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.

IMG_3896

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.

IMG_5338

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.

IMG_5344

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.

IMG_5350

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.

IMG_5354

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.

IMG_3944

IMG_8195

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.

IMG_5371

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.

From Bad to Worst

From bad to worse to – what’s worse than worse? A new report released this week shows that “the financial condition of school districts across the Commonwealth continues to deteriorate.” The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) surveyed the state’s 500 school districts and got some chilling results. [PASA-PASBO Budget Report, 6-5-14] With 56% of districts responding, the researchers found that:

  • 90% of school districts have cut staff, and more than 40% of districts have already, or plan to, cut more of our children’s teachers. Look at Wilkinsburg right here next to Pittsburgh: they just announced that students will lose 18 more teachers. That’s 14% of the faculty, and comes on top of the 10 teachers and three other staff members they lost last year. [Post-Gazette, 6-5-14]
  • 64% of districts have increased class size since Gov. Corbett’s historic budget cuts in 2010-11, with the elementary grades hit the hardest. (This is especially awful since it’s the earliest grades where research shows small class sizes really make a strong difference for students, especially our most disadvantaged students.)
  • Over half the districts will eliminate or reduce academic programs next year. The most frequently cited cuts will come from field trips (51% schools will eliminate); summer school (37%); world languages (34%); music and theater (31%); and physical education (24%).
  • Students will lose extra-curricular and athletic programs, or have to pay a fee, in over a third of the districts.
  • The vast majority of school districts report that their costs are going up because of un-funded state mandates (such as the administration of high-stakes testing).
  • In nearly every part of the state, districts are relying on local revenues (property taxes) to pay for a growing majority of school budgets. Over 75% of school districts will increase property taxes next year (that’s more than any in the past five years).

These conditions aren’t just “worse” for our children, they are quickly becoming some of the worst in the nation. Pennsylvania ranks as one of the worst in terms of the proportion of school funding provided at the state level, pushing responsibility down on local taxes, and worsening inequality. And this isn’t just at the preK-12 level: 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). Pennsylvania college students now rank as the third-most indebted in the nation. [Project on Student Debt]

Are we really trying to be the worst in the country when it comes to educating our children? What if we tried to be one of the best, instead?

The Pennsylvania budget must be passed by the end of this month, so now is the time to tell our legislators our students deserve the best, not the worst. Please come to Harrisburg with us on June 18th! We’ve got a bus and made all the arrangements, all you have to do is get on. Please sign up here and we’ll send you all the details.

HarrisburgTripFlyer6-14

Get on the Bus!

After proposing a slight increase in education funding back in the winter, Gov. Corbett is now fishing in his own budget to cut over $1.3 billion. Guess where those cuts could come from? Education again, of course.

The state has been short on revenue for the past six months and now legislators are scrambling to put together a final budget by the end of this month, saying “all options are on the table.” While acknowledging that, “There is very broad support for increased education spending,” Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware), maintains “it is hard to get to increased education spending when you have a gap to fill.” [Post-Gazette, 6-2-14] Of course, the Republicans who control both the House and Senate refuse to discuss the corporate tax giveaways that have tripled over the past decade (with the blessing of both parties), creating a large portion of that gap.

Meanwhile, school districts across the state continue to cut into the educational bone. Just this week we learned that Pittsburgh plans to slash more world languages, with schools across the city eliminating language offerings entirely or seriously reducing courses. [Post-Gazette, 6-1-14] These kinds of cuts take our city and state in exactly the wrong direction. Is it any wonder that the Washington Post just listed Gov. Corbett as the nation’s #1 least likely incumbent to remain in office? In a new poll, Corbett is already trailing the Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf by 20 points. [Philly.com, 6-2-14]

Voters may take out their ire on the sitting Governor in the fall elections. But in the meantime, there’s a looming state budget crisis and you would expect our legislators to be hard at work finding a way to pay for our public schools. You would be wrong. Instead, on Monday, the House of Representatives approved a new bill (172-24!) telling schools that they can post the national motto, “In God We Trust,” in the hallways. [Post-Gazette, 6-3-14] Perhaps they meant this ironically, to let students know that they ought to place their trust somewhere else, since they can no longer have faith in the legislature to provide the most basic resources for their education. [For more on this ridiculous bill and our local legislator who sponsored it, see “Trick or Treat.”]

Clearly it’s time for us to go tell our elected representatives that students are more important than mottos. Yinzercation is sponsoring a bus trip to Harrisburg on Wednesday, June 18th. Please “Get on the Bus” for education justice with us! It will be a great day and we’ll take care of all the planning, you just need to show up. Children are welcome, though be aware that it’s a long day (we will leave early and return in the evening). Pittsburgh parent Sara Goodkind is organizing the day, and our state-wide partner, Education Voters PA, is kindly providing the bus for us. Please click here to sign up, and we will send you the details.

Grab a friend and make it a day. We are going to have fun. And we’re going to hold our legislators accountable for adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for our public schools.

Our Missing $200 Million

We’d like our $200 million back, please. That’s how much money charter schools in Pennsylvania collected last year for special education in excess of what they actually spent on special education for students. Charter schools took in over $350 million, but spent only $150 million. (Or $350,562,878 vs. $156,003,034 to be exact.) So where’s our extra $200 million? (OK, $193,559,844 to be exact.)

Our colleague, Mark Spengler, who is a public education advocate in the Lehigh Valley and tracked down this data, points out that, “charter schools are not obligated to spend special education funding for special education purposes. That money can be spent for numerous miscellaneous reasons including billboards and mailer advertisements.” [Lower Macungie Patch, 5-26-14]

Last year, the Pennsylvania legislature created a Special Education Funding Commission to devise a new funding formula. Deplorably, the old formula did not reimburse schools for the actual cost of educating students with special needs, which resulted in great inequities (and under-funding for some of the state’s most vulnerable children). The bi-partisan commission’s recommendations formed the basis for House Bill 2138 and Senate Bill 1316 now under consideration. These bills would create a fair and rational system of funding special education in Pennsylvania based on actual costs. However, Harrisburg lobbyists are threatening to kill the two bills.

Our partner, Education Voters PA, is making it easy for us to help fight back: click here to send an email to your state senator and representative (you can keep the suggested wording on the form, or edit your digital postcards). This took me less than 12 seconds to do. EdVoters explains that our senators and representatives need to hear the following in support of SB 1316 / HB 2138:

  • “The current system of funding special education is broken and unfair. It does not provide enough resources for the services children need and it does not ensure that all special education dollars are spent on special education services. 
  • “State special education funding should be distributed to both school systems and charter schools based on the level of services that students need. Allocating taxpayer dollars differently to school districts and charter schools doesn’t make sense. All of our public schools should receive funding distributed by the same allocation formula.
  • “State special education funding should be spent ONLY on providing students with services. Any excess special education funding should be returned to the state and allocated to help other children get the services they need. If some schools receive and keep more special education dollars than they are spending on services for children, these schools are reaping a financial advantage at the expense of children with special needs in Pennsylvania. 
  • “If the legislature chooses to freeze special education funding at current levels for charter schools, no additional money should accrue to charter schools based on the old, flawed system for funding special education. Any new special education funding for charter schools must be based on the new law and fair to all of Pennsylvania’s special needs children.”

If we can’t get our $200 million back to help students who actually have special education needs, the very least we can do is urge our representatives to pass these special education funding and accountability reform bills. That’s just common sense and rationale. And above all, fair to Pennsylvania’s children.

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.