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.

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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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