Back to Work

Our legislators are headed back to Harrisburg today to get to work on the budget. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware) said that he would like “to finish in mid-June, not wait until the last hour of the last day.” [Post-Gazette, 4-30-12] That means we have about six more weeks in this budget negotiation process to make sure our legislators restore funding to public education.

With new revenue projections due out this week – and expected to be higher than previous projections – lawmakers will have more money to work with. The Post-Gazette is reporting today that, “Any additional funds received above what was expected in February, when the governor introduced his budget, likely will be directed first toward education.” Legislators have been getting an earful from higher-ed advocates, and even Republicans are making favorable noises about restoring some of the draconian cuts proposed to the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State and the 14 state-owned public colleges and universities.

They have also been hearing from early childhood education advocates furious about the proposed elimination of the Accountability Block Grant used to fund Kindergarten programs in many school districts. The same Post-Gazette article suggests that these funds may be “on the restoration list.” Don’t forget the Rally in Harrisburg tomorrow, organized by our friends at the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC), designed to keep the heat on this crucial piece of education funding.

In addition to negotiating the budget, the legislature will be considering several bills affecting public education. These include a bill that would change how charter schools are funded – a key issue for school districts struggling to close huge budget gaps at the same time the state cut charter school reimbursements. As we noted before, some districts run their own charter schools, especially cyber charter schools, for far less than they are forced to pay private companies to do the same. [“Soaking the Public”] The state simply must ensure that we have an equitable funding formula for charter schools.

The legislature will also be considering a change to the state school code that would permit school districts to use factors, such as performance evaluations, in addition to seniority when furloughing teachers. This is becoming a hot topic here in Pittsburgh where 450 teachers just received pink slips based entirely on seniority. To keep great teachers in the classroom, the district and the union are going to have to work together on this issue. The consequences of these devastating state budget cuts are layoffs and we must protect our best teachers. Gov. Corbett actually tried to pass legislation last year on this issue: he failed to get enough support, but there are bills in front of both the state Senate and House that could help. [Post-Gazette, 4-26-12]

There is much more to be said about this subject and we will need to have a deep and thoughtful conversation about it in our community. But this much is clear: there is a direct connection between the state budget cuts and the loss of some of our best teachers. As the heads of three major foundations wrote in an Op-Ed piece yesterday: “As a result of cuts in funding for urban schools such as Pittsburgh’s — cuts so deep that the very bones of education bear the knife marks — our district will soon say goodbye to hundreds of teachers without so much as a glance at the data, at whether these teachers have been deemed ‘highly effective.’” They added, “For parents, teachers and administrators, the combined effects of the funding cuts and antiquated laws regarding furloughs are potentially devastating,” with some schools such as Pittsburgh Faison losing 40% of their teachers. [Post-Gazette, 4-29-12] To learn more about this issue, please join A+ Schools Executive Director, Carey Harris, next Monday, May 7th, for a conversation. We will meet at 7PM at Rodef Shalom (on Fifth Ave. in Oakland).

Meanwhile, as our legislators return to work today, it’s also back to work for us. What can you do these next six weeks?


Good News From Around the State

It’s Friday and we could all use some good news, so here is a wrap-up of positive public education budget items from around the state:

  • Three former members of ALEC in our state legislature have renounced their membership! Keystone Progress, which has been tracking the legislation written by corporations and introduced into our state, reports that Republicans Sen. John Pippy and Rep. Mark Mustio (both from Southwest Pennsylvania) and Democrat Rep. Harry Readshaw are now saying they are not members. [Read why “There is Nothing Smart About ALEC”]
  • Last night, parents and community members in the Upper Darby school district outside of Philadelphia met with state Representative Nick Micozzie about the budget cuts forcing their district to eliminate elementary art, music, library, and physical education. They have become an active group with their own website, but are particularly focused on the state budget. The Delco Times reports that Micozzie, a Republican from the 163rd District, “has battled for years for a better way to fund public education in this state and … clearly is not wild about the governor’s spending plans.” He has vowed to ask the Governor to come to the Upper Darby to discuss the cuts to public education.
  • Two legislators – one Republican and one Democrat – were recognized last night for being outstanding champions for public education: Sen. Daylin Leach (D-17) and Rep. Bernie O’Neill (R-29) received awards from the Pennsylvania School Board Association for their work in Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware counties.
  • On Wednesday, Lehigh Valley hosted a community forum to discuss the state budget cuts. Richard Snisack, Superintendent of the Parkland School District explained, “It’s not an expenditure issue, it’s a revenue issue,” and stated that he feels our democracy is at risk. [WFMZ-TV, April 26, 2012]
  • A group like ours, the Chester County Coalition for Public Education, is hosting a Rally at the Chester County Courthouse next week. State Senator Andy Dinniman (D-19), the minority chair of the Senate Education Committee, will be there and issued a strong statement this week saying:
    • “Cutting support for early childhood and basic education and slashing funds for higher education will be disastrous for students at all levels and even more devastating in the years to come. … We know that cuts to basic and early education mean increased local property taxes, larger class sizes, teacher layoffs and less individualized attention and specialized programs. We know that cuts to higher education mean significantly increased tuition and fees, greater student borrowing and debt and more people on the unemployment rolls. Altogether these cuts will set Pennsylvania back decades and undermine all of our efforts for long-term economic growth and prosperity.
 This is an issue that affects every Pennsylvanian – from current students and their families, to teachers and professors, to high school seniors and prospective college students.”

We need more legislators issuing statements such as these. And we need more of our representatives publicly declaring they are free of ties to ALEC. We still need more community forums and rallies. And we especially need more of our Republican legislators, like Rep. Micozzie, standing up for public education and asking Governor Corbett to explain his proposed budget cuts. But all in all, these are positive signs as we move into the final two months of the budget negotiation. Chins up!





This Fight is Our Fight

If you’re itching to get to Harrisburg and tell our legislators to reverse these devastating cuts to education, here’s a great opportunity: next Tuesday, May 1st, the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC) will be taking busloads of people for a day of advocacy. PAEYC (pronounced “pay-cee”) is a terrific organization and all of us concerned with K-12 public education need to be paying attention to early childhood education (known as ECE).

In fact, these are rather arbitrary distinctions between ECE and K-12, based on historical issues of funding, institutions, and traditional gender roles within the family. (There is much more to be said on this topic and it is a particular interest of mine, but I will not digress.) It makes more sense to think of learning as a continuum and good research now supports the idea of moving to a pre-K-12 model. [See, for instance, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ September 2011 report.] In any case, there is much common ground with our friends in early childhood education, especially around the $100 MILLION Accountability Block Grant that Gov. Corbett is proposing to cut.

As you may recall, most school districts use that block grant to fund Kindergarten programs (Pittsburgh Public actually uses it to support ECE programs). Last year, the governor proposed cutting this same block grant, but it was one of the few things restored in the budget negotiation process. This is a real opportunity to band together to put pressure on a key piece of the budget during this negotiation process.

Supporting quality early childhood education is a no-brainer. Good ECE programs prepare children academically for school, help to close the achievement gap, and provide long-term benefits to taxpayers and society. Research shows that every $1 spent on early education yields between $7 and $13 in savings due to reduced crime, decreased drug use and a drop in teen parenting. [For example, see a Pennsylvania study from the Urban Studies Center, 2006.]

The proposed budget will gut ECE efforts around the state, meaning that fewer children will arrive at schools ready to learn. That will inevitably lead to increased costs for educational interventions and remediation. And as programs have to cut training programs for ECE teachers, fewer children will benefit from quality programs – the kinds that really make a difference. With cuts to childcare subsidies, working families will have few affordable alternatives.

Consider joining PAEYC on May 1st. There are buses leaving from Homestead and Homewood that day. Lunches are available and they can accommodate groups. This gang is organized and has a great schedule lined up for the day. For more information, email Molly Mickinak Loggins ( or call 412-421-3889.

It’s time for education advocates to band together and fight for adequate, equitable, and sustainable state funding for the full spectrum of public education in Pennsylvania.

Primary Results Mixed for Education

The primary results are in and it’s a mixed bag for public education. Starting on the other side of the state:

  • Rep. James Roebuck, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, managed to hold onto his seat in a hot race against an opponent heavily financed by Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children (AFC). As we reported earlier this week, DeVos and other mega-billionaires have been funneling money into the Students First PAC (and several others) in an effort to oust Roebuck, who has been a vocal foe of Corbett’s voucher legislation.
  • Incumbent Senator Pat Vance, who also voted against the voucher bill back in December, prevailed despite a media-blitz funded by DeVos’ AFC and the Students First PAC, which had channeled their money through the Citizens Alliance for Pennsylvania PAC. [See Keystone State Education Coalition blog for details.]

In contested elections locally:

  • Erin Molchany handily beat out incumbent Martin Schmotzer in the 22nd District, where, as we reported last week, public education had become a key issue. A Democrat, Molchany will face Republican Chris Cratsley in the fall, a moderate who believes the state should restore funding to education and opposes vouchers. Should be an interesting race!
  • On the other hand, in the 39th District, running on a pro-education platform, Republican Shauna D’Alessandro lost her bid to unseat incumbent Rick Saccone, a staunch ally of Gov. Corbet and his efforts to privatize public education.

In the South Hills, State Senator John Pippy – a Republican from Moon and known ALEC member – did not seek re-election. Businessman D. Raja won the Republican nomination, though if he wins in the fall, he may not be in office long as the congressional redistricting may exclude his hometown of Mt. Lebanon once the new lines are settled on. However, considering the high likelihood of his gaining a seat in Harrisburg for at least the next couple years, folks from Raja’s district may want to start talking to him now about his support for public education.

I would be asking him where he stands on vouchers, whether or not he intends to accept membership in ALEC, and how he will ensure an equitable and reasonable state budget next year for our schools. The fact that Mt. Lebanon just announced it will have to raise local property taxes by another half mill should help. Homeowners are not happy with increased taxes, and families can’t be pleased to see one of the most successful school districts in the country cutting staff and programs to close a $1.9 million budget gap. [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 19, 2012]

There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC

Yesterday we talked about the Students First PAC, which funnels money from mega-millionaires and billionaires, often from out-of-state, into the campaigns of candidates promising to privatize public education. Once those politicians are elected, another organization called ALEC stands ready to help them craft legislation specifically intended to do just that.

ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, is a national organization of corporations and state legislators. The corporations approve pre-packaged legislation designed to benefit their industries and have the legislators introduce those bills – sometimes word for word – at the state level. ALEC’s corporate fingerprints are all over state legislation from coast to coast, on issues ranging from voter ID laws, to anti-immigration efforts, environmental protection erasures, and NRA-backed “Stand Your Ground” bills. In education, the group is active in trying to introduce “school choice” bills, especially for vouchers and tax-credit programs, both of which channel money to private schools.

The organization was started in the 1970s, but it has been hard to piece together their state-by-state work until recently. And the emerging picture is ominous. A new website, ALEC Exposed, went live last summer with the help of a whistle blower. It contains over 800 “model” bills and resolutions that are fundamentally reshaping our democratic process as corporations secretly craft and vote on legislation without any public disclosure.

But it is the “Stand Your Ground” legislation that has recently caught the public’s attention with the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida: that legislation, drafted by ALEC and passed in many states, was cited as the reason the police initially refused to arrest the shooter, George Zimmerman. [The Atlantic, April 14, 2012] People have naturally started asking how that legislation wound up on the books and are connecting the dots.

Those dots also draw a straight line between ALEC and new education laws. For instance, ALEC has been especially active in pushing for so-called “Parent Trigger” laws that permit schools to be turned over to private charter school companies. Never mind that parents at the first schools targeted in California say they were tricked into signing petitions to trigger the change, New York is now considering the same ALEC-approved legislation. [Read more about Parent Trigger laws at Parents Across America.]

Having corporations write and vote on our laws undermines the very essence of democracy. But even more insidiously, once those laws become established on a state-by-state basis, their underlying rationale bubbles up to federal policy. And with enough states on board, ALEC effectively controls the national dialogue, making it seem that there is broad national consensus on policies such as voter ID bills. [See why we said “There Goes $11-million for our Schools” when Pennsylvania passed just such a law last month.] In reality, the public is not even aware of the back-room deals going on, much less participating in any kind of consensus-building discussion around these crucial issues.

Make no mistake: these are back-room deals with corporations buying sustained access to our legislators. In Pennsylvania, ALEC issued a guide helpfully pointing out how legislators could get around our troublesome constitution, which prevents public money from being spent on religious schools. (This is the Blaine Amendment which says, “No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.” PA Constitution Article 3, Section 15.) ALEC notes that, “Both tax credit and voucher programs are school choice options for Pennsylvania,” and that the Blaine Amendment “can be avoided entirely by funding vouchers from other government revenue.” Note to us: be on the lookout for tricky revenue games that pretend that some public money can be spent on vouchers.

The good news is that more companies are starting to feel the piercing gaze of public scrutiny in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting. Social media campaigns have “outed” a number of corporations and pressured them into resigning from ALEC, including Kraft, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and Intuit. Two weeks ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that they would withdraw financial support from ALEC, where they had been supporting work with state legislators on teacher effectiveness (also the subject of their local grant to the Pittsburgh Public School District). The Gates Foundation granted $375,000 to ALEC over the past two years, but has cut all ties after becoming the target of an online petition that gathered over 23,000 signatures in just a few hours. [Roll Call, April 9, 2012]

However, ALEC is still strong and has plenty of support among Pennsylvania legislators who introduce “model bills” pretending that they wrote them. For example, Rep. Matt Baker (R, Bradford, Tioga) introduced an ALEC bill, “Freedom of Choice in Healthcare Act,” written by healthcare industry lobbyists designed to actually derail implementation of healthcare benefits. Rep. Seth Grove (R, York) claimed he wrote the “Council of Efficient Government Act,” but it was actually written by corporations hoping to privatize public services for their own gain. And Sen. Mike Folmer (R, Lebanon) pretended that the “High-Risk Health Insurance Pool Act” was his own work. [Investigation by Keystone Progress, August 2011.] As a teacher, I give them all F’s for plagiarism and recommend they be expelled.

And there are more. While it is difficult to determine precise affiliation with such a shadowy organization, last fall the Daily Kos identified 36 members of ALEC in the Pennsylvania legislature (and they are sure there are many others). From Southwest PA, these include Rep. Mike Turzai and Rep. John Pippy. On this Election Day (you ARE voting, aren’t you?), I leave you with the full list to ponder the question: What happens when we allow corporations to purchase our candidates and then write our laws?

Matt Baker
David J Brightbill
Craig Dally
Charlie Dent
John R Evans
Robert J Flick
Michael Fitzpatrick
Matt Gabler
Stewart J Greenleaf
James D Greenwood
James Gerlach
Glen Grell
Melissa Hart
Dick Hess
Robert C  Jubelirar
Dennis Leh
Ronald Marsico
Daryl Metcalfe
Ronald Miller
Jerry Nailor
Fred Noye
Michael A O’Pake
John E Peterson
Ron Peterson
John M Perzel
Merle Phillips
John Pippy
Joseph R Pitts
Todd Platts
Harry Readshaw
Robert Robbins
Samuel Rohrer
Matther Ryan
Stan Saylor
Donald E (Buz) Snyder
Dick Stevenson
Elinor Taylor
Mike Turzai

It’s All About the Money, Money, Money

With Election Day tomorrow and politics on our minds, we might be reminded of the advice from Deep Throat, the secret informant in the Watergate scandal, who famously said, “Follow the money.” At least he did in the movie version. Right now with corporate money bankrolling our elections and paying for specific legislation, we would be wise to follow the money trail in education policy. It turns out that the facts are stranger than any movie fiction when it comes to politics and public education.

There are two groups you should know about, both pouring gobs of money into Pennsylvania politics in an attempt to privatize public education: Students First PAC and ALEC. Today we’ll deal with Students First PAC, which effectively channels money from multi-millionaires and billionaires – many from out-of-state – into the campaigns of candidates who support vouchers and expanding charter legislation. (See what we’ve written previously about the problem with vouchers and some charter schools.) Though there is a distinct line between vouchers and charter schools, the two are often conflated under the seemingly benign moniker of “school choice.”

Betsy DeVos could be the poster child for mega-billionaire spending on “school choice” politics, which is really about making sure that corporations and private schools can take taxpayer dollars meant for public education funding. The former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and married to the heir of the Amway fortune, DeVos is the founder and board chair of the American Federation for Children (AFC), which works across the country to promote her “school choice” agenda. According to campaign finance reports, the AFC has already funneled $1 MILLION into Pennsylvania politics this spring through the Students First PAC. (Last year AFC contributed $120,000 and in 2010 it paid $1.2 Million into the Students First PAC.)

DeVos got herself in a heap of hot-water next door in Ohio, which fined her a record $5.2 million for illegally shifting money into that state to support “school choice” candidates. [Associated Press, April 5, 2008] And Wisconsin also fined her group for political misconduct. Following these incidents, DeVos rebranded her organization as the current American Federation for Children, which also accepts donations from the likes of Charles and David Koch, the ultra-right-wing brothers. [The Nation, May 2011] The AFC then turns around and sends that money into states such as Pennsylvania, using the Students First PAC.

And DeVos is hardly alone. Last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “activists like Michigan’s Betsy DeVos, of the Amway fortune; the heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton; and three wealthy Main Line hedge-fund traders have doled out an astonishing $6-million-plus in campaign cash to top Harrisburg pols, while they and allies have spent millions more on rallies, inflammatory mailers and lobbyists.” Joel Greenberg, one of those Main Line hedge-fund traders from Philadelphia, serves on Betsy DeVos’s board at the American Federation for Children and was on Governor Corbett’s education transition team. And Gov. Corbett was a featured speaker at their national school choice summit in Washington D.C. last year. [Washington Independent, May 10, 2011]

So where is all that money going? Over on the other side of the state, Representative James Roebuck of the 188th District in Philadelphia is in the fight of his life. The ranking Democrat on the Pennsylvania House Education Committee, Roebuck has staunchly opposed voucher legislation. The Students First PAC has already poured $25,000 into his opponent’s campaign, which has also gained the support of the state’s most high-profile pro-voucher Democrat, State Senator Anthony Williams. Two years ago, Williams ran a campaign for governor against Dan Onorato with funding from the Students First PAC and received $5 million from three conservative hedge fund managers. [Philadelphia City Paper, March 28, 2012] These races are making strange bedfellows, with extremely conservative, avowedly anti-abortion donors joining forces with openly pro-choice Democratic candidates, because of their shared “school choice” agenda. [Philadelphia City Paper, April 20, 2012]

Over here in Yinzer Nation, we need to be paying attention. There are few people such as Rep. Roebuck standing between Gov. Corbett and his coveted voucher bill. Meanwhile, out-of-state billionaires like Betsy DeVos are playing games with Pennsylvania politics and privatizing public education is clearly the prize they are after. If Students First wins, Pennsylvania’s real students will come in last.

Writing Back

Here’s a great run-down of the “WriteNow! Education Matters” children’s advocacy day at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum last Saturday, from Amanda Godley, Jodi Hirsch, and Matt Luskey, three of the organizers of that event.

Ed Voters + WPWP + Children’s Museum = hundreds of kids shouting “Hear Us Now!”

Dear Governor Corbett,
My name is Elena and I am nine years old. I am also in third grade. I would like to save the music program because at my school only 4th and 5th grade get to do instruments. But since you are cutting the music programs I cannot learn how to play the violin. I would like to learn a complicated instrument to test my brain….

Last Saturday, more than 400 students, teachers, parents, Pittsburgh city council members, state, and federal legislators gathered at the Childrenʼs Museum of Pittsburgh to voice concerns about the billion-dollar cut to public education in Pennsylvania. We wrote letters, emails and tweets. We shared our words and wishes for our schools on the Saturday Light Brigade, on video, and during an open-mic session. We created banners, signs, posters, and t-shirts. And throughout the four-hour Write Now! Education Matters event, we rocked out with students from the Dilworth Traditional Academy Drummers.

Hosted by the Western PA Writing Project and Education Voters PA, and co-sponsored by Saturday Light Brigade, A+ Schools, Communities for Excellence, Hear Me, One Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh United, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, United Food and Commercial Workers, Yinzercation and the Square Café, our event included students from Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburg, Steel Valley, Mt. Lebanon, and several other local school districts, as well as the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon.

Together we generated:

  • More than 200 letters and signs supporting public education funding that were sent to the governor and state representatives
  • Over 100 pro-education funding t-shirts
  • Nearly 1,000 cookies, demonstrating the millions  of cookies we’d have to sell to make up for the state cuts to education funding
  • More than 40 interviews with children and adults about their hopes and dreams for public schools

Jodi Hirsh, local consultant for Education Voters PA and one of the event organizers, said about the Write Now!: “Parents and community members are angry about Governor Corbett’s ill-advised, draconian cuts to education funding, and they’ve been organizing all over the state to make sure their concerns are heard. What was great about this event is it not only built upon those organizing efforts, but also focused specifically on giving the students themselves–those who feel these cuts each and every day–a chance to make their voices heard. It’s the students who are the biggest stakeholders in this fight, and it was so empowering to hear them speaking up for their schools.”

For Matthew Luskey, Director of the Western Pa Writing Project, “Saturday was an advocacy event and an educational one.  With support from K to college teachers, students wrote for authentic audiences, through various modes and published in a variety of media.”

As students spoke about their schools, tweets scrolled in from around the county and state. Congressman Mark Critz rallied students and parents with slogans and hisses, and Bill Peduto, Member of the Pittsburgh City Council and a staunch advocate for pubic education funding, was quick to book the Dilworth band for a future gig.

Amanda Godley, parent of two Pittsburgh Public School students, noted, “It was so powerful to see students of all ages and from different communities come together with one voice to say, ‘Invest in our education!'”

Saturday Light Brigade host, Larry Berger, interviewed 11 students from kindergarten to 11th grade.  Students from Allegheny K-5, Colfax, CAPA, Dilworth and Wilkinsburg High School read excerpts from their letters and spoke about recent advocacy work. Brandi Knight, a 10th grader at Wilkinsburg HS, shared with Larry her passion for chemistry and her regrets that there are no opportunities for her to take a more advanced science class at her high school due to the budget cuts.

On Saturday, children told us what they need and expect from their public schools. Each one of us is obligated to listen to what they said and to fight for them and their future through our letters, calls, involvement in events like Write Now!, and votes. We cannot stop pressuring Governor Corbett and state legislators to restore educational funding so that every child in Pittsburgh, and in the state of Pennsylvania, receives an excellent, equitable education. We owe it to our children.