Still no Budget

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

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

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

Delivering coffee to the Governor's mansion.

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

ActionUnited volunteers from Pittsburgh stayed in the capitol around the clock

ActionUnited volunteers from Pittsburgh stayed in the capitol around the clock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sit-In or Call-In

Guest post by Kathy Newman.

We all know sitting is bad for us, right? But right now there is a group of Philadelphia parents, teachers and students sitting-in at Tom Corbett’s Harrisburg office, demanding that the Governor and the State Legislature pass a decent budget for education this month.

Our Philadelphia colleagues are in Harrisburg sitting in the Governor's office!

Our Philadelphia colleagues are in Harrisburg sitting in the Governor’s office!

They're not going anywhere until he gets the message.

They’re not going anywhere until he gets the message.

People power at the Capitol!

People power at the Capitol!

You might not be able to get to Harrisburg to join the sit-in, but there is something you can do. And you can do it sitting down. Five-to-ten minutes of phone calling and emailing on Monday, June 30th, from the comfort of your favorite chair, will make a real difference in this year’s budget negotiation.

It’s hard to believe that a few simple phone calls can make a difference. But our friends at Education Voters say that when lawmakers hear from parents across the state about education they do a better job of putting education first when they are finalizing their budget deals.

The truth is that some of our more sympathetic Democratic lawmakers will have more power than usual in this budget cycle, and a call from you (and you and you and you and you) will remind them that, for many of us in the state, education is a critical issue.

What’s at stake right now? This week the PA House passed a budget that eliminates the $241 million increase in state funding for proposed Ready to Learn Block grants and replace this with a paltry $70 million increase in Basic Education Funding. Under the House budget, PA school districts would lose about 70% of the increases in state funding they were expecting to receive this year and that they were relying on to balance their budgets. That’s a loss of over $2 million for Pittsburgh Public Schools alone.

The House budget is irresponsible and unacceptable.  It does not call for a shale tax or a cigarette tax.  Instead, it relies on the sale of state liquor stores (which the Senate has so far not supported), gimmicky sources of one-time funding, and the suspension of selected tax credits to balance the budget.

Though it’s the end of the month, and the budget was supposed to be locked up by now, budget negotiations are just beginning. While the budget is still fluid and negotiations are taking place, advocates must speak out loudly and with one voice in support of responsible funding for public schools this year. If we do not speak up now, public education will likely receive little more than scraps in the budget this year.

As with previous Call to Action for Education days, we are asking for broad participation from all organizations and individuals across the Commonwealth.  It is incredibly important the legislators in Harrisburg see that people are paying attention.  Communities are using these call-in-days to help spread the word about what is happening to our schools, so please join us again!

WHEN:  Monday, June 30, 2014

WHAT:  Call to Action for Public Education – It’s time for a fair budget for PA’s students!

HOW TO PARTICIPATE:  Mark your calendar and plan to ask your own network to take action

Mark your calendar today for Monday, June 30th – and do 3 things in 10 minutes to make a difference! Click here for your legislators’ phone numbers. Click here for tips on how to make a good phone call.

  1. Call your State Senator.
  2. Call your State Representative.
  3. Call Gov. Corbett’s office at (717) 787-2500.

Ask them to:

  • Support the adoption of a shale tax, cigarette tax and any reasonable measure to raise revenue and close tax loopholes.
  • Support an increase in the Basic Education Funding line that is equal to what was in the proposed Ready to Learn Block Grant.
  • Support and advocate for state funding for charter school reimbursement to be restored.
  • Support SB 1316/HB2138, the special education funding and accountability reform bill.  (Additional information about this bill can be found atwww.educationvoterspa.org)

When you are done with your call would you mind heading over to the Yinzercation facebook page and reporting on your calls? If you tweet, you can also promote the day using #educationpa and #pabudget. Thanks to everyone who is sitting and calling in for fair education funding!

Taking it to Harrisburg

From the ‘burgh to H’burg and back in one day. On June 18th, 25 parents, students, and teachers left Pittsburgh under gray skies at 7AM, but arrived in Harrisburg a few hours later under blue, pumped up and ready to meet with their legislators.

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Our bus included folks from across the city, as well as the North Allegheny School District, and two teachers who live in Pittsburgh and teach in Woodland Hills and Mt. Lebanon.

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The trip was organized by volunteer parents with Yinzercation (special thank yous to Sara Goodkind and Kathy Newman!), and made possible by contributions from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Education Voters PA, the PA Budget and Policy Center, and an anonymous donor. The PA State Education Association (PSEA) kindly welcomed us with snacks and a bathroom break, before we ran across the street to the Capitol Building.

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We started the day with a press conference, organized by Better Choices for Pennsylvania, a coalition of over 60 organizations allied for a responsible budget. The message was clear: “no more cuts, we have to grow the pie” with other revenue sources so there is enough for all. To drive home the point, the coalition delivered little pies to each legislator’s office. I helped with some of those deliveries, including one to Jake Wheatley, while the rest of our group got busy meeting with other Representatives and Senators on our list.

JessiePressConference

One thing we learned from our trip is that the Capitol is literally swarming with professional lobbyists – some of whom had the audacity to make fun of our group during the press conference – which reinforced for us just how important it is to have “ordinary people” like us take the time to show up and talk with legislators. We are the actual constituents they are there to represent, but legislators generally only hear from those paid to talk to them.

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We split into groups and managed to squeeze in visits to the offices of Jay Costa, Wayne Fontana, Donal White, Dom Costa, Ed Gainey, Mike Turzai, Paul Costa, Dan Frankel, and Daniel Deasy. Some legislators were still in session and we met with their staff, but in every case, we spoke about the same thing: the real impact of budget cuts on our children and schools and the need for adequate, equitable, and sustainable state funding for public schools.

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Rep. Ed Gainey, whose children attend Pittsburgh Fulton and were there visiting with him for the day, spoke at length about his support for public education.

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Here’s a group meeting with Dan Deasy. The students were particularly eloquent! Two of us also took some time during the afternoon to meet with gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf’s policy director about his education platform. We are eager to get Mr. Wolf back to Pittsburgh to talk to families so we can understand his vision for public education.

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Our last stop was the Governor’s office, where we delivered a petition with over 12,000 signatures calling for fair funding for our schools! Then it was time to get back on the bus, debrief each other on our visits, eat more snacks, and talk to new friends. Everyone agreed it was a very worthwhile day and that grassroots activism really does make a difference. Before we knew it, we were back in the ‘burgh and ready to start planning our next event together.

Still Black and White After Brown

A diverse group of parents, students, teachers, community leaders, and elected officials rallied at Freedom Corner in the Hill District yesterday to mark the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Under a surprisingly scorching sun, one speaker after the next noted that we have yet to see the full promise of that historic Supreme Court case.

Rev. Freeman of the Resurrection Baptist Church in Braddock and President of the PA Interfaith Impact Network, talked about the impact of the 1954 Brown decision on his fourth grade classroom in highly segregated Georgia. He reminded the crowd of about 50 that we are part of a much larger movement for equity and educational justice.

The Post-Gazette featured the rally on the front page of the Local section this morning with a big color photograph. [Post-Gazette, 4-14-14] Here are some more photos from the afternoon:

"Remember the Promise"

“Remember the Promise”

Debra Srogi, a Whittier parent, and Irene Habermann, chair of the PIIN Education Task Force

Debra Srogi, a Whittier parent, and Irene Habermann, chair of the PIIN Education Task Force

No More "Gated Communites of Education"

No More “Gated Communities of Education”

"Education Justice NOW"

“Education Justice NOW”

Rev. Freeman talks about racial segregation in Georgia in 1954

Rev. Freeman talks about racial segregation in Georgia in 1954

Perry graduate, Allegheny K-5 parent, and Westinghouse teacher Regina Hutson

Perry graduate, Allegheny K-5 parent, and Westinghouse teacher Regina Hutson

La'Tasha Mayes of New Voices Pittsburgh speaks about the meaning of equity and justice

La’Tasha Mayes of New Voices Pittsburgh speaks about the meaning of equity and justice

City Council members Natalia Rudiak (center) and Dan Gilman (right)

City Council members Natalia Rudiak (center) and Dan Gilman (right)

After the rally, groups fanned out to go door-to-door, talking to people about becoming an “education justice voter.” The aim is to encourage folks to get out and vote and to consider candidates on the basis of their support for public schools. Here’s a video from the Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia, documenting the kick off of a similar education-voter drive there:

 

Also this week, the National School Board Association released this video featuring the legacy of the Brown decision in Pittsburgh. The filmmakers visited Pittsburgh Milliones/U.Prep and interviewed me, Dr. Lane, and others about persistent racial segregation in our city:

 

And another release this week in recognition of the Brown anniversary: the national Journey for Justice alliance just published, “Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage.” (Journey for Justice is a national coalition of 36 grassroots groups working for education justice. The local partner here is Action United.) This devastating report is heavily documented and also features the results of a “listening tour” conducted in 13 cities earlier this year, including Pittsburgh. It’s worth a close read as we remember the disproportionate impact budget cuts, school closures, and educational policies continue to have on communities of color.

Come to Brunch

Do you like jazz? Do you like to eat? Do you want to support a simply incredible, grassroots effort led by local parents to help some of the most struggling students in Pittsburgh?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, clear your lunchtime calendar for Saturday May 10th. Seriously. Go to your calendar and write in “11AM, Jazz Brunch, Manchester Elementary School, 1612 Manhattan Street, 15233.” Here’s why:

This fundraiser is being held by a new initiative called the Pittsburgh Struggling Student Association, or PSSA (a delightfully ironic acronym, given that those letters usually stand for the state’s system of standardized high-stakes tests), organized by parents in the Manchester neighborhood on the Northside (who may or may not have intended for their acronym to be delightfully ironic).

The group is currently running an all-volunteer program they developed themselves called “The Math Doctors,” to help students at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 learn math skills. Volunteers show up in the classroom wearing surgical masks and help students save their “patients” (math problems). The students apparently love it. And now those parents are creating a summer camp called Math, Mud, and More that will combine math lessons with a new edible garden (the “mud”) and plain old fun.

These efforts are the brainchild of Mr. Wallace Sapp and his wife, Ms. Lisa Freeman. Some of you may remember them from the “Manchester Miracle” eighteen months ago, when our post about the empty library shelves at that school went viral. Within days we had thousands and thousands of people all over the world, and right down the street, sending books to fill the shelves. Famous authors were tweeting our messages. News reports of the campaign caught the attention of local activists who solicited donations and labor to create an entirely new and gorgeous library space for the students. And Mr. Wallace was there every day opening all those boxes of donated books. In fact, he is in the school nearly every day of the year as a volunteer.

Mr. Wallace Sapp (right) helping to unload donated books during the Manchester Miracle.

Mr. Wallace Sapp (right) helping to unload donated books during the Manchester Miracle.

A couple weeks ago Mr. Wallace invited me to his home to learn more about his idea for the Math, Mud, and More summer camp. While our kids played games together, I talked to Ms. Lisa, who is also a case manager for the Salvation Army, about her efforts to get local parents engaged in their children’s education. Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 is a very special place, serving a tremendous number of families living in poverty: 89% of the students receive free and reduced price lunch and many parents face multiple barriers and challenges to engaging more fully with the school. Eighty-nine percent of the students are African American and the school provides regional classrooms for autistic support, multi-disability support, emotional and therapeutic support, and life skills support.

When Wallace and Lisa set out to do something, they get it done. (They are also working with a group to get a free children’s health clinic at the school.) Their enthusiasm is contagious. Honestly, you cannot say no to these two beautiful people. I have learned a lot from them, and we should all be paying attention to their wisdom.

Their camp will serve 30 kids this summer, with the involvement of many current and retired teachers. There will be reading coaches. Slippery Rock University and the University of Pittsburgh are both partnering with them, to prepare college students to be excellent substitute teachers. The camp will be held at the school, where the kids will be turning part of the school grounds into a garden. They will receive a free lunch every day. The entire program falls under the fiscal sponsorship of the Manchester Citizens Corporation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit community development organization.

Manchester principal, Ms. Theresa Cherry, practically gushes about the program, saying that it “embodies some of the best principles of education.” In a letter of support for the Pittsburgh Struggling Students Association, she writes, “The transformative power of whole community involvement in children’s lives lies in its ability to help students understand we are all partners in their education.” After explaining how she feels this summer camp will benefit the students she continues, “This may seem a little over the top for a typical support letter, but it is at the heart of what I believe that education is all about; helping individuals achieve their potential.” Indeed.

Transformative power. Whole community involvement. Kids achieving their potential. Parents acting at the grassroots level, responding effectively to local educational needs. Let’s help make Math, Mud, and More as big a success as the Manchester Miracle in the school library. It starts with us being willing to show up for an hour to have lunch together on Saturday, May 10th.

That’s exactly one week before the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court desegregation ruling. With equity issues staring us in the face here in Pittsburgh, we have certainly not achieved the full promise or potential of the Brown decision. But this is one thing we can do together: please come to lunch. And bring a friend or two.

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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!

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Tweet!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

yinzercation_logo_web.jpg

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.