Debate by the Numbers

Here’s a re-cap of last night’s Education Debate in numbers, news, and photographs. First the numbers:

4 -  Democratic gubernatorial candidates: Rob McCord, Katie McGinty, Allyson Schwartz, and Tom Wolf.

2 -  Co-hosts for the evening: PA Interfaith Impact Network and Yinzercation.

10 -  Community organizations co-sponorsing: Action United, A+ Schools, Black Political Empowerment Project, Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, Greater Park Place Neighborhood Association, League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, YMCA Youth and Government Club at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12.

21 -  Members of the planning team. Thank you to all the volunteers who made the debate possible.

500 -  People in the audience!

17 -  Questions asked by moderator (Lisa Sylvester from WPXI) and our community panel (Rev. Richard Freeman, PIIN President; Cassi Schaffer, Pittsburgh Public School parent and community activist; and Joel Macklin, Pittsburgh Obama junior).

1,000 -  Number of times the candidates pledged to restore the budget cuts and implement a fair funding formula (OK, that was an exaggeration, but it was certainly a main point of agreement among them).

The debate aired live locally on PCNC TV and across the state on PCN TV. We also had broad print, radio, and television followup coverage, including:

If you missed the live broadcast, WPXI TV plans to run a one-hour, edited version of the debate this Sunday, April 13th, at 9AM. Set your DVRs now! Our radio partner, WESA FM, also plans to air a 60 minute edition of the debate tomorrow, Thursday, April 10th, at 10PM.

Here are some photographic highlights, most taken by our volunteer photographer, Jessica Chow (a Chatham University student), with others by Karen Hochberg and Sheila May-Stein:

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!



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, 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.

New Logo, Old Principles

Drum roll please … introducing our new logo! Drawn by local artist Danny Devine, the Yinzercation school bus shows people taking action. Are those rally signs we can see peeking out the windows? We are literally on the bus together, ready to save public education as a public good. Movements move, and this bus is going places for education justice. Don’t worry, it will stop for you – and there’s always room for more people.


While the logo might be new, the principles that unite us are not. We are committed to keeping the focus on students and equity, evidence-based arguments, and saving public education as a public good. Sometimes it gets complicated since we are a movement, not an organization, and we may not all agree on everything, all the time. But as I listen to this growing education justice movement – at rallies, on the streets, at national conferences, in community meetings, on petitions, in social media – these are the core principles I hear:

  • State budgets must provide adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for public education. Everyone must pay their fair share.
  • Education reform should address long-standing racial and class-based inequities. These include resource distribution, the disproportionate impact of school closures on communities of color, and inequitable disciplinary procedures that feed the school-to-prison pipeline.
  • The public owns public education. We therefore oppose privatization (such as vouchers and tax credit programs), centralization of power, and mass school closures.
  • Education justice depends on civil discourse, public debate, and the intentional inclusion of minority and historically excluded groups in decision making.
  • Public policies must empower authentic parent engagement and protect student confidentiality.
  • We can win when we work together with our grassroots colleagues here, across the state, and around the nation. Collaboration is essential and students are crucial leaders.

What do you think? In preparation for our new logo, I have been re-vamping the Yinzercation website to make it even more of a space for conversation and civil debate as we ask questions and seek answers together. I’ve added new tabs at the top that highlight some of the main issues in the education justice movement today: equity, school funding, corporate-style reform, school closures, and high-stakes testing. If you haven’t been on the site in while, take a look and let us all know what you think by leaving a comment on this piece. Thanks!

We are Many

If I had to sum up in three words the first national conference of the Network for Public Education, they would be: We. Are. Many. There were over 400 people from across the U.S. (and at least one person from Canada) in Austin this past weekend, and we know there are many thousands more with us in the education justice movement. In her keynote address Sunday, education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch stated several times, “We will win. Because they are few, and we are many.” (Watch it here.)

Indeed. Let me tell you just a little bit about some of those many people I met this weekend to give you a sense of what this grassroots movement looked like on display in Texas. Nearly all of us were there on our own dime and the conference was organized by the volunteer board of the Network for Public Education. I was lucky to travel with fellow Yinzercators Kipp Dawson, a Pittsburgh Public School middle level teacher and mother of two PPS graduates, and Pam Harbin, a mother of two PPS students and co-chair of the Local Task Force on the Right to Education.

The Pittsburgh Delegation

The Pittsburgh Delegation

The Pennsylvania delegation also included: Larry Feinberg, school board member from Haverford Township (near Philly) and co-chair of the Keystone State Education Coalition (Larry publishes an invaluable daily media digest of education stories from around Pennsylvania that I read every day); one of my heroes, Helen Gym, Philadelphia parent and co-founder of Parents United (our “big sister” group across the state); and Mark Miller, school board member from Centennial School District and board member of the Network for Public Education. I’ll include Dr. Tim Slekar, dean of the school of education at Edgewood College, and Dr. Shaun Johnson, education researcher and Kindergarten teacher, who produce the blog and web radio program @theChalkFace, as honorary Pennsylvania delegates since they are both native yinzers.

The conference covered a wide range of topics in public education today, with two keynote addresses, an all-star panel on the Common Core State Standards, and 27 sessions on everything from student privacy, civil rights, and student activism, to charter schools, education research, Teach for America, high-stakes-testing, and Astroturf groups. There were disagreements and plenty of civil discourse. Here is just a sample of this education justice feast.

Students: The amazing Providence Student Union, masters of political theater who have been particularly active around testing issues, sent representatives. It was a pleasure to see Stephanie Rivera, one of the founders of Students United for Public Education, a national organization of college students fighting for equity and against privatization.

Student leaders from the national Students United for Public Education

Student leaders from the national Students United for Public Education (photo from Twitter)

Karran Harper-Royal, Helen Gym, and Jessie Ramey speaking on parent engagement

Karran Harper-Royal, Helen Gym, and Jessie Ramey speaking on parent engagement

Parents: I was deeply honored to be on a panel discussing the role of parents in advancing public education along with Helen Gym and Karran Harper-Royal, New Orleans parent and education advocate. (I first learned about Karran’s work from the incredible political cartoons at TruthOut by Adam Bessie, English professor at Northern California Community College, whom I also met at the conference.) I loved meeting the Chicago parents from the new group, Bad Ass Moms, including Rosemary Vega and Shoniece Reynolds, mother of Asean Johnson who became a media sensation last year as a fourth grader when he spoke so powerfully against school closures in Chicago.

Some of the Bad Ass Moms from Chicago (with other friends)

Some of the Bad Ass Moms from Chicago (with other friends; photo from Twitter)

Chicago parent Shoniece Reynolds and Seattle teacher Jesse Hogopian

Chicago parent Shoniece Reynolds and Seattle teacher Jesse Hogopian (photo from Twitter)

Teachers: Talk about teacher heroes sticking up for students. I met Jesse Hagopian, the Seattle teacher who led the boycott there last spring when teachers in two entire buildings refused to give a high-stakes test. Chicago teachers Michelle Gunderson and Katie Osgood rock (it was Katie’s piece on teaching in a psychiatric hospital helped me understand the impact of high-stakes-testing on students). New York City teacher Jose Luis Vilson blew me away with his gender analysis of problems with the Common Core. And Boston teacher Geralyn McLaughlin, who is also executive director of Defending the Early Years, provided the most compelling evidence of the way in which Common Core standards are developmentally inappropriate.

Education researchers: Eminent educator Deborah Meier was there. And so was Dr. Sonya Horsford from Geroge Mason University, Dr. Tina Trujillo from U.C. Berkeley who talked about the need to combine scholarship and activism, and Dr. Kevin Welner from the University of Colorado Boulder, who directs the National Education Policy Center. The NEPC publishes terrific research that I have come to rely on in my work. I particularly enjoyed being able to tell Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig from the University of Texas at Austin how his research on Teach for America informed our own local conversations in Pittsburgh.

Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig

Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig

Education justice champions: Eloquent and passionate Jitu Brown is an education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago. To hear him speak is to feel social justice in your bones. Great to see Xian Barrett again, who has been to Pittsburgh with the VIVA project, organizing local communities to speak up for public education.

Jitu Brown, education community organizer in Chicago

Jitu Brown, education community organizer in Chicago

Grassroots organizations: I had a lovely breakfast with NPE board member Phyllis Bush from Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education, a group similar to Yinzercation. I learned a lot from Laura Yeager, who helped to start Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA), or what some people call Mothers against Drunk Testing. Last year they successfully worked with the Texas legislature to reduce the number of required graduation exams from 15 to 5 and to remove many of the stakes. And I enjoyed talking to Dr. Nancy Cauthen, who is active with the New York state group, Change the Stakes.

Union & district leaders: During her comments on a panel on the Common Core, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten gave a huge shout-out to Pittsburgh, our new mayor, and our work to build a community coalition. With their shared keynote address on Saturday, Chicago teachers union president Karen Lewis and “America’s best school superintendent” John Kuhn from Texas, demonstrated what a labor-management dream team would look like. (You can watch their fantastic address here; you’ll be glad you did.)

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis and Texas school superintendent John Kuhn deliver a keynote address

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis and Texas school superintendent John Kuhn deliver a keynote address

Bloggers & progressive media: Recently over 120 of us education bloggers have formed a network where we have started to communicate regularly. I got a chance to meet some of my favorite colleagues whom I depend on for a lot of reporting no longer coming from the mainstream media, including: Jennifer Berkshire (EduShyster) whom everyone agrees is the funniest blogger around; Darcie Cimarusti (Mother Crusader) from New Jersey; and Dr. Mercedes Schneider (deutsch29) who also participated on the Common Core panel and shredded it in under five minutes (you can watch that here). It was also great to see representatives from the alternative media at the conference, including Rethinking Schools; Ruth Conniff, editor of The Progressive Magazine, which also produces Public School Shakedown and has published some of my work; and Joanne Barkan, a writer for Dissent, who has published on the big money behind corporate-style reform.

Fellow blogger Mercedes Schneider and I may or may not have been drinking beer together

Fellow blogger Mercedes Schneider and I may or may not have been drinking beer together

Two NPE board members: educator and blogger Anthony Cody and Florida parent activist Colleen Wood

Two NPE board members: educator and blogger Anthony Cody and Florida parent activist Colleen Wood

The conference was a social media festival and was trending at #1 on twitter both Saturday and Sunday (#NPEconference, if you want to check it out). Following the last session, the Network for Public Education held a press conference and issued a resolution calling on Congress to hold hearings on the over-use and misuse of high-stakes testing. The resolution “states that high-stakes testing in public schools has led to multiple unintended consequences that warrant federal scrutiny” and “asks Congressional leaders to pursue eleven potential inquiries, including, ‘Do the tests promote skills our children and our economy need?’ and ‘Are tests being given to children who are too young?’” [NPE press release, 3-2-14]

These were a powerful two days that confirmed, “We are many.” But if I had to boil the conference down to just one word, it would be: Inspiring.

Where’s the Money?

Governor Corbett seems to be having trouble finding the money to pay for our children’s education. So we’ve put together this helpful list of potential state revenue sources to help him out. Because there is money that could help us restore the devastating budget cuts to our schools (now totaling $2.3 billion), but it’s just not going to our kids.

Possible State Revenue Sources

  • Close tax loopholes: the Delaware loophole costs our state $500 million in missed tax revenue every year and more than 20 other states have already closed it. The “89-11″ real estate transfer scheme cost Pittsburgh schools alone millions of dollars before it was tightened last year. What other loopholes can be closed right now? [See “Corporate Grinches”]
  • Impose a severance tax on Marcellus shale: most states with major mineral resources like ours have a severance tax, not just a mere impact fee. This could yield $334 million per year. [Post-Gazette, 12-27-13]
  • Get rid of the new bonus depreciation rule: the Corbett administration adopted this federal tax incentive in 2011 and it quickly cost far more than the $200 million it was anticipated to drain from the public and now could cost up to $700 million. [See “We Have a Priority Problem”; PBPC, “Revenue Tracker” report, 3-9-12]
  • Keep the capital stock and franchise tax: Gov. Corbett wants to eliminate these by next year as a gift to corporations. But if lawmakers freeze the tax at 2012 levels, the state could raise around $390 million. [PBPC, “Budget Analysis,” 5-29-13]
  • Eliminate sales tax exemptions for millionaires: helicopters and gold bullion top the list of hard-to-swallow exemptions. [PBPC, “Kids or Tax Breaks,” 3-19-13]
  • Tax cigars, chewing tobacco, and loose tobacco: unlike other states, Pennsylvania does not tax these products. Doing so could generate $56 million per year. [Post-Gazette, 12-27-13]
  • Cap discount to businesses that remit state sales tax: a Post-Gazette analysis suggests that “big stores like Wal-mart, Target and other would be most affected” and would save the state $44 million. [Post-Gazette, 12-27-13]
  • Rescind the new Voter ID bill: it solves no actual problem in the state, has been declared unconstitutional by a Pennsylvania judge, will be expensive to legally defend, and will cost taxpayers an estimated $11 million to implement. [PBPC report, 5-10-11]
  • Fix the cyber-charter funding formula: Taxpayers and school districts could be saving $365 million per year – that’s $1million per day – if cyber charter schools received funding based on what they actually spent per student. [PA Auditor General, “Charter School Funding Special Report,” 6-20-12]
  • Shut down the EITC programs: they cost us $150 million per year by funneling corporate tax money that should have gone to the state for our budget needs into the hands of private schools instead, with zero accountability to the public. [See “EITC No Credit to PA”; Keystone Research Center, “No Accountability,” 4-7-11]
  • Reduce high-stakes-testing: The new School Performance Profile system, largely based on student test scores, cost us taxpayers $2.7 million to develop over the past three years and it will cost an estimated $838,000 every year to maintain. [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] This does not include the five-year, $201.1 million contract Pennsylvania made with Data Recognition Corporation to administer high-stakes-tests to our students. [, 12-1-11]
  • Stop the charter-school “double dip”: due to an administrative loophole in the law, all charter schools are paid twice for the same pension costs – once by local school districts and again by the state: by 2016 this double dipping will cost taxpayers $510 million. [Reform PA Charter Schools]
  • Stop handing money to international giants. The new sweetheart deal with international giant Dutch Royal Shell will cost taxpayers $1.675 billion. That’s billion with a “b.” [Post-Gazette, 6-4-12]
  • Make choices to fund schools, not prisons. While the state has slashed funding for public schools in 2011 and 2012, it has not done so for prisons, and has actually increased the 2013 Department of Corrections budget by $75.2 million ($63 million of which is for correctional institutions). [PBPC, “Final Budget Analysis,” 7-9-13]

There you go. I think we just found hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to adequately, equitably, and sustainably pay for public education. You’re welcome.

More Bad than Good

Governor Corbett doesn’t want to hear what the public thinks about his proposed budget. He leaked details to the press Monday in advance of his Tuesday announcement “under the condition of a late-night embargo, precluding the gauging of reaction before publication.” [Post-Gazette, 2-4-14] So we’ll keep our analysis nice and simple for him:

  • More $ for special ed = GOOD
  • More scholarships for higher ed = GOOD
  • More $ for early childhood = GOOD
  • Flat funding for K-12 basic ed = VERY BAD
  • More $ for richer schools = BAD
  • Flat funding for higher ed = BAD
  • Making schools compete for $ = BAD
  • Grant $ only for training but not teachers = BAD

Now, for those who would like a few more details, let’s start with the positive. Governor Corbett proposed a $20 million increase to special education funding. That’s welcome news since the state’s own Special Education Funding Commission recently found that special education funding has not increased since 2008-09, effectively pushing rising costs onto local school districts. [Pennsylvania Special Education Funding Commission Report, December 2013] This has been especially problematic for districts like Pittsburgh that have substantially larger proportions of students with special education needs (18.1% of Pittsburgh students receive special education services, while the state average for all schools is 14.5%). Legislators need to continue the positive momentum on special education funding while also re-instating a fair funding formula to distribute that money.

Governor Corbett also proposed an additional $10 million for early childhood education and a $25 million college scholarship program. There’s probably no better investment we can make than in quality early childhood programs. However, while the college scholarship program will help low-income and middle-class families, it does nothing to address the historic de-funding of higher public education. Over the past four years, Gov. Corbett has cut public college and university funding by an astonishing 20% (forcing institutions to push costs onto students through rising tuition bills) and he proposes locking in those cuts again this year. Pennsylvania students now rank as the third-most indebted in the nation. [Project on Student Debt]

Perhaps the worst news in the budget is the Governor’s plan to flat-fund the K-12 “basic education” line. This line provides the bulk of education funds to our public schools and flat funding essentially means another budget cut, as districts grapple with ever rising costs. Our kids have already lost just about everything that isn’t nailed down. What else would he like them to give up?

The Governor is clearly banking on the $340 million he has proposed adding as a “Ready to Learn Block Grant” to dampen criticism of his education funding policies this election year. Unfortunately, this money comes with strings attached, with a narrow focus on math and reading readiness, curriculum, and teacher training. [PA Dept. of Education release, 2-4-14] While these are valuable, schools can’t use this money for the very things our students need most: hiring back their teachers, reducing class sizes, restoring their tutoring programs, or replacing lost art and music classes.

But here’s his worst idea of all: some of that money will be distributed as competitive grants, including $10 million for a competitive Hybrid Learning program that would award funding to 100 schools, and $1 million for a new competitive Governor’s Expanding Excellence Program (GEEP), open to schools with SPP scores 90 and above. Making schools compete for money creates winners and losers, not equal opportunity for all. These programs are not about getting our neediest students the resources they deserve, and they overwhelmingly favor wealthy districts.

Last week when Governor Corbett let the news slip about his GEEP plan, we talked about this misguided strategy to give more money to exactly the wrong schools. [“GEEPers, More Money for the Rich”] In a new analysis of GEEP, Research for Action found that only 428 schools (out of 3,004 in Pennsylvania) would be eligible to participate in the program based on their SPP scores. It also found that “Statewide, no school with a poverty rate above 65 percent is eligible.” [RFA Policy Note, 2-4-14] As you will recall, SPP scores are almost entirely based on high-stakes-test scores, which track very closely to family income. Research for Action has produced a terrific new scatter plot that beautifully demonstrates the correlation between SPP scores and poverty. Stick with me, and we’ll explain this:


On this graph, every school is represented by a triangle. Those that are GEEP eligible, with SPP scores over 90 (on or above the red line), are shown in blue. The vertical axis shows the school’s SPP score (those range from 11.4 to 101.4, possible due to the awarding of “bonus” points). The horizontal axis shows the percentage of students at that school living in poverty. Now see that black line tracing the declining SPP scores for schools with a higher proportion of economically disadvantaged students? That’s a pretty stark illustration of the way that, for all its bells and whistles, the School Performance Profile system continues to grade schools – and reward them – on the basis of wealth.

On the whole then, Governor Corbett’s budget proposal contained more BAD than GOOD. But it was just the opening salvo. We now have several months of negotiation before the legislature will pass the final state budget in June. We need to tell our legislators LESS BAD would be GOOD for Pennsylvania students.

The Problem with Choice

We Americans love choice. Just look at the cereal aisle in Giant Eagle. You could choose a different box every day of the month and still have more varieties left to try. But public schools are not corn flakes. Here’s the problem with “choice” when we’re talking about public education.

When we’re in the cereal aisle, we are consumers looking for our favorite brand, the best price, or perhaps grabbing a box of sugar filled junk with a toy surprise inside to appease our screaming two year old who won’t stay in the cart (been there). But schools are public goods, not consumer goods. Think about other public goods and services that you use, such as public safety. We don’t want to choose from different police providers, we want our local police department to be great: to offer high-quality service that meets the needs of our local community.

We don’t need more choices in public education. We need great public schools in every community, that any parent would be happy to send their children to, and that meet the needs of local families. We don’t really have any choice at all if our local public school is not a high quality option.

Choice is a free market ideology. Markets do a good job making stuff and selling it. But they also create extreme inequality, with winners and losers. Choice alone doesn’t guarantee quality: you can stick five kinds of dirt in those cereal boxes and offer them as a “choice,” but nobody wants to eat that. Pennsylvania teacher and blogger Peter Greene compares school choice to the drive to mediocrity in the cable TV industry and explains, “Market forces do not foster superior quality. Market forces foster superior marketability.” [Curmugeducation, 1-9-14]

The parent-as-consumer model promotes school choice as an individual choice, abrogating our responsibility as citizens to provide great public schools for all children. Public schools are community institutions that must meet the needs of communities. As education historian Diane Ravitch explains:

“The more that policy makers promote choice … the more they sell the public on the idea that their choice of a school is a decision they make as individual consumers, not as citizens. As a citizen, you become invested in the local public school; you support it and take pride in its accomplishments. You see it as a community institution worthy of your support, even if you don’t have children in the school. … You think of public education as an institution that educates citizens, future voters, members of your community. But as school choice becomes the basis for public policy, the school becomes not a community institution but an institution that meets the needs of its customers.” [Reign of Error, p. 311]

Now, does this mean all choice is bad? Of course not. Americans have long made choices between sending their children to public or private schools. And between religious and other private, independent schools. Or even homeschooling. That’s fine. Families should make those choices if they want to.

We’ve also had long agreement in the U.S. that the public ought not to pay for private education. Yet under the guise of “choice,” corporate-style education reformers have pushed voucher and tax-credit programs diverting public resources to private schools. Pennsylvania’s two EITC programs cost tax-payers $150 million a year and provide no accountability to the public: we don’t know how those dollars get spent nor how the students are performing in those private and religious schools using our tax dollars. [See “EITC No Credit to PA”]

In fact, the legislature outlawed any attempts to collect such information and the tax-credit programs are actually managed by the Department of Community and Economic Development – not the Department of Education. With practically no state oversight, the public has almost no financial information on the organizations receiving tax credits or distributing scholarships funded with taxpayer dollars. The lack of accountability creates a situation ripe for corruption, as has occurred in others states. [Keystone Research Center report, April 7, 2011] What’s more, this “choice” program serves over 38,000 students in Pennsylvania – far more than Pittsburgh Public Schools – effectively making it the second largest school district in the state, with zero accountability to the public. So much for informed choice.

What about other kinds of school choice? Despite what corporate-style education reformers like to say, simply giving parents “choices” has not produced better results for students. Quality magnet programs (such as Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts high school or Sci-Tech school) and some public charter schools provide excellent education for the lucky few students who secure spots in them. But this kind of “choice” has not improved education for all students who deserve access to the kind of opportunities touted by these programs.

Indeed, investment in these kinds of “choices” has too often come at the cost of the remaining public schools that serve the vast majority of students. [See “When Charters Cause Harm”] And far too many charter schools do not provide quality education at all. In fact, Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom three worst in the nation in charter school performance. [Stanford CREDO, National Charter School Study 2013] The state’s cyber charter schools are particularly problematic, with not a single one making Adequate Yearly Progress last year. [PA Dept. of Education, Charter School PSSA Performance]

As the Education Opportunity Network points out in a terrific political analysis of the choice phenomenon, “the choice that most parents will be stuck with is whether they stay in their neighborhood school – as it is rapidly being defunded to the private sector and gradually being depopulated of the children of the most well-to-do parents – or choose a private or charter that pays teachers much less and provides fewer services for their children and provides no benefits of prestigious private schools.” [Education Opportunity Network, 1-28-14]

We should also be concerned about the way in which corporate-style reformers promote “school choice” in place of authentic parent engagement. For instance, one tip sheet for parents recommends, “The more research you do, the better choices you can make. With time and legwork, you can provide your child with access to a great educational environment. I like to tell people that they should spend more time looking at schools for their children then they do when they shop around for a new car.” [National School Choice Week] Um, what if we don’t treat our public schools like cars or cornflakes? What if parents didn’t have to spend time and legwork finding a great educational environment for their kids, because the local public school provided exactly that?

Since this has been designated National School Choice Week, it’s a good time to pause and ask: if two decades of “school choice” has not helped the vast majority of students, why is it still being promoted as the “cure” for what ails our public schools? If “choice” programs drain precious taxpayer dollars away from public schools, who is actually benefitting from them? (Hint: see how some of the backers of National School Choice Week, including the American Federation for Children and StudentsFirst PA, made our “Big $” list of those shaping education policy.)

It’s time to stop celebrating “choice” and get serious about quality public schools as community institutions. “Choosy mothers choose JIF!” is about selling peanut butter, not great education for our kids.

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. [, 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. [, 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!

Top Ten Education Justice Wins of 2013

It’s that time of year for top-ten lists. Compiling this one made me tired just remembering everything our education justice movement did this year. We’ve had an incredible twelve months. Here’s what you accomplished in 2103:

10. Rallies and more rallies. Just after Governor Corbett announced his new budget in February making it clear that he would continue to lock in massive budget cuts to public schools, over 320 people rallied at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty. With rousing performances and speakers, loud chanting, street theater and singing, the crowd sent a strong message to the many legislators in attendance that public education is a public good worth fighting for. [“What a Rally”] In May we loaded 100 parents, students, teachers, and community leaders on school buses for a tour of Pittsburgh neighborhoods impacted by the last four rounds of school closures. Students told us about the effects of displacement from multiple school relocations and their disrupted education. And we got pledges from elected officials as well as candidates for school board, city council, and mayor agreeing to our grassroots call to action. [“A Rolling Rally”]

We also rallied in Harrisburg, taking over 150 public school advocates to the capitol to join activists from Philadelphia on one of the hottest days of the summer. [“It Was a Moving Day”] We protested when Governor Corbett launched his re-election campaign in Pittsburgh – touting his education record, of all things. [“A Week of Action”] And 117 of us rallied in the cold a few weeks ago, joining education advocates in over 50 other cities for a national day of action, to tell Governor Corbett what his three years of budget cuts have done to our schools. [“Who’s Crazy?”] Rallies are crucial because they energize those already active in the movement, bring in new advocates, educate the public and the media, and demonstrate the will of the people. They are democracy in action.

9. Charter reform. We desperately need good charter school reform in Pennsylvania to promote fair funding, accountability, and transparency in all our public schools. But the current Senate Bill 1085 does more harm than good. [“Killer Weeds”] Our movement has helped to mobilize resistance to this poorly written bill and successfully pushed back a vote. We will have to re-visit SB1085 in the new year, but our vocal support for real charter reform is being heard. [“Stop This Bill”]

8. Election of new Pittsburgh mayor. Public schools in Pittsburgh got a big boost with the election of Bill Peduto, who takes office next week. Yinzercation officially endorsed Peduto back in the spring. [“Pittsburgh is Lucky”] We advised his campaign on education policy and helped to hatch the idea for an education chief position within the new administration. Many education justice advocates are also serving on the Mayor-elect’s transition team. These are all fantastic signs for collaboration, outside-of-the-box thinking, and new solutions in 2014.

7. Election of new school board members. We had unprecedented turnover on the Pittsburgh school board this year, with four of the nine members newly elected. Our movement promoted many events to help the community learn about the candidates including a Town Hall meeting and formal debate. We spent a lot of time meeting with candidates before and after the primary, talking about issues and education policy, and learning from each other. When so many other cities are drowning in outside money being dumped into local school board campaigns by the deep pockets of national corporate-style reformers, Pittsburgh’s 2013 election stands as a beacon of hope for democracy and education justice. [“School Boards Matter”]

6. Resisting school closures. We spent much of the year arguing that schools should only close if there are no students to go to them, not because of budget austerity. School closures harm students, families, and communities and education justice demands that we work together to find meaningful, sustainable solutions to financial challenges. We backed a City Council resolution calling for a moratorium on school closures: many of us testified in Council chambers that we still need a full community-impact study assessing the consequences of the last four rounds of school closures over the past ten years. [“A Moratorium Makes Sense”] The City Council resolution was an important win that helped jump-start the public conversation when the district proposed closing an elementary school a few weeks later. Although the outgoing school board voted to start a closure hearing for Woolslair K-5, the newly seated board members voted to halt the process. [“School Board Santa”] While we will continue to fight unnecessary school closures in 2014, and may eventually see additional schools close in Pittsburgh, these were significant wins this year.

5. Rejecting Teach for America. In a similar, and nationally unprecedented victory, the new school board voted to rescind a contract with Teach for America (TFA) that had been hastily approved by the outgoing board. [“School Board Santa”] We had raised significant, evidence-based questions about the impact TFA would have on students, teachers, and our schools. [“Six Questions for Teach for America”, “Too Few Answers”] And over 1,400 people signed a petition asking the board to wait three weeks until new members were seated, giving time to publicly answer these questions. While we share the district’s concerns about staffing, especially math and science positions in our high schools, students deserve fully qualified teachers in their classrooms every day who have made teaching their chosen profession. Education justice means working to make sure that every school is a nurturing, supportive environment for both students and teachers, so that staff are attracted and wish to stay in the building and students want to come to school and learn.

4. Students speak out. More and more students are speaking out about the devastation of state budget cuts; the serious consequences of school closures and high-stakes-testing; the negative impact of zero-tolerance policies, bullying, and school climate issues; and attempts to privatize their education. Students from Southwest PA are attending and performing at rallies, testifying at public hearings, speaking to the press, and making their voices heard. This year Pittsburgh students wrote a terrific Bill of Rights that the school board is set to adopt. And they recently invited students from Philadelphia to meet with them here in the Steel City to talk about organizing strategies. [“Calling All Students”] Here’s to 2014 being the Year of Student Advocacy.

3. Protests of high-stakes-testing go viral. We went viral twice this year, protesting the damage high-stakes-testing inflicts on our kids, teachers, and schools. In the spring we launched an Opt Out movement, encouraging parents to remove their children from the state-testing system. [“Op-Ed, Opt Out, Occupy”] Kathy Newman’s op-ed piece about the movement was just ranked the #3 most talked about story in Pittsburgh this year by the Post-Gazette. [Post-Gazette, 12-21-13] And the Washington Post published our piece, co-authored by a Pittsburgh public school teacher, exposing the serious flaws of another high-stakes-test that is particularly harming our most struggling students. [“Testing Madness”] Within hours, over 12,000 people “liked” that article and it reached #2 on the Post’s most-read list.

2. Diane Ravitch book premieres here. Renowned education historian Diane Ravitch gave the education justice grassroots movement the honor of hosting the national launch of her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. [“Diane Ravitch Launched, Yinzer Style”] We raised financial support from seven local universities and community partners; an astonishing crowd of over 1,000 people came to hear her speak; and the book debuted on the New York Times best-seller list. (If you haven’t already, put reading Reign of Error at the top of your list of New Year’s resolutions.)

1. Launch of Great Public Schools Pittsburgh. We can’t fight massive budget cuts, school closures, harmful state policy proposals, deep pools of out-of-state money, and the privatization of public education by ourselves. To win, we have to work together. That’s why the emergence of the Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh coalition stands as our movement’s single most important achievement of 2013. This is the group that sent volunteers into some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city that are rarely heard from, going door-to-door talking to almost 1,000 people to learn what our communities really want in their public schools. [“What Pittsburghers are Really Saying About School Closures”, “School Funding”, “Class Size”, “The Wrong Questions”] GPS Pittsburgh is truly a community-based collaboration of parents, students, teachers, religious leaders, local union members, and poverty activists. It’s grassroots, it’s messy, and it’s hard. We’ve had disagreements large and small, and spend an enormous amount of time in conversations and meetings. But we keep coming back to the table together, and reaching out to invite others and learn from them. Now that’s what an education justice movement looks like. Happy New Year!