the basis of a single score.
  • Altered school culture: schools must empty their walls and hallways for many weeks; classes are under lock-down with limited access to restrooms; some turn to daily announcements or even pep rallies to “prepare” students for testing.

What are you seeing with your children or in your school? What do you think? Come be a part of the conversation tomorrow at our screening of the new documentary, “Standardized,” at 5:30PM in McConomy Auditorium at Carnegie Mellon University. Doors open at 5PM and we’ll have pizza! You can RSVP here to let us know you’re coming.

Did you see that we made the front page of the Post-Gazette today with a story about the movie? [Post-Gazette, 3-10-14] The radio program Essential Pittsburgh also interviewed the film-maker Dan Hornberger (who is an English teacher at Schuylkill Valley High School) on today’s show, which will be re-broadcast this evening on WESA at 8PM. And we are delighted to announce that Mr. Hornberger will be joining us tomorrow for the screening of his movie and will be available to answer questions during the discussion afterwards.

Don’t miss this opportunity to think together about how we can reduce the over-use and misuse of high-stakes testing.

Time to Talk Testing

Testing Talk, Part I: “Standardized”

How is the dramatic expansion of high-stakes-testing affecting our schools? What is the impact on our children and their learning? Come be a part of the conversation at the only public screening in Pittsburgh of the new film, “Standardized: Lies, Money, & Civil Rights.”

Tuesday, March 11, 2014
5:30PM film, followed by discussion
McConomy Auditorium
Carnegie Mellon University
Suggested donation $5
(kids free & welcome, though it’s not quite The Lego Movie)


This movie is definitely worth your time: Over 400 parents, students, teachers, and community members recently turned out for a showing in Orlando, Florida. And two weekends ago, a group of thirty previewed the film here in Pittsburgh and then had a great discussion. The movie had us thinking about questions such as:

  • How many standardized tests do my children take? (if you’re in Pittsburgh, here’s the PPS assessment calendar)
  • With the proliferation of high-stakes testing, how much time are students spending on learning versus testing and test-prep?
  • What are the stakes attached to the tests for students?
  • Are high-stakes tests objective, reliable, and good measures of student achievement?
  • Are students learning how to take high-stakes-tests at the expense of actual content learning?
  • What negative side effects are students experiencing as a result of high-stakes testing?
  • To what extent have high-stakes-tests narrowed the curriculum with a focus on reading and math?
  • How has high-stakes testing changed the culture in our schools?
  • How have test results been used in making resource distribution and school closure decisions? And how have those decisions impacted our poorest students and communities of color?
  • How much do these tests cost?

Please join us for a discussion as we try to think outside the bubble! You can RSVP here to let us know you’re coming and help spread the word.


Testing Talk, Part II: A Petition

So what can we do to address any over-use or misuse of testing? Be sure to bring your ideas to the film screening. Here’s one strategy: We have started a petition, respectfully asking the Pittsburgh Public School board and administration to focus on less testing and more learning. Here is the text of the petition:

Over the past several years, our students have seen a dramatic expansion of testing. In Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS), children currently take 20 or 25 (or even more) high-stakes-tests a year. How much of the year is now spent preparing for tests and taking tests? In many of our schools, computer labs have become testing facilities and are no longer available for classes for weeks on end. We worry that the curriculum has narrowed, with a focus on reading and math test scores. And with the addition of testing this year in art and music, we worry that our students are losing more precious class time from these “specials” which are only offered once every six days.

We, concerned parents, students, educators, and community members, believe in real learning and more learning time for our children. We support quality assessments that help our children learn and provide meaningful information to teachers to help them meet the needs of individual students. We want tests, ideally designed by teachers, which align with the curriculum and give timely, informative results to parents and students. We think parents and teachers deserve post-testing access to all tests upon which their children’s grades and records (and teachers’ ratings) are based.

Yet the skyrocketing use of high-stakes-testing in our classrooms (such as the PSSAs, Keystones, Terra Nova, GRADE, CDTs, CBAs, and many others) does not appear to meet any of these requirements. Abundant evidence demonstrates that one-size-fits-all testing does not work, and we are concerned that the high-stakes attached to so many tests are actually harming our students and schools. We are particularly worried about the disproportionate impact high-stakes-testing may be having on our poorest students, most struggling students, and students of color.

We respectfully call on the PPS Board and Administration to:

  1. Conduct a thorough review of the PPS system of assessments and fully disclose to the public the cost, schedule, nature, purpose and mandating agency of all standardized tests (including field tests).
  2. Reduce the number of unnecessary assessments given to our children, saving time and money for real learning.
  3. End the use of high-stakes tests to make decisions that have an inequitable impact on students living in poverty, students of color, English language learners, and students receiving special education services (such as grade retention, remedial classes, access to advanced classes and gifted programs, and selection to magnet schools).
  4. Commit to developmentally appropriate and pedagogically sound assessments, replacing multiple-choice tests for the youngest learners (pre-K to 2nd grade) with performance-based assessments and evidence of learning from students’ ongoing class work; and greatly reducing multiple choice testing for older learners.

Less testing, more learning!

Please click here to sign the petition. And I hope to see you on Tuesday for the screening of “Standardized” and the community conversation.

Your Plan for Great Public Schools

The community has spoken. You have spoken. Yes, you. And you’ve had some pretty amazing ideas about what our public schools can be and how we can get there.

Together we’ve asked: How do we make all the public schools in Pittsburgh into great schools, schools that any family will happily send their children to, and that students will want to attend? At the same time, how can we address the long-standing disparities in our city, with far too many families living in poverty and students of color lacking equitable access to opportunities? Well, it turns out the community has a plan.

Over the past several years, literally thousands of people have participated in town hall meetings, rallies, community forums, lectures, street demonstrations, panel presentations, vigils, meetings with policy makers, teach-ins, trips to Harrisburg, public protests, and social media actions. To create a truly community-based vision for our public schools, you gave your input through these neighborhood events, as well as post card drives, petitions, numerous on-line discussion formats, and a large community survey. Volunteers, including several parents from Yinzercation, put all this together in an exciting new report, just released by our coalition Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh.

I highly encourage you to grab a cup of your favorite beverage and enjoy this concrete, positive, evidence-packed, attainable vision for our schools: “Great Public Schools for All Pittsburgh Children: A Community-Based Plan.” In a nutshell, here’s what you said: We believe that making schools the hearts of our neighborhoods is the most important improvement we can make in the coming years. Students and families deserve community schools that level the playing field and provide access to programs, services and resources that help them succeed in school and in life. We believe that all students ought to have equal access to education, including homeless children, children in foster care, children in residential placements, children with disabilities, immigrant students and English language learners.


1. Re-imagining Schools at the Center of Our Communities

  • Meet multiple student and community needs.
  • Schools as social and cultural centers.
  • Collaborate with communities as partners.
  • Protect schools as valued public assets.

2. Rich, Culturally Relevant Curriculum and Programs

  • Full art, music, science, history and world language programs.
  • A full-time, professional librarian in every school.
  • A full and varied athletic program.
  • The reduction of high-stakes testing for our children.

3. Focus on Student Learning

  • Smaller class sizes.
  • Differentiated instruction.
  • Provisions to meet the special education needs of all our students.
  • Well-funded and widely available tutoring programs.
  • A high-quality, well-supported teacher in every classroom.

4. Early Childhood Education

  • Expanded early childhood learning opportunities.
  • Maintenance of full-day kindergarten.
  • More rest and play time for kindergartners.

5. School Climate

  • Adequate daily recess for all students.
  • A nurse in every school, every school day.
  • Appropriate number of social workers and guidance counselors.
  • Bullying prevention programs in every school.
  • Fair and nondiscriminatory disciplinary policies.
  • Positive behavior support and restorative justice.
  • Authentic parent engagement.

By committing ourselves to a community schools strategy, we are able to promise all Pittsburgh students what they deserve: a rich, diverse, culturally relevant curriculum; schools in which they are safe, respected and valued; highly qualified teachers who are given the resources and support they need; full arts and athletic programs; smaller class sizes; a reduction in high-stakes testing; dedication to equity, inclusion and racial justice; and so much more. If our district—and we as a city—can make this commitment, we have the opportunity to inspire all of our children and instill in them a lifelong passion for learning.


Implementing a Community Schools Strategy

  1. Build awareness across the city.
  2. Develop a citywide task force.
  3. Design a five-year plan.
  4. Evidence of community school effectiveness.
  5. Funding for community schools.

Finding New Revenue for Our Children

  1. Engage the entire community in a concerted effort to restore the state budget cuts.
  2. Lobby for a fair funding formula.
  3. Work with state legislators for charter reform.
  4. Work with the city of Pittsburgh to find mutually beneficial solutions.
  5. Ensure that everyone pays their fair share.
  6. Consider a small local tax increase.
  7. Work with federal legislators to end sequestration.
  8. Explore alternative sources of revenue with existing resources.
  9. Partner with local foundations, businesses and community organizations.

I encourage you to read the report for full details on our collective vision and proposed solutions. And stay tuned for more events coming soon where you can continue to be a part of this crucial conversation and help shape the future of public education in Pittsburgh. You can help today by sharing this summary and full report with your friends and colleagues. Thank you!


Reason #1 to Oppose SB 1085

This week, Susan Spicka has given us five compelling reasons that our state senators ought to oppose the charter “reform” bill now in front of them. Her arguments are strong and sensible. Putting the needs of public school students first, she has explained how misguided legislation like SB 1085 will actually harm public schools, tie the hands of local school boards to make the best decisions for their communities, and wind up costing more taxpayer dollars. Is your senator listening? Have you emailed, called, or tweeted these messages out yet? To recap:

Reason #1 Our State Senators Should Oppose SB 1085
The policies in SB 1085 will not strengthen the public education system in PA, improve the performance of public schools (charter or traditional), or create efficiencies for taxpayers. SB 1085 will, however, open the door for the unfettered expansion of charter schools (even poorly performing ones) into communities throughout Pennsylvania, whether taxpayers can afford to pay for them or not.

It is difficult to see why SB 1085 has such strong support in the PA Senate.

Many legislators who support SB 1085 point to adjustments in charter school finances as their main reason for supporting this bill. SB 1085 will provide the PA legislature with some additional cash to spend as it pleases by eliminating part of the state’s share of mandated pension payments. Charter school tuition rates for school districts will also be slightly reduced.

Many senators who support this bill, especially those who live in districts that currently have few or no brick-and-mortar charter schools, appear to think that the damaging policies in SB 1085 will not have any negative impact on the traditional schools or taxpayers in their home districts.

Their thinking could not be more misguided.

When more than 100 private entities can authorize charter schools without the approval of local taxpayers, charter school operators will have the ability to expand into markets that had previous been off limits to them.

If SB 1085 passes, Pennsylvanians can expect to see new brick-and-mortar charter schools popping up in every county in Pennsylvania, as charter school operators take advantage of brand new opportunities to siphon public dollars into their private pockets.

A single new charter school in a county would wipe out all of the savings provided to school districts by SB 1085 and replace these savings with brand-new, enormous tuition bills that taxpayers will be mandated to pay.

As school districts will be stripped of the ability to control the growth of charter schools (even poorly performing ones) in their communities, tuition bills will skyrocket.

School districts throughout PA coping with massive increases in charter school expenses will have no choice but to raise property taxes and cut even more programs and services from traditional public schools in order to pay these new bills. This is something Pennsylvania’s taxpayers and children simply cannot afford.

Please contact your senator today and urge him/her to oppose SB 1085. The policies in SB 1085 are so damaging, so far-reaching, and so costly that they will weaken public schools and communities in every corner of Pennsylvania.

We most strongly urge our all of our state senators to oppose SB 1085 and to work on REAL charter school reform that will create efficiencies in school funding for taxpayers and strengthen Pennsylvania’s entire public school system.


Reason #2 to Oppose SB 1085

When we talk about “local control,” we’re not talking about petty turf-wars over charter school decisions. We’re talking about protecting the interests of local communities, local resources, and democracy itself. Here Susan Spicka explains what is at stake if the state strips our local school boards of their responsibilities.

Reason #2 Our State Senators Should Oppose SB 1085
SB 1085 is fiscally irresponsible and guts local control of our public schools

First, the private authorizer we already discussed will allow charter schools to set up shop and send us the bill, whether our communities can afford to pay for the schools or not.

Adding insult to injury, SB 1085 removes the ability of authorizing school districts to negotiate enrollment caps on charter schools. This extreme policy will prevent school districts from being able control expenses (and property tax increases to pay for these expenses) by planning responsibly for for new charter school tuition payments. SB 1085 will also allow for the unfettered expansion of charter schools in districts that are already struggling to remain solvent and  provide even basic educational opportunities to students in traditional schools.

Finally, a system of direct payment to charter schools from the state included in the bill will eliminate the current check and balance system that helps ensure taxpayers are not making improper tuition payments for students who have moved out of their district or who are no longer enrolled in charter or cyber charter schools.

Under current law, our school district business officials are able to verify student enrollment in charter and cyber charter schools each month before they make payments to charter schools. If they find that their school district is being charged improperly, the school district is able to withhold the improper payment from the charter school and the enrollment error is fixed. In even small school districts, eliminating improper payments saves thousands of precious taxpayer dollars each year.

Direct payment by the state, especially since SB 1085 shifts the evidentiary burden of funding disputes onto school districts, will result in the wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars on improper tuition payments to charter schools. PDE simply will not have the capacity to do the work of hundreds of business officials and verify the enrollment of more than 100,000 charter school students. As a result, state funding that should be directed to our local school districts will inevitably be used to make improper payments to charter schools instead. 

The first goal of good charter school legislation should be to craft a sustainable charter school funding formula that will create efficiencies for taxpayers and help strengthen Pennsylvania’s entire system of public education. Instead, SB 1085 strips local communities of control over their tax dollars, removes important measures that help eliminate the wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars on improper charter school payments, and mandates that taxpayers fund charter schools they simply cannot afford.

Please contact your senator here and urge him or her to oppose SB 1085. Feel free to cut and paste this message:

Please oppose SB 1085 because it is fiscally irresponsible and guts local control of our schools.

SB 1085 removes the ability of school districts to negotiate enrollment caps on charter schools and prevents school districts from being able to plan responsibly for charter school payments. It also provides for the direct payment to charter schools by the state and lays the  burden of proof for enrollment errors on school districts.

By providing direct payment to charter schools and eliminating the ability of school districts to verify student enrollment, this policy will remove an important check and balance from the system that helps ensure improper payments are not made to charter schools. As a result, state funding that should be directed to our local school districts will inevitably be used to make improper payments to charter schools instead. 

The first goal of good charter school legislation should be to craft a sustainable charter school funding formula that will create efficiencies for taxpayers and help strengthen Pennsylvania’s entire system of public education. SB 1085 fails miserably to accomplish both of these goals.

Reason #3 to Oppose SB 1085

Susan Spicka is co-founder of our sister group, Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley. This week, they have been publishing her top-five list of reasons our state senators need to be paying close attention to the current charter “reform” bill, SB 1085. If we citizens do not take the time to contact our senators and educate them about this bill, it will very likely pass. Why? As Susan explains, SB 1085 appears to offer school districts some short-term savings in pension payments and cyber charter tuition. We desperately need real reform in these two areas, but the proposed savings in this bill are truly minimal and will not begin to offset the increased costs to districts if the state allows dramatic charter expansion. It’s our job to help our Senators see that the policy failures in SB 1085 far outweigh any savings.

Reason #3 Our State Senators Should Oppose SB 1085

The Charter School Funding Advisory Commission considers ONLY charter school needs.

The proposed Charter School Funding Advisory Commission is heavily stacked in favor of charter schools and is prohibited by law from considering the fiscal impact of charter school growth on local communities. (ELC_CharterBillAnalysis_SB1085_10_29_13)

This is an insult to Pennsylvania’s taxpayers.

Charter schools are not “tuition-free” as ubiquitous Internet ads proclaim. In fact, Pennsylvania taxpayers spend more than $1 billion on charter school tuition payments every year.

Increased charter school growth will necessarily result in increased education costs in our local communities. Average charter school tuition is very roughly $10,000 per student per year. A new charter school with 400 students will create a brand new $4 million per year cost for taxpayers in that community. The new cost will be in addition to what taxpayers are already spending to support their traditional public schools. This is something that taxpayers in most communities, frankly, cannot afford right now.

Legislators who are willing to consider only the needs of charter schools demonstrate a complete disregard for Pennsylvania’s taxpayers, who are already struggling to pay ever-increasing property tax bills.

Any charter school funding commission MUST be charged with finding the best, most efficient way to use precious taxpayer dollars to pay for and strengthen our entire public school system. It must not consider only the needs of charter schools.

Please contact your senator here and urge him or her to oppose SB 1085. Feel free to cut and paste this message:

Please oppose SB 1085 because the Charter School Funding Advisory Commission in the bill is prohibited by law from considering the impact of charter school growth on the communities that you represent.

The taxpayers you represent will be responsible for paying the charter school tuition bills of students in our communities who attend these schools. It is irresponsible for our state government to pass a law that completely disregards the financial impact charter school growth will have on taxpayers, who are already struggling to pay property tax bills to support the schools we have now.

Any charter school funding advisory group MUST be charged with finding the best, most efficient way to use precious taxpayer dollars to pay for and strengthen our entire public school system. It must not consider only the needs of charter schools.