Yes, it’s Working! (and here’s how we know)

We’ve called our legislators, written them letters, and met with them; we’ve hosted house parties, a teach-in, and public forums; we’ve held a rally in a snowstorm, published op-ed pieces, and submitted letters-to-the-editor. But is it working?

The simple answer is yes. But to understand how it’s working, we have to piece together what is going on around the state.

The end goal is obviously to reverse the devastating state budget cuts to public education. Since our legislators are the people who can do that through the budget negotiation process, we have to monitor what they are saying and doing to gauge if we’re being effective. But our legislators are politicians first, which means they are listening to their constituents. So there are really two gauges we have to keep our eye on: 1) our legislators’ increasing willingness to champion public education, and 2) the general public’s growing awareness and advocacy around education.

The good news is that both dials appear to be nudging upwards. For instance, on the legislative dial here in Southwest Pennsylvania, Representative Dan Frankel has long been counted on to support public education. But we’re hearing from him more regularly on the issue now, including comments he issued immediately following the proposed budget announcement last month. He also called out Yinzercation specifically in a recent email to constituents. Senator Jay Costa has replied to letters and phone calls with impressively detailed accounts of his pro-public education stand and spoke at the “Last Lunch” seminar at Pitt last week about the budget.

Also in Yinzer Nation, Senator Wayne Fontana, Representative Nick Kotick, and Representative Jesse White spoke forcefully for public education at last week’s forum in South Fayette. And Representative Jake Wheatley, a member of the House Education Committee, met with students who travelled to Harrisburg for the A+ Schools Valentine’s Day Rally and also spoke at the Pitt “Last Lunch” seminar.

In other parts of the state, Representative Mike Sturla from Lancaster County has become a vocal advocate of public education. He hosted a public hearing on the budget cuts two weeks ago along with Representative Margo Davidson of Upper Darby. Sturla has particularly highlighted the issue of fiscally distressed districts such as Chester Upland (the current poster-child for the state’s failure to provide equitable and sustainable resources to all students).

While these representatives are all Democrats, there has been some noticeable movement among Republicans, too. Fifteen Republicans refused to vote for Governor’s Corbett’s voucher bill in December – a crucial victory for public education advocates (though the battle is not yet fully won on that issue). Representative Paul Clymer, a Republican from Bucks County, met with teens rallying for public education in Harrisburg last month. And Senator Jake Corman, a Republican from Centre County has come out quite vocally against cuts to public higher-education, an obviously closely related issue.

Another strong indicator of progress on the “legislative dial” is the new effort of the House Democratic Caucus to track press coverage of school district budgets. Every single day, the caucus website posts articles from around the state. Since January 23rd, the site has shared over 250 newspaper articles detailing the devastating effects of state budget cuts on local schools, helping to keep legislators focused on public education. They wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t hearing from their constituents that public education matters.

On the “public awareness dial,” there has been much movement in the past few months. This past weekend, OnePittsburgh – a coalition of local faith groups, community organizations, and labor – hosted a well-attended education event with a presentation by Ron Cowell, President of the Education Policy and Leadership Center. Collaborations like these with state-wide education groups are proving extremely fruitful in nudging that public awareness dial. Last week, the Pennsylvania State Education Association kicked off its Partners for Public Education campaign in South Fayette, drawing a large crowd.

Tonight on the other side of the state, there is a legislative forum on public education in Lehigh County, sponsored by the League of Women Voters with state representatives and senators invited. Next week, legislators will be meeting with school officials in Bradford, Sullivan, and Tioga counties at an event sponsored by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. Later this month, Pennsylvania Auditor Jack Wagner will talk on “The Real Impact of the Proposed State Budget on Public Education” at a public meeting hosted by the League of Women Voters of Chester County; and Arcadia University will host a panel discussion, “Unpacking the PA School Budget: What Does This Mean for Me?” moderated by the Education Law Center.

Education Voters PA, a state-wide public education advocacy organization, set the date for this week’s call-your-legislator day and worked with groups across Pennsylvania. This was the third time Yinzer Nation has collaborated with EdVoters PA on call-in events, with participation increasing each time. Also in our area, EdVoters PA is helping to organize a public forum in the North Hills, a “Write Now!” kids’ advocacy event at the Children’s Museum, and will be coordinating a state-wide bake-sale in April, highlighting how many cookies we would all have to sell to make up for these budget cuts. Stay tuned for lots more details on these efforts.

These events are more than the sum of their parts. As we work with groups like EdVoters PA, we spark conversations around the state, acting as a catalyst for further grassroots organizing. And we know that this grassroots movement is working. Our friends at EdVoters PA keep a close eye on Harrisburg and tell us that a new Department of Education website is a sure sign of mounting public pressure. The website, designed to explain Corbett’s claim that schools are actually getting increased funding under his proposed budget plan, is clearly a reaction to the growing public realization that school budgets are, in fact, being drastically slashed.

As the Capitolwire Bureau Chief Peter DeCoursey points out in a recent article, “For a guy who ran for governor saying school districts were over-funded and could and should do more with less money, Gov. Corbett sure does everything he can now to hide the fact that he is governing as he promised in his campaign…. Why is he trying to hide this clear policy goal now?… it is about his only declared policy on which he shilly-shallies about what he did.” It is pretty clear that Corbett is feeling the heat of public pressure on this issue as people line up behind their public schools.

So all this was a long-winded way of saying, “Yes, it’s working!” Keep up the fight. Keep talking to your friends and to your legislators, and we’ll keep pushing those dials a little further. We can do it when we work together.

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