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.

New Year Cheer

It may be mid-January, but we have at least four more reasons to keep the New Year party going this week.

First, Governor Corbett is apparently getting ready to propose an increase to state funding for public education. Sources close to his office say that the new budget, which will be announced on February 4th, will include $100 to $200 million more this year. [Philly.com, 1-16-14] That’s a good step in the right direction. But we’re still down $700 million in the annual budget from 2010-2011, with the cumulative loss for our schools now topping $2.4 billion. Any restoration of funds will be a win for our education justice movement, reflecting the enormous effort of grassroots advocates to keep the plight of public schools on the political agenda.

The governor is reportedly hoping to find at least some of the proposed money in pension reform, which is also desperately needed. Legislators on both sides of the aisle have been putting off that uncomfortable task for far too long. [See “Pension History 101”] However, reform needs to respect the educators who work with our children – which is clearly not the aim of those on the far right trying to make teachers and their unions public enemy #1. For example, last spring Senator Pat Toomey and the Commonwealth Foundation launched “Project Goliath” to “slay Pennsylvania’s Big Labor” – starting with teachers and their pensions. [The Nation, 4-23-13]

Fortunately, staff members familiar with the budget plan report, “It is unlikely that Corbett will link the funding increase for public schools to another policy item” that does not have widespread support. [Philly.com, 1-16-14] He tried that last year with the privatization of liquor stores. [See “Kids or Booze”]

In addition to a possible budget increase, public school advocates have reason to cheer a House bill that passed this week. After contentious debate on the house floor, legislators overwhelmingly approved HB 1738, which would create a commission to recommend a fair funding formula for the state. [Pennlive, 1-15-14] As you will recall, we already had such a formula, put in place by the legislature after its own 2006 costing-out study documented vast inequities in school funding across the state. But Governor Corbett eliminated that formula when he cut the budget. [“A Shameful Betrayal”] While any new spending formula would only apply to increases in the state budget, the House vote is also a step in the right direction.

A third reason to keep celebrating: in a ruling filed this morning, Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley struck down the state’s new Voter ID law. Judge McGinley said the law poses “a substantial threat” to hundreds of thousands of qualified voters, explaining, “Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal.” [Daily Kos, 1-17-14] Not only did that law fail to address any actual problem in the state, while interfering with a fundamental right, it was estimated to cost taxpayers $11 million to fully implement. [“There Goes $11 Million for Our Schools”] Rather than challenging this ruling, let’s hope Governor Corbett reallocates that money to public education.

Last but not least, three cheers for the hundreds of parents, students, teachers, and community members who gathered early this morning outside a Philadelphia high school where the governor was scheduled to make an appearance. It would have been his very first visit to a Philadelphia school since his budget slashing had such devastating effects in that district, and folks were none too pleased to have Gov. Corbett there to take credit for Central High School’s high rankings on the state’s new school performance profile system. But Gov. Corbett decided at the last minute to dodge the kids carrying signs, ditch the auditorium full of people waiting to hear him speak, and fled downtown to the Chamber of Commerce for a private press conference. [City Paper, 1-17-14]

As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend, now would be a good time to remember his words:

“…we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” [1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail]

Let’s hear it for our grassroots movement and education justice advocates everywhere. It is a new year and we have reasons to cheer!

Calling all Students

What do zombies and massive street demonstrations have in common? Philadelphia public school students. Young people in Philly have staged zombie flash mobs to illustrate the impact of budget cuts on their education. They have also packed school board meetings to protest school closures and, earlier this year, filled the streets with thousands in a deafeningly loud march. These are exciting and engaged young people – and we have much to learn from them.

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

Philadelphia student march, May 2013.

Philadelphia student march, May 2013.

Know any high school students? Here is a fantastic opportunity for Pittsburgh area young people to meet some of those Philadelphia students and learn about our shared fight for education justice. Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh is pleased to host student activists from Youth United for Change and the Philadelphia Student Union this Thursday, Nov. 21st. We will feed everyone starting at 5:30PM (with the meeting at 6PM) at the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers building: 10 South 19th Street, on the South Side.

Please encourage the high school kids you know to join the conversation and be a part of the change we need in our schools. When students speak, adults listen. When students take action, anything is possible. Maybe even zombies in the streets of Pittsburgh.

PhillyStudents11-21

It was a Moving Day

This is a guest blog by Kathy Newman, who helped lead the Yinzercation charge to Harrisburg on Tuesday.

What do you do when you realize that thousands of teachers and staffers in the City of Brotherly Love are going to lose their jobs, and that come this fall Philadelphia school children won’t have administrative assistants, music, art, sports, library and basic supplies? What do you do to support the people who are now on their eleventh day of a hunger strike to protest this calamity? What do you do when you are MOVED to act?

You get on the bus to join the Philadelphia activists for a massive rally in Harrisburg! Our day started out with the unfurling of the new Yinzercation banner and some matching Yinzercation t-shirts at the PFT headquarters on the Southside. Seven boisterous Yinzercators boarded the bus with more than 150 boisterous members of our new coalition, Great Public Schools, which includes Yinzercation, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT), PA Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), One Pittsburgh, SEIU, and Action United.

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After we arrived in Harrisburg we found hundreds of teachers and school workers who had come to protest the destruction of their school district on the Capitol steps. They wore signs that said, “I’m a teacher and I buy my own paper,” “Education should not be for sale,” and, “There is nothing left to cut.” They had also prepared thousands of signs that showed the “faces of the layoffs,” the names, faces and school affiliations of each of the nearly 4,000 teachers and staffers who are about to be unemployed.

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During the rally we listened to speakers from Philadelphia, like PA State Senator Vincent Hughes (who had seen our banner and gave a shout out to the “Yinzers” in the crowd), and even our own Pittsburgh area Representative Ed Gainey, who spoke powerfully about the education budget disaster in Philadelphia and across the state. We also checked in briefly with our wonderful representative Dan Frankel and his staff. Frankel is one of the great public education champions in Harrisburg—just yesterday he drew attention to education cuts on his facebook page and reiterated his support for revenue raising solutions such as “a reasonable Marcellus Shale drilling tax, closing the corporate tax Delaware Loophole and freezing a corporate tax rather than letting another scheduled big-business tax cut take effect.”

During the rally we were also incredibly moved by the testimony of the Philly school workers and parents who are on their 11th day of a hunger strike to restore the cuts to the Philly school budget. (You can follow their journey on Twitter at #Phillyfast.)

After the rally we spread out around the Capitol Dome and made a human chain around the Capitol—a feat based in sheer numbers no other recent activist group has been able to do. We were MOVED to make our voices heard in Harrisburg!

Believe it or not, yesterday was a “moving day” for Governor Tom Corbett. After the Great Public Schools coalition added our voices to the chorus at the Capitol building, we navigated our busses a few blocks away to the front the Governor’s official state residence. We brought with us the People’s Moving Company, a few activists dressed in moving jumpsuits, some bull horns and our naturally boisterous voices. We chanted “One term Tom,” and “Hit the road, Tom,” and “What do we do when education is under attack? Stand up fight back!”

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We headed back to Pittsburgh as real-life storm clouds gathered above us in the sky. We were tired, hot and hungry, but re-energized, too, by the passion and the fighting spirit we saw in our Philadelphia brothers and sisters. Their fight is our fight. Our fight is their fight.

At the end of the day were moved by each other, but as the song proclaims, we SHALL NOT be moved by the forces that want to privatize, monetize, standardize and downsize public education. Public education is a public good. Call your legislator before June 30th and remind him/her to restore Philadelphia’s education budget and put $270 million back into the budget for all of the Commonwealth’s beautiful, brilliant school children.

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More or Less

Three thousand, eight hundred. That’s how many teachers and school staff the students in Philadelphia are losing. You read that right: 3,800 – almost 20% of the city’s entire education workforce – received pink slips last week. Philadelphia public schools will no longer have any secretaries to answer the phones, counselors to help students, assistant principals, or cafeteria monitors. There will be no more teachers for music, art, or library. No books, supplies, after school activities, clubs, or field trips. [The Notebook, 6-7-13]

One Philadelphia teacher wrote to education historian Diane Ravitch this weekend to say, “Most of my co-workers laid off were history teachers – an untested subject in PA.” She went on, “What is happening in Philadelphia is a complete travesty and a failure of democracy … If I return to the classroom in the fall, the ‘education’ I will be able to give my students will not look anything like what I was taught education should be.” [DianeRavitch, 6-9-13] Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the cuts will leave only “something called a school.” [The Notebook, 6-7-13]

So why should we care over here in Southwest PA? For one thing, the travesty described by these Philadelphia educators is just the tip of the public-education-crisis iceberg. What’s happening in the city of brotherly love is happening all over Pennsylvania (and in fact, all over the country) with the systematic de-funding of our schools, the re-routing of public resources to private hands, and the re-writing of state education policies to benefit the few at the expense of the many.

Look at Duquesne school district, which is circling the drain and may not even be a school district after next year. Look at Wilkinsburg, which is on the state’s new “financial watch list” and is just inches from a state takeover. The Post-Gazette reports today that residents there think “the district has already fallen off the cliff”. One person told a reporter, “Honestly, it’s too far gone. … At this point, it needs to be totally dismantled.”  [Post-Gazette, 6-10-13] That’s the tragic sound of the public giving up on public education. Worse, it means people have given up on public school students.

This battle we are fighting for our schools is a battle for education justice. This past weekend, Yinzercator Kathy Newman and I presented at the Labor and Working Class History Association conference in New York City, along with our colleague Rebecca Poyourow from Philadelphia. We talked about the political, social, and economic context of public education today and our grassroots movement – and Rebecca spoke movingly about what is happening in our sister city.

In another session, teachers from New York and Chicago talked about the successful 2012 Chicago teachers strike, which was really a strike to save public schools for public school students. Peter Brogan, a Ph.D. student in geography and one of the panelists at that session, described the way that school closings reproduce poverty in particular neighborhoods and treat students as “surplus humanity.” What an apt phrase. When we give up on public schools in places like Wilkinsburg or Philadelphia, we condemn tens of thousands of children to living as surplus humanity. And we know that this “surplus” is mostly black and brown. In other words, education justice is also about racial justice.

I was struck by this photo taken at a recent rally in Philadelphia of a young African-American student holding a sign that reads, “Why take MORE when we already have LESS?” Indeed.

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[Photo: Amy Yeboah, The Notebook, 5-30-13]

Think about this student. Think about Duquesne and Wilkinsburg. Think about Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and the devastating cuts to our educational programs. It’s time to get MORE for these students who have LESS.

Education Voters PA is urging everyone to call the State Senate today, explaining, “Over the past two years, the Senate has played a critical role in getting money back into the budget for public education. …Right now the Senate is where key decisions will get made to move things in the right direction.” Click here to get your Senator’s information and then call today and tell them to:

  • Fight for $270 million in funding to be restored. If they can cut almost $1 billion in one year, then restoring a third of that shouldn’t be impossible. In addition, they should help identify resources for Special Education – which has been flat funded for 5 years – and they should fix the charter pension double dip.
  • Adopt provisions to improve the funding allocation formula to make it fairer and to get to adequate funding levels for all students.
  • Ask them NOT give away hundreds of millions this year by eliminating the state corporate assets tax (the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax). Tell them to delay this phase out so we can so we can invest in children instead of providing another corporate tax break.

That would do it, more or less.

Philly Today, Pittsburgh Tomorrow

Massive demonstrations. Eighteen arrests, including students, parents, and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Tears and sobbing as entire communities learned they would no longer have a school. What happened in Philadelphia yesterday could be happening in Pittsburgh very soon. Last night the state-imposed School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to close 23 more schools in the city of brotherly love. Citing financial woes and population loss all too familiar to those of us here in the steel city, the SRC considers school closings its only option. No matter the devastation to neighborhoods. No matter that Philadelphia’s student population loss problem is largely due to charter schools siphoning students away.

The SRC has justified these school closings by saying that students in “low performing” schools would be better off in “better” schools. But this is a line right out of the corporate-reform playbook and not based on any evidence. In fact, this strategy has been tried over and over again in other cities and evidence indicates that students do not do better in different schools. And school districts do not even save money: “research shows that it’s hard for school districts to recoup the closure savings they project, and a study from the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute found that only 6 percent of students displaced by closed schools performed better in their new academic environments.” [Huffington Post, 3-7-13] Six percent. Six.

With that data, you cannot seriously suggest that closing down neighborhood schools is a strategy for improving student performance. Worse, these school closing plans fail to acknowledge the civil rights and equity issues involved, since poor communities and people of color are disproportionately affected. To close schools overlooks the critical importance of those institutions in struggling neighborhoods. It is a failure to see the larger ramifications in a city and a failure to think carefully about alternatives.

Our colleague, Philadelphia parent activist Helen Gym, points out that it is a failure of imagination and vision that is really killing public education. Inadequate resources have created enormous problems for the Philadelphia school district, “But it has been mortally wounded by a lack of vision to combat a relentless effort by corporate education reformers to declare the death of the neighborhood school.” Gym explains that Philadelphia’s school closing plan is really about:

“collapsing failing schools into failing schools, with no promises of investment and, perhaps even more alarming, with the likelihood of even greater disinvestment. Cheering on the sidelines will be private organizations that funded and contracted with the consultants driving many of the proposals. In their “vision” of a new school landscape, going to school is as simple as choosing your brand of soda. Corporate ed reform-speak labels the defenders of public education as “emotional” and “sentimental” while they claim the language of data and logic. In fact, there is plenty of data to show that the shift we have seen from neighborhood schools toward an increasingly choice-based system is not serving the city’s most vulnerable students. Data from around the country show that school closings minus a vision for re-investment are little more than self-cannibalization, where closings tend to breed more closings.” [The Notebook, 3-7-13]

Does any of this sound familiar? Pittsburgh has hired consulting firms to help it plan for the future amidst warnings that it will deplete its entire reserve account by 2015. [“PPS: Planning a Privatization Scheme?”] What seems clear is that this plan will feature another round of school closings for our city. We need to re-think the assumption that school closings are inevitable. As another Philadelphia colleague and parent activist, Rebecca Poyourow, warns: “mass closings of … public schools undermine our children’s educational prospects, compromise kids’ safety, contribute to the drop-out crisis, uproot communities, and destroy jobs and neighborhoods—all for little to no savings.” Consider Poyourow’s pointed questions to their mayor, substituting “Pittsburgh” for “Philadelphia”:

  • Why does Philadelphia have to pursue such cut-rate, imitative policy?
  • Why are we being forced to buy into this mass school-closing plan, copied from other cities where it has already flopped?
  • When we have data from other cities where such plans have proven disastrous, and when we have local data that the receiving schools are no better (and sometimes worse) than the schools Philadelphia students are being forced from, why do we have to travel down the same road? [Parents United, 3-6-13]

What Philadelphia is doing is essentially divesting in its own neighborhoods. It is a stunning lack of vision on the part of the city as a whole and a refusal to acknowledge the central role that schools play in the life and vitality of their communities. Pittsburgh needs to pay close attention to what is happening in our sister city across the state and think carefully about our vision for public education here. Rebecca Poyourow suggests:

“We need to find a way to harness the capacity for schools to be hubs for neighborhood cohesion and economic development, perhaps through the joint use of schools that are currently under-enrolled—arrangements in which non-profit or for-profit entities, public agencies, or civic groups pay rent to share the use of school buildings and grounds.  Considering such an idea is exciting, but it would take collaboration and innovation among city government officials, the school district, and neighborhood groups.  It would mean combining discussions of policy with the local knowledge of students, teachers, parents, and neighborhood residents.” [Parents United, 3-6-13]

Pittsburgh has the time right now to have that conversation and to consider such big ideas. We have to start questioning the inevitability of school closings and challenging the faulty underlying logic that claims that hurting neighborhoods will somehow save us money and improve student learning. But we have to start now. Otherwise, as Philly goes, so goes Pittsburgh.

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.