Public Education on Public Radio

We told the White House that “public education is a public good,” and now that message is picking up speed. This week we took to the airwaves with a feature spot on Essential Public Radio, Pittsburgh’s new NPR station. Have a listen, in case you missed Paul Gugenheimer interviewing Yinzercation’s Jessie Ramey (Wednesday, March 28, 2012):

The end of the interview got cut off announcing our three upcoming events in Southwest Pennsylvania. For the record, here they are:

  • April 12th: North Hills Public Education Forum, North Hills High School auditorium, 7PM. This event is being sponsored by the North Hills School Directors Association (a consortium of 9 school districts) and Education Voters PA. This is in Rep. Mike Turzai’s district — he is a crucial legislator in this budget battle. Spread the word to everyone you know in the North Hills, North Allegheny, Shaler, Fox Chapel, Pine Richland, Northgate, Avonworth, Hampton, etc.
  • April 14th: “Write Now! Education Matters” Education Advocacy Day at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum. Volunteers and educators will help students write and publish letters, tweets, phone calls, screen prints, and paintings talking about why their public school matters. Children of all ages are encouraged to participate. Admission to the event is free (though there is a charge to enter the museum exhibits if you choose to do that). 10AM-2PM.
  • April 17th: Yinzer Nation will be participating in the state-wide Mock Bake Sale in partnership with groups working through EdVoters PA. Instead of a typical tax day protest, we will send a message that we are united in using tax dollars to support our public schools. We will be saying, “I’m happy to pay my taxes to support my public school” and “Why isn’t PA asking corporations to pay their fair share today?”  We plan to hand out cookies with a little note explaining what we’re doing and why. Because we can’t possibly sell enough cookies to make up for a $172 million budget gap for our schools in Southwest PA. 4-5:30PM, outside the Squirrel Hill Post Office.

A Pie-ous Protest

Organized religion is joining the fight for public education in Pennsylvania! On Monday, Essential Public Radio reported that Methodists delivered pies to the offices of their state legislators to protest the budget cuts. They were small pies, according to Steve Drachler, Executive Director of United Methodist Advocacy, “because we believe that the governor’s budget proposal is too small. We believe that the pie should be made bigger so that Pennsylvania can meet its obligation to the poor, the vulnerable, the sick, our children, and the elderly.”

The pie activists suggested that Governor Corbett fairly tax corporations by closing the Delaware Loophole (currently costing our state $500 million in missed tax revenue every year) and keeping the capital stock and franchise tax (Gov. Corbett wants to eliminate these as a gift to corporations, which will cost the state $200 million in revenue every year). Drachler added that “by delaying the reduction in the casino tax and setting up enforcement of tax laws the state would gain $140-$150 million dollars.” (See also the list of revenue ideas Yinzercation has collected.)

These suggestions echo the demands of education advocates across the state who are asking for tax fairness. The Methodists told the Governor to “go after the money that’s already there … [g]o after the money that is rightfully Pennsylvania’s, that is important to support education.” On Tuesday, April 17th – tax day – we will be asking just that at our Mock Bake Sale. We’ll be making the point that we couldn’t possibly sell enough cookies to make up for the $172 million budget gap our schools in Southwest Pennsylvania are facing.

Whether pie or cookies, our legislators are getting an ear (and mouth) full. Keep baking and talking! Victory will be sweet.

Ambridge & Monessen Join Yinzer Nation

Last week two more terrific letters-to-the-editor appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – and this time from areas we haven’t heard from before. This is further evidence that our movement is growing and people are paying attention. Keep up the networking! That is how we will win this battle. And if anyone knows Esther Rankin out in Ambridge (Beaver County, $13.5 million in cuts) or Steve Rechichar in Monessen (Westmoreland County, $23.4 million in cuts), give them a hearty welcome to Yinzer Nation!

Citizens Tapped Out
Thursday, March 22, 2012

“Stop the School Cuts” (Feb. 28 Perspectives) by Pennsylvania State Education Association president Michael Crossey is an op-ed every Pennsylvanian should read.

I am the grandmother of seven children who live here in Pennsylvania, and I’ll have 10 grandkids living here by the beginning of the new school year. Nine of them will be educated in Pennsylvania’s public schools as of September. The last thing that I want to see is another state budget that decimates our public education funding.

My son, a parent of three children, received a list of school supplies that he is asked to provide for his children’s schooling. I expected that the list consisted of pencils, backpacks and the like. I was shocked to learn that this list included items like hand sanitizer for the classroom. My grandkids are now in schools that cannot even afford all the basic cleaning supplies they need.

Along with being a concerned grandmother, I am a former art instructor. When education funding is slashed, children too often lose school programs like art and music. For example, the drama class at my granddaughter’s school was wiped out. Consequently, children are being deprived of opportunities to engage their creativity, develop innovative abilities and cope with stress healthily.

Children have made enough sacrifices, parents have paid for enough school expenses and local property owners have seen enough property tax increases. We need to demand that our legislators finally require the only group not kicking in enough — corporations — to pay their fair share of taxes.


Corbett’s Chief Concern Should be the People of PA
Friday, March 23, 2012

In response to the budget references in “Poll Finds Corbett Job Approval Rating Down” (March 16): I would like to note that The New York Times reported recently that a nationwide survey of teachers, parents and students indicates that teacher morale is lower than it has been in many years. This is a direct result of the coast-to-coast budget cutting and constant criticism that undermines the profession’s integrity.

I myself had excellent teachers. The daughter of a friend of mine is a teacher at the Monessen Elementary Center. She is idealistic, committed to excellence and gives 200 percent every day. She and her colleagues deserve our whole-hearted support.

With regard to Pennsylvania’s budget, my own evaluation leads me to conclude that Marcellus Shale operations truly should be taxed and that the Delaware corporate tax loophole should be closed. Education and social services would benefit immensely from the hundreds of millions of dollars thus added to the state’s coffers.

President Calvin Coolidge once famously said that “the chief business of the American people is business.” I’ve always disagreed with that. The chief business of the American people should be the health and well-being of the people.





Soaking the Public

At the White House education policy session on Friday, the Superintendent of the Lancaster School District, Pedro Rivera, offered an idea that received immediate support from those in the room. “Put a cap on for-profit charter schools,” he said, “just like the federal government is now doing with insurance companies.”

To understand the enthusiasm for this suggestion, we have to back up a little and talk about charter schools. There is much to say, and we may need to devote several blog posts to this topic alone. But let’s start with the issue of public money going to unregulated, private (for-profit) companies. Not all charter schools are for-profit, but all charter schools are paid for by local school districts. And one of the huge cuts in the proposed state budget this year eliminates charter school reimbursements, meaning that school districts will shoulder the entire burden of charter school enrollments. (We’ll say more on that another time.)

Let’s make this clear: not all for-profit companies are bad, and not all for-profit charter schools are necessarily bad. But without regulation, transparency, and accountability, private charter schools are free to soak up enormous public resources with stunningly poor educational results.

For example, Vahan Gureghian owns the Charter School Management Corporation, a private, for-profit company that manages the finances for Chester Community Charter School. Gureghian was Governor Corbett’s single largest individual campaign donor and a member of his Education Transition Team. In the first ten years after the school was founded in 1999, he had already collected $60.6 MILLION from the public coffers. While salary data for public school employees is public information, we don’t know what Gureghian is paid – or his wife, who is general counsel for their company.

The Philadelphia Inquirer filed a right-to-know request in 2006 asking for salary figures: the Commonwealth Court ruled they had to disclose that information, but the Gureghians have appealed and the case is going to the State Supreme Court. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 2009-06-11] Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Gureghian have recently purchased two Florida beachfront lots for $28.9 million where they plan to build a 20,000 square foot “French-inspired Monte Carlo estate.” [Palm Beach Daily News, 2011-11-18]

The Keystone State Education Coalition reports that “the portion of the school’s expenditures going to business and administration was consistently among the highest for Pennsylvania charter schools, and its spending percentage on instruction was among the lowest.” Which may explain its mixed educational results. Compared to the AYP status of five traditional elementary schools in the Chester Upland School District, the Chester Community Charter School “does better than some and worse than some.” That’s a whole lot of public dollars going into beachfront estates with questionable benefits to students.

K12, Inc., the nation’s largest operator of on-line schools, represents another egregious example of public funding going to line the pockets of private corporations. In December 2011, the New York Times ran a front page article describing how K12 manages to pull in enormous profits while its students perform well below agerage, explaining that the company uses “education as a source of government-financed business, much as military contractors have capitalized on Pentagon spending.” With 105,000 enrolled students in 29 states plus the District of Columbia, K12 took in $522 MILLION last year in revenue – those would be public tax-payer dollars that were not going to the vast majority of students still being educated in their district schools. [Education Week, 2012-2-21]

In Pennsylvania, K12 runs Agora Cyber Charter School, which has performed quite poorly. According to Education Week, “The school’s average growth index, which measures performance on state tests, is minus 12.1, among the lowest in the state.” In fact, shareholders have brought a lawsuit against K12 arguing that they were misled and that the company “inflated stock prices by not disclosing data showing that K12 Inc. students perform below state averages and by not being truthful about student-to-teacher ratios and student-recruitment practices.”

Yet school districts have to pay top dollar for their own students who choose to enroll in K12’s Agora Cyber Charter School, even when they operate their own charter schools for half the cost. For example, in East Penn school district in Lehigh County, superintendent Thomas Seidenberger explains that “his district pays $8,800 for each student who attends a cyber school, including Agora, despite ‘dismal’ test scores,” while the district’s own cyber charter school costs only $4,400 per student. Pedro Rivera, the Lancaster superintendent who suggested the cap on private charter school payments, told the White House his district faces the same situation: he runs a cyber charter school for half what he is forced to pay to private companies.

In an interview last month, K12’s Chief Executive Officer Ronald J. Packard said, “For reasons I don’t fully understand, there are a lot of people who don’t like for-profit companies in education.” I would say beachfront estates that come at the expense of student achievement in one of the state’s most distressed school districts top my list of reasons why I don’t like for-profit companies sucking up public education resources. Talk about soaking the public. Also on my list: exorbitant price tags, political cronyism, and lack of accountability and fiscal transparency.

What I Told the White House

You have five minutes to talk to the White House about something that you really care about – what are you going to say? I had this rare opportunity last Friday when the President’s Office of Public Engagement invited 150 community leaders from Pennsylvania to the White House for a briefing. Through my work with our grassroots public education movement and Yinzercation, I was invited to attend the White House with Education Voters PA and Keystone Progress.

I actually spoke twice. First in the morning, at a listening session with Jon Carson, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. We had just heard policy briefings from Cecelia Munoz, Assistant to the President and Director, Domestic Policy Council (education falls under her purview); Elizabeth Fowler, Special Assistant to the President for Health Care Policy (it was the second anniversary of the Affordable Care Act); and Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant to the President, Energy and Climate Change (lots of fracking concerns).

I explained to Mr. Carson that while I was at the White House representing a movement for sustainable and equitable funding for public education, I saw a real connection between the many issues we had been discussing. After the policy briefings and talking with my fellow delegates, it became clear that in the big picture, we are all struggling with a significant erosion of the “public good,” or the “common good.” Speaking also as a historian of working families and social reform, I suggested that this represents a historic loss of faith in the ability of the government to do the right thing and to help people.

We are witnessing a massive effort to privatize, or re-privatize (going back to conditions in the 19th century), our public goods – everything from public education, to public transportation, parks, healthcare, and even our drinking water. In Pennsylvania, we need look no further than Governor Corbett’s agenda of privatizing education with vouchers and charter schools while refusing to seriously aid financially distressed districts currently circling the drain, including Chester Upland, Harrisburg, and Duquesne.

I told the White House administration that I would like to see us having more of a conversation nationally about the value of the public good. And that the conversation can connect the work we are doing at the local level to the state and federal level.

In the afternoon, I had a second chance to speak, building on these comments in a policy breakout session with Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education. In this session, twenty of us discussed the terrible impact of state budget cuts, laid out succinctly by the superintendent of schools in Lancaster. A member of the Harrisburg school board questioned the administration’s focus on innovation, when students in his district don’t even have books. Delegates from Reading, one of the poorest cities in the nation, spoke movingly about the dire need for equity in school funding. Two students asked how they were going to afford a college education. And an 80 year old teacher from Philadelphia shook her finger reminding the administration that it has an ethical imperative to “do something!” when we have worse racial segregation (and socio-economic stratification in our schools) than in the 1950s at the time of Brown vs. the Board of Education.

While the federal government plays a limited role financially, providing on average only ten cents out of every dollar spent on education, it plays a big role in setting policy. We spent considerable time discussing the consequences – whether intended or unintended – of the No Child Left Behind legislation and the Race to the Top program. A special education teacher was in tears as she described the impact of relentless testing on her students, and a parent from Shippensburg detailed the toll of “teaching to the test” on teachers, students, and their families. Others noted that Race to the Top and similar grant programs tend to reward wealthier districts and charter schools that have full-time, professional grant writers. Mr. Rodriguez agreed that the federal government needs to take into account the full impact of its policies and work to “level the playing field.”

Susan Gobreski of Education Voters reminded the administration that we must re-frame the discussion of education, focusing on equity rather than accountability. And I reminded Mr. Rodriguez that the White House has a bully pulpit and that we want them to use it. “Here’s what I want you to say,” I told him. “Public schools are a public good.”

I told the White House to stop talking about failing schools as if they were the rule rather than the exception, which only serves to paint all public education with the same toxic brush. That’s not to say we shouldn’t fix problems where they occur, or focus on significant issues such as graduation rates for some populations. I believe we have to address trenchant disparities along lines of race, class, and gender. But we’ve got to shift the larger debate and start talking about the good that public education serves. Because public education is one of America’s great success stories. Because public education is the key to our children’s future. Because it’s for our common good.

A Simple Resolution

Here’s another easy – and effective – way to get involved in the fight for public education right now. Ask your school board representative to consider this “Resolution Supporting Increased State Funding for K-12 Public Education.” The draft resolution was written by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, a non-profit state-wide group that supports excellence in leadership of local school boards.

It’s a very straightforward document and easy for school board members to get behind. The resolution points out that the administration has reduced funding while costs for mandated educational programs continue to rise. It states beautifully, “expectations and requirements for students do not diminish in times of economic difficulty.”

The real power of the resolution will come when a large proportion of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts sign on, sending a clear signal to our legislators that we must reverse these devastating budget cuts. Has your school board considered the proposed resolution yet? Even if you think they might have seen it, please send an email or call your school board member and ask if they would consider putting the resolution forward.

In the City of Pittsburgh, members of Yinzercation have asked school board members Bill Isler and Sharene Shealey to consider the resolution. But more requests like this don’t hurt, and many school board members still have not heard about it, both in the city and throughout Southwestern PA. For example, as the Post-Gazette reported last week, in the West Mifflin Area School District, which is struggling with a $3.5 million budget gap because of the state cuts, “superintendent Daniel Castagna said although he hadn’t seen the resolution, he would give it his support. ‘We would absolutely be on board with this,’ Mr. Castagna said.”

So consider sending a quick email or making a phone call to ask your school board to look at this excellent resolution. (In the City of Pittsburgh, if you don’t know your board member’s email address, you can send a note to the general email box: Let’s see how many school districts in Yinzer Nation will pass the resolution at their April meetings, helping to put real pressure on our legislators as they head into the final two months of budget negotiations in May and June!

A Sign in Harrisburg

Ninth grade students at Pittsburgh’s Barack Obama public high school are putting up outdoor advertising to protest the devastating state budget cuts. Check out the billboard they put up in Harrisburg this week right by the State Capitol building (on Forster Street near Susquehanna Street, in case you’re in the neighborhood):

They also have two bus shelter ads in the Oakland area of Pittsburgh with this theme, “Cutting our Funding … is cutting our Future.” The students explain they are “fighting the budget cuts to get the funding we need to succeed in life.” Ninth grader Montana Moore, who helped create the billboards, went on WRCT-FM’s Lockdown Radio show to express her dismay at the budget cuts, saying, “I have very strong opinions when it comes to my education.” The students spoke at the Pittsburgh Public School Board meeting Monday night, and were interviewed for a KDKA news piece (3-19-12).

The ninth graders are participants in the Youth Media Advocacy Project, which brings Carlow University student mentors in to work with high school students, helping them advocate for the changes the students want to see, particularly in education. The group read posts on Yinzercation to learn about the budget cuts and get inspired – and now their message is loud and clear on a billboard in Harrisburg where it will hopefully inspire our legislators.