Hurting the Poor

I don’t know how Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, can keep a straight face when he talks to reporters. Again and again he declares that Governor Corbett “has increased state funding for public schools by $1.5 billion” over the past four years. [Post-Gazette, 8-28-14]

Anyone with half a brain or with a school age child can tell you that’s a load of hogwash. Sometimes having school age children makes us parents operate with only half a brain, but we can still tell you that Pennsylvania kids are sitting in larger classes, with fewer of their teachers, and missing critical books, supplies, academic courses, and programs.

Of course, what Mr. Eller means is that Gov. Corbett collapsed a bunch of line items into the Basic Education Funding portion of the budget, so that he could say that this single line item increased. Meanwhile, he decimated overall state funding for public schools. Gov. Corbett also likes to tout the additional dollars he put into pension payments (as required by state law) when he calculates that $1.5 billion figure, but will not account for the fact that he slashed charter school tuition reimbursements for districts, Accountability Block Grants, School Improvement Grants, or other programs such as the Education Assistance and High School Reform programs.

As the following graph clearly illustrates, even allowing for increased state contributions to pension payments, our schools are still not receiving the level of preK-12 funding that they were back in 2008-09! (In this chart the federal stimulus dollars are in yellow and pension dollars in light blue: check out the dark blue columns to see how our schools have been set back more than six years in budget cuts.)

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But this is more than a rhetorical debate over which line items to count. Four years into this mess it is now clear that these historic budget cuts have hurt our poorest students the most. A new report out this week analyzes state funding per child and finds that budget cuts to the most impoverished school districts were more than three times as large on average as those made to the wealthiest districts. What’s more, using the state’s own data, the report demonstrates that class sizes increased more in high poverty districts and that reading and math scores declined the most for students living in poverty. [Budget cuts, student poverty, and test scores: Examining the evidence, PSEA August 2014] Look at the disparity in chart form:

Graph-AverageFundingChangePerStudent201011-201415

[Source: PSEA, 8-25-14]

What does that look like here in Southwest Pennsylvania? Just look at the following table of the ten biggest losers in Allegheny County on a per-student basis. Pittsburgh tops the list of districts most harmed by budget cuts with an average per-child loss of $1,038, followed by a parade of high-poverty school districts. It’s worth noting the story of race here, too, as these districts have a large proportion of students of color. Compare these numbers to Fox Chapel, which has “only” lost $36 per student (no students should be losing money for their education), or Mt. Lebanon ($9), or my alma mater, Upper St. Clair, which has actually gained $4 on a per-student basis.

MostHarmedDistricts

 LeastHarmedDistricts

Perhaps Gov. Corbett should spend more time explaining why his policies are hurting poor kids than trying to convince us that he has increased spending on public education. We parents just aren’t that gullible.

Back to School

I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t ready to put the kids on the school bus this morning. I never want summer to end! And this was a particularly busy summer for public education advocates, so we have a lot to catch up on. But first, I need one minute of your time: please take this very quick straw poll to help guide our work together this year. What do you think should be the priorities for Yinzercation in 2014-15?

Now here’s a brief look at some of the issues that have been percolating in the summer heat:

Governor’s race: Yinzercation has been asked by various community partners to work on get-out-the-vote and voter registration efforts. If you are interested in helping to staff a table at a new community event in the Hill District on Monday afternoon, September 1st (Labor Day), please let me know.

State budget / fair funding: Remember that fantastic bus trip to Harrisburg with parents that we organized back in June? While the Governor and legislature wound up passing a sorry budget for our kids, we did get our message out. And as a result, we’ve been invited to host a meeting here with the entire Allegheny County legislative delegation. Want to be a part of this special opportunity? Let me know!

High-stakes testing: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did a 180 last week and finally acknowledged that students are being over-tested. He agreed to allow states to wait another year before implementing teacher evaluation systems based on high-stakes tests, though Pennsylvania will not delay its own state-mandated system. [Post-Gazette, 8-22-14] He could have said much more, but it’s a start. In related news, Pittsburgh Public Schools will be voting this week on some assessment changes: we want to strongly encourage the district’s efforts to 1) reduce the overall number of tests, 2) reduce un-necessary and inequitable stakes associated with too many tests, and 3) focus on quality assessments that provide meaningful and timely feedback to students and teachers.

Equity and resources: Is your school starting the year with equitable resources? Do your students have the books and supplies they need? We want to know! (Drop me a line.) Some parents worked all summer to get students what they deserve. Kudos to Mr. Wallace Sapp and the other parents and community members in Manchester for the successful launch of their Math, Mud, and More summer camp. Mr. Sapp also met with Sen. Fontana and Rep. Wheatley to talk about public education issues.

Charter reform: Over the summer, the Pittsburgh school board voted unanimously to decline a proposed expansion of the Environmental Charter School, which is now in the process of appealing to the state board. In a series of packed public hearings, parents raised a host of critical equity issues, noting “About 28 percent of ECS students are eligible for subsidized lunch, compared to 71 percent in district schools … 21 percent of students are black, compared to 54 percent in district schools … [and] zero percent are English language learners, compared to about 3 percent in district schools.” [Post-Gazette, 7-23-14] While charter schools continue to be contentious and sometimes divide our community, there is clearly still a strong need for public dialogue about the role of charters, civil rights, and state reforms aimed at funding, accountability, and transparency.

School closings: I learned this summer in a meeting of the Mayor’s Task Force on Education that Pittsburgh superintendent Dr. Lane does not intend to bring forward any more recommendations for school closures unless asked to do so by the Board of Directors. This doesn’t mean we won’t eventually see more school closures, of course, but it’s a good sign that we have more room for conversation and creative thinking, such as that put forward by an activate group of Woolslair parents who have proposed an exciting new STEAM model for their school.

Discipline and school climate: Pittsburgh Public Schools released a new student code of conduct that represents a positive step forward in addressing equity and school-to-prison pipeline issues. [Post-Gazette, 8-5-14] I’m pleased to see the way in which the district is trying to de-criminalize minor infractions (such as mobile phone use), though we will need continued public conversation, professional development, and building leadership to see real change.

 

And so it’s back to school this week, and back to work fighting for the public education that all our children deserve. Did you take the quick straw poll yet to help focus our work together this year? Please take one minute to vote for your priorities. What’s most important to you?

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.

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.

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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.