It’s Raining – Money

It’s still raining in Pennsylvania – campaign money, that it. As the elections have heated up, candidates pushing school privatization efforts such as vouchers have received a windfall from some well-organized and extremely wealthy out-of-state pockets. While we’re mopping up and rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy, we better take a look at what else has blown into our state, and the consequences we could be dealing with for years to come.

Remember Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children (AFC)? 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 AFC, which works across the country to promote her “school choice” agenda. In the run-up to this spring’s primaries, the AFC funneled over $1million into Pennsylvania politics through the Students First PAC. (Last year AFC contributed $120,000 and in 2010 it paid $1.2 Million into Students First PAC.) [PA state campaign finance reports] In the past few weeks alone, the AFC has dumped another $400,000 into the superPAC. [Keystone State Education Coalition, 10-29-12]

A few years ago, Ohio fined DeVos’s group a record $5.2 million for illegally shifting money into that state to support “school choice” candidates. [Associated Press, April 5, 2008] Wisconsin also fined her group for political misconduct. Following these incidents, DeVos simple rebranded her organization as the current American Federation for Children. The AFC also accepts donations from the likes of Charles and David Koch, the ultra-wealthy and ultra-conservative brothers who are well known for their anti-union politics. [The Nation, May 2011; for more on the AFC, see It’s All About the Money, Money, Money”]

Joel Greenberg, who just made the list of Pennsylvania’s top political campaign donors, is on the board of the AFC. He and two of his financial investment partners, Arthur Dantchik and Jeff Yass, founded Students First PAC back in 2010 with $5.2 million they happened to have lying around. [Public Source, PA top political donors report] Now Students First PAC operates as the conduit for AFC campaign contributions. Since September 28th, the superPAC has spent $534,000 on Pennsylvania elections. Where is all that money going?

Far and away the top beneficiary these past few weeks has been Representative Jim Christiana, from right here in Southwest PA. The Republican from Beaver County received a deluge of $100,000 from Students First PAC – twice as much as any other single candidate. The superPAC gave a handful of candidates two donations, but Christiana received no less than five separate checks, totaling about a fifth of all their giving. Why?

It’s certainly not because Rep. Christiana faces any serious political challenge. His opponent hasn’t had a campaign event since August and has just 40 “likes” on his Facebook page. (Honestly, this is the best the Democratic Party could do in what should be an extremely important race? Even the word “Endorsements” is spelled wrong on his website.) [Elect Bob Williams site] So why shower Rep. Christiana with cash?

The answer is pretty obvious. Christiana has become the go-to guy for Governor Corbett’s school privatization legislation. Back in June, he introduced our shiny new Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, a voucher-in-disguise that will divert $200 million in public money to private and religious schools. (See “2-4-6-8 Who Do We Appreciate?”) Christiana hails from Monaca in Beaver County, site of the proposed Dutch Royal Shell cracker plant, which Gov. Corbett intends to hand $1.675 BILLION to do business in Pennsylvania. (See “Can Shell Educate Our Kids?”) Just a few weeks before Christiana brought the EITC bill forward, he received a nice fat check for $25,000 from “Fighting Chance PA,” another new superPAC started by – you guessed it – Joel Greenberg, Arthur Dantchik and Jeff Yass, founders of the Students First PAC.

These guys have also taken notice of a more tightly contested race in our neck of the woods, funding Republican senate candidate Raja who is running against Democrat Matt Smith, currently a representative in the state house. [Keystone State Education Coalition, 10-29-12] Fortunately for public education advocates in the South Hills area, Rep. Smith offers the clear choice: he has met with Yinzercation parents and stands solidly behind adequate and equitable public funding for our public goods.

But we better be asking ourselves just what Philadelphia hedge fund operators are doing, dumping their spare cash in political races over here on the other side of the state. And we have to pay attention to the millions flooding into Pennsylvania from Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children. It’s still raining campaign money, and there will be a lot of storm damage if public-education advocates don’t get out to the polls next week – come hell or high water.


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Evaluating What?

If only they spent this much time worrying about adequately funding our schools. The state Department of Education just released a complicated new formula for evaluating teachers that will take effect next fall. One of the new components is a “building score” that will account for 15% of each teacher’s evaluation. That score includes a variety of measures, including students’ PSSA scores, graduation rates, attendance, and whether or not the school offers Advanced Placement courses. Half of every teacher’s score will be based on direct observation, 20% will come from locally developed factors (approved by the state), and 15% from “correlation data based on teacher level measures.” [Post-Gazette, 10-29-12] Whatever that means.

Do I think teachers ought to be evaluated? Sure. And I’m glad to see the state urging the use of more than just students’ standardized test scores. But there is still cause for concern here, especially with that new building score. The state proposes using a detailed accounting to arrive at that score: 30% based on student test scores, 10% for whether the school is closing the racial achievement gap, 2.5% for third grade reading scores, 5% for promotion rates at K-8 schools … and on and on. The idea is that the quality of a school can be exactly measured with these scores.

The very premise assumes that individual teachers should be held responsible for things largely outside their control. State deputy education secretary Carolyn Dumaresq says this will make education more of a “team sport,” where everyone shares responsibility. But that’s not quite accurate. Other than attendance rates, where is the student accountability for their own education here? Student motivation, completing homework, paying attention in class – these things matter a great deal to learning. And where is family accountability in this equation? Making sure students get to class, supporting their learning at home, and parental engagement are probably the most important factors in student achievement, but they are not being measured here.

Missing entirely from this quantification is a sense of what really matters in education: real student learning (not just learning how to take standardized tests). Well rounded knowledge outside basic reading and math skills. (Where is art, music, science, history?) Character development. Citizenship. The building score misses the point of education. Yet the state intends to make these scores public and then evaluate teachers on them.

Which begs the question, why does the Department of Education plan to exempt charter schools from this teacher evaluation plan? Charters are quite fond of claiming they are public schools, so why shouldn’t building scores apply to them?

I hate the idea of assigning each school what amounts to a grade. But if we’re going to do that, why don’t we turn this into what education historian Diane Ravitch calls “positive accountability”: use those grades to support and improve schools. What if every building that receives the equivalent of a “D” or “F” score immediately receives extra resources from the state and offers of help, instead of effectively undermining the careers of the teachers working in our most struggling schools?

Good teaching matters. It’s just that this is a terribly difficult thing to quantify as the state is trying to do. Especially with standardized tests that were designed to measure a student’s performance, not the teacher’s. All this hyperventilating about teaching effectiveness masks the other giants in the room impacting student learning: massive state budget cuts, the loss of 20,000 Pennsylvania teachers over the past two years, the elimination of tutoring and summer school programs, the erosion of school libraries, slashing of the arts, and serious reduction of early childhood education and Kindergarten.

So do I think teaching evaluation is important? Of course. Are there a few poor teachers in the system? You bet. But when I look around at public education today, teachers do not strike me as the real problem. What if Governor Corbett and his Department of Education spent half that much time worrying about ways to adequately and equitably fund our public schools? What if we evaluate how effective our legislators are in supporting real improvement in public education? Now there’s one score I’d like to see made public.

Libraries (and Librarians) Matter

First the good news: Today is the day to celebrate our Manchester Miracle! Just a few weeks ago, Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 had only 40 books in the fiction section of its library. Now, because of the incredible response of the networks we have built together through this grassroots public education movement, those bare shelves are teeming with books. And because the local community embraced this effort, the Manchester school library now has completely new paint, carpeting, lighting, furniture, circulation desk, and even student computers. The new space will be unveiled today at a ceremony open to the public at 3PM (1612 Manhattan Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15233).

In addition to the incredible list of volunteers and contributions we’ve already documented (see “The Manchester Miracle” for details), many other folks have recently stepped up to the plate. In consultation with the school’s teachers and students, Perlora interior designer Craig McDonald designed the new library, which will also feature murals donated by illustrator Dave Klug (you have seen his work in Highlights magazine, among other places). Much of the makeover occurred just this past week, courtesy of a group of Sam’s Club executives recruited by Manchester neighbor Kezia Ellison. Ms. Ellison runs an organization called Educating Teens, Inc., which also roped in CORO Pittsburgh’s NEXT Leaders Northside program to launch a new “Manchester Reads” project.

“Manchester Reads” will recruit mentors from the community to read to students at the school. Ellison also plans to use images of local adults reading their favorite books on a series of outdoor posters that kids will see to “drive home the point that people they know and live near them enjoy reading.” They will also have middle school students reading to elementary students, to reinforce skills and serve as role models. And the program will recruit volunteers to assist with library circulation during the week.

This is going to be an amazing program and much of this work is far beyond what even a well-resourced school library could ordinarily manage. But that last item – recruiting volunteers to assist with circulation – points to the much bigger underlying problem of inadequate funding and staffing in our school libraries.

And so the not-so-good-news: Here in Pittsburgh, only 14 out of 51 schools currently have a full time librarian. Most of the district’s librarians have five schools assigned to them, which means that students are only getting a professional librarian at their school one day per week. That librarian can’t see every kid in a school on a single day, which means that most students are really only getting to their library once every few weeks at best. In some schools, shelves are stacked with gorgeous books that essentially cannot be checked out, hostage to insufficient staffing. But the problem goes far beyond merely getting books into students’ hands. We have forgotten the real, tangible educational benefit of having school librarians.

Want some evidence? A new study released yesterday finds that students in our state with access to a full-time, certified school librarian have far better educational outcomes. Researchers from the Colorado based RSL Research Group looked at Pennsylvania’s standardized test scores (the PSSA) in reading and writing and tracked student achievement against five school library factors: staffing, collections, digital resources and technology infrastructure, library access, and funding. [Education Law Center Library Report, 10-23-12] By far the most important factor was having a full-time library professional. In other words, it’s great to have all those new books and digital collections and a space open for classroom teachers to take their students when time allows, but without a full-time librarian in each of our schools, we are still short-changing our kids.

Here are some highlights from the report that ought to make all of us concerned about equity and our racial achievement gap sit up and take notice:

  • Students who have access to a full-time, certified librarian scored higher on the PSSA Reading Test than those students who do not have such access. This finding is true for all students, regardless of their socio-economic, racial/ethnic, and/or disability status.
  • For several student groups that tend to experience achievement gaps—economically disadvantaged, Hispanic, Black, and those with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs)—Reading and Writing results are markedly better when those students attend a school with a librarian and library support staff, according to the research. In fact, they benefit more proportionally than the general student population.
  • Nearly twice as many high school students who have access to a full-time, certified librarian scored Advanced on the PSSA Writing test as those students without access to a full-time, certified librarian, according to the report.
  • Considering all students, those students with access to a full-time, certified librarian are almost three times as likely to have “Advanced” scores on the PSSA Writing Test as those students without access to a full-time, certified librarian.

This is apparently the first time anyone has tracked the impact of librarians on student’s writing, and the results suggest just how short sighted it is to slash library budgets. Debra Kachel, Pennsylvania School Librarians Association Legislation Committee Co-Chairperson, explained, “The overall findings fit with research we’ve seen in other states—access to a full-time, certified school librarian significantly impacts students achievement in reading.” And she noted that the new data on student writing “underscores the larger impact having a full-time, certified school librarian has on skills, such as writing, that prepare students for college and the workforce.” Nancy Potter, Education Law Center Attorney, agreed that reducing library resources “has extreme consequences for Pennsylvania’s public school students, especially the most vulnerable students.” [Education Law Center Library Report, 10-23-12]

If you would like to learn more about this new study of libraries and public education, please join the Pennsylvania School Library Project on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead at 5PM. (More information and registration here.) In the meantime, I plan to go celebrate our Manchester Miracle today and hope to see you there!

Charters are Cash Cows

Charter schools are cash cows feeding at the public trough. Oh, there are a few good ones here and there, to be sure. But if there was ever any doubt that charter schools have become Big Business, take a look at the list of the largest campaign contributors in Pennsylvania. Three of the top ten on a new “Power Players” report are throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars into state politics to gain favorable legislation for charter schools and we need to be asking why. [Public Source, Power Players report]

Weighing in at #5 is Van Gureghian, who founded Charter School Management Inc. back in 1999 to run a school in Chester, PA, a struggling former industrial town near Philadelphia. Today Gureghian’s company operates 150 charter schools in nine states, and that first school now has half of the district’s student enrollment and is the state’s largest charter school. Gureghian was Gov. Corbett’s single largest campaign donor and served on his education transition team. This is the same guy who is fighting the state’s Right to Know laws to keep from disclosing his salary – which is public knowledge for other public school administrators – while he recently bought two Florida beachfront lots for $28.9 million. He and his wife, another Charter School Management Inc. employee, plan to build a 20,000 square foot “French-inspired Monte Carlo estate.” [Palm Beach Daily News, 2011-11-18; Also see “Soaking the Public”]

At #8 and #10 on the list are Joel Greenberg and Arthur Dantchik. Public Source, which put together the report, notes that these two “act as one when making political contributions,” and that if we “consider them as a contributing team, you must include Jeff Yass,” who would be #11 on this list. Greenberg, Dantchik, and Yass went to college together and are founding partners of Susquehanna International Group, a financial broker-dealer in Philadelphia.

Greenberg is on the board of American Federation for Children, a national group with mega-billionaire backers supporting state vouchers for private school students. Dantchik is on the board of the Institute for Justice, a law firm that promotes school choice and Yass is on the board of the Cato Institute, a think tank dedicated to limited government and free markets. [Public Source, Power Players report] In 2010, these three men started Students First PAC to channel millions of their dollars, plus those from out of state donors, into races of pro-voucher candidates. (For more on the American Federation for Children and the Students First PAC, see “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money”.)

For those of you keeping track, that makes four of Pennsylvania’s biggest campaign donors so far this year with school privatization at the top of their to-do lists. Why? Lest you think these men are dabbling in education for the sake of students, take a closer look at the Big Business of charter schools. Back in August, CNBC interviewed the CEO of a major investment company who clearly explained why charter schools are such a great moneymaker. David Brain heads Entertainment Properties Trust, which owns movie theaters, destination recreation sites, and charter schools in 34 states.

When the interviewer asked why people should add charter schools to their investment portfolios, he replied:

“Well I think it’s a very stable business, very recession-resistant. It’s a very high-demand product. There’s 400,000 kids on waiting lists for charter schools … the industry’s growing about 12-14% a year. So it’s a high-growth, very stable, recession-resistant business. It’s a public payer, the state is the payer … if you do business with states with solid treasuries, then it’s a very solid business.”

The anchor also asked if he could buy one type of real estate asset right now, what would it be, and Brain answered:

“Well, probably the charter school business. We said it’s our highest growth and most appealing sector right now of the portfolio. It’s the most high in demand, it’s the most recession-resistant. And a great opportunity set with 500 schools starting every year. It’s a two and a half billion dollar opportunity set in rough measure annually.” [CNBC, 8-15-12]

Brain also told a nice whopper when the anchor asked him if there was any investment risk due to some public backlash against using taxpayer money to pay for charter schools. He claimed, “Most of the studies have charter schools at even or better than district public education.” Actually, most of the studies have shown the opposite: charter schools consistently rank at even or worse – sometimes much worse – than traditional public schools. For example, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. [Stanford/CREDO report summary, 2011] That’s a 100% failure rate. (See “Dueling Rallies” for complete details on charter school performance research.)

With such dismal results, investors really ought to be asking why Gov. Corbett’s administration keeps approving new charter school applications. Cyber charters in particular are charging taxpayers far more per student than it actually costs to educate them – to the tune of one million dollars per day sucked from our public coffers into the pockets of charter school operators. (See “One Million Per Day”) Pennsylvania already has 16 cyber charter schools – including four approved just this past summer – giving us one of the highest concentrations in the country. Yet the Department of Education just scheduled hearings on eight new cyber charter school applications. [Post-Gazette, 10-22-12]

Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University who studies charter schools, told the Post-Gazette, “Pennsylvania, as far as I know, has the most lucrative funding for virtual schools. It’s very favorable. It doesn’t surprise me more companies and entities want to come there for virtual schooling.” [Post-Gazette, 10-22-12]

Indeed. This is not about doing what is best for students. Charter schools have become investment opportunities for the wealthy and their portfolio managers, businesses that must be protected with favorable legislation bought by strategic campaign contributions. As these charter school operators feed at the public trough, they strip our public schools of desperately needed resources. It’s time to fight back. Public education is a public good, not a cash cow.

A Victory

Put this down as a victory for our grassroots movement! The proposed charter “reform” that Governor Corbett tried to ram through the legislature this week had died, in no small part because of the loud protest we mounted. The bill passed through the Senate last week and appeared to be ready to sail through the House this week, until public education advocates all over the state raised serious questions about many of its pieces. Most egregiously, the bill in its original form would have exempted charter school operators from Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law, taken away local control and accountability, and concentrated power in a state committee stacked with political appointees. (See “Where are the Real Republicans?” for all the details.)

Remember the story about the boiled frog? If a frog jumped into hot water, he’d hop right back out again, but a frog sitting in a pot slowly brought to a boil doesn’t realize until it’s too late that he’s cooked. The devil is in the details of these bills, and it’s these incremental legislative changes that will slowly boil our frog (and our schools). That’s why it was so important that we pay attention to those policy details and take action, like we did this week.

By Wednesday night, legislators in the House were working overtime before going into recess until after the election – and it was becoming increasingly clear that they didn’t have the votes to pass Senate Bill 1115. Many of our legislators agree that the charter funding formula in particular needs to be fixed. The state Auditor General estimates we are currently over-paying charter school operators $1million every day – that’s a huge pile of public taxpayer dollars going to line some very deep, private pockets. (See “One Million Per Day.”)

But rather than tackle this problem directly, this ill-fated bill would have formed a commission to study the problem, and loaded it with charter school operators. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, a Republican from our neck of the woods, admitted that, “the funding for cyber charters, in particular, is an issue that has to be addressed,” but the proposed “commission wasn’t going to satisfy a lot of members [of the House].” [Post-Gazette, 10-19-12] Representative Paul Clymer, a Republican from Bucks County who chairs the House Education Committee, said legislators “felt there were ways in which the bill was more favorable to the charters and cyber charters than to [traditional] public schools,” and that the commission “was too stacked with pro-charter people.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 10-19-12]

What’s most disappointing is the way that the Corbett administration tacked these charter “reform” measures onto a much needed special-education funding bill that had previously gained wide bi-partisan support. Shooting down SB1115 also meant tanking efforts to get more money to children with the most severe disabilities and those districts with large numbers of those students. When the legislature returns to this issue in January, which everyone expects they will do, our representatives ought to look to House Bill 2661 for guidance. Introduced by James Roebuck, a Democrat from Philadelphia and Democratic chair of the House Education Committee, this bill would a big step forward in really reforming the rules governing charter and cyber charter schools. (See “Now That’s More Like It”) But we’ll have our work cut out for us, since many of our state Senators – including a surprisingly number from Yinzer Nation – voted for SB1115 before the bill died in the House. (See Senate Roll Call.)

Meanwhile, it’s time for a little celebration in the grassroots. We have to recognize these achievements for what they are – real victories in saving public education from the fate of the boiled frog.

Write to the President

Here’s a quick thing you can do today that could have a big impact. We’ve had a state level call-to-action this week with the charter reform bill, which is being voted on by the PA House today. (See “Where are the Real Republicans?”) We’ve had a local call-to-action for the PIIN public meeting tomorrow. (See “Please Come Thursday”) Now here’s a federal level call-to-action to help put the battle for public education in full context:

Eminent education historian Diane Ravitch has launched a letter writing campaign urging us to write to President Obama today. Ravitch explains, “Our campaign is meant to include everyone who cares about public education: students, parents, teachers, principals, school board members, and concerned citizens. We want everyone to write the President and tell him what needs to change in his education policies.” She is hoping for thousands of letters from across the country to really make a statement to the White House today.

Ravitch has written a model letter for teachers to send. I have revised this slightly for parents and others in our grassroots movement here in Southwest Pennsylvania and pasted below. Please feel free to use this letter or change how you wish. Here are the instructions:

  1. Email your letters to Or you can submit your letter as a comment to Ravitch’s blog post about this campaign. All letters collected through these two channels will be compiled into a single document, which will be sent to the White House.
  2. If you want, you can also mail copies of your letters through US mail to The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 20500
  3. You can also send them by email to the White House. If you choose to write or email the White House, please send a copy to Cody or Ravitch so they can keep track of how many letters were sent to the President.

Ravitch says, “Let’s raise our voices NOW against privatization, against high-stakes testing, against teacher bashing, against profiteering. Let’s advocate for policies that are good for students, that truly improve education, that respect the education profession, and that strengthen our democratic system of public education. Let’s act. Start here. Start now. Join our campaign. Speak out. Enough is enough.” I couldn’t agree more.


Sample letter:

Dear President Obama:

I am part of Yinzercation, a grassroots movement battling to save public education in Pennsylvania. You have invited our representatives to the White House twice this year to meet with your senior policy advisor, Roberto Rodriguez. But when you continue to tout Race to the Top, as you did in last night’s debate, we don’t think you are listening to us parents, teachers, students, and concerned community members who are fighting on the front lines for our schools. Our governor has used your policies – which label our public schools as “failures” – as convenient cover to slash $1 billion from public education.

Given the choice between you and Mitt Romney, who seems to view public education with contempt, we want to help you win back the hearts and minds of the grassroots in this country. Here are ways to do that.

Please, Mr. President, stop encouraging the privatization of public education. Many studies demonstrate that charters don’t get better results than public schools unless they exclude low-performing children. Public schools educate all children. The proliferation of charter and cyber charter schools will lead to a dual system in many of our big-city districts and tear our communities apart. Please support public education.

Please speak out against the spread of for-profit schools. These for-profit schools steal precious tax dollars to pay off investors. Those resources belong in the classroom. The for-profit virtual schools get uniformly bad reviews from everyone but Wall Street.

Please stop talking about rewarding and punishing teachers. Teachers are professionals, not toddlers. Teachers don’t work harder for bonuses. The teachers I know want to teach, they’re not expecting to win a prize for producing higher scores.

Please withdraw your support from the failed effort to evaluate teachers by the test scores of their students. The American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education issued a joint paper saying that such methods are inaccurate and unstable. Teachers get high ratings if they teach the easiest students, and low ratings if they teach the most challenging students.

Please stop closing schools and firing staffs because of low scores. Low scores are a reflection of high poverty, not an indicator of bad schools or bad teachers. Insist that schools enrolling large numbers of poor and minority students get the resources they need to succeed.

Please, President Obama, recognize that your policies are demoralizing teachers and undermining the public’s confidence in our schools. President Obama, we want to support you on November 6. Please give us reason to believe in you again.

I am a public school parent.


Please Come Thursday

What are you doing Thursday evening? If you care about public education in Pittsburgh, I hope you will bet at the PIIN Public Action Meeting. Over 1,200 people will be there, including a veritable who’s who roster of local leaders and politicians, all coming together to commit to action on four issues: education, transit, the clean rivers campaign, and voter turnout. Yinzercation has been asked to help represent the voice of parents and the community on the key issue of public education.

PIIN is the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Action Network, a coalition of Pittsburgh area congregations and community organizations that have been working together in a powerful way for the past twelve years. On the issue of education at the community meeting, PIIN will be “seeking a commitment from Dr. Linda Lane, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent, and Nina Esposito-Visgitis, President of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, to continue to work with PIIN and our partners to achieve equity for all of our students.” [PIIN Public Action Meeting invite]

I have had a number of conversations with PIIN organizers and volunteers over the past few weeks and I’ve been particularly impressed with the way that they understand the big picture. Just like our grassroots movement, they are focused on the issue of equity – and see the connection to funding cuts as well as state and federal level policies that have colluded in this attack on public education. I particularly appreciate their call to education advocates for this public action meeting, which states that equity “can only be achieved with a partnership of parents, community, administration and teachers.” Real community engagement is too often missing in the education world. And PIIN has deep roots in communities – including many of our African-American neighborhoods – where meaningful engagement is absolutely essential.

All of us in the Yinzercation family have been asked to sit together towards the front in a special reserved section so that we can stand as a group when asked to support education. Many of us education advocates are already active in Pittsburgh area congregations and community organizations that will be sending delegations to the public meeting: if you wish to sit with Yinzercation to show a strong united front for public education, please leave a note on our Facebook call-to-action post so we know how many folks are coming. This is an excellent way to send a strong message to other community leaders that the grassroots will play a vital role in this battle for our schools.

Join us Thursday at Rodef Shalom (4905 Fifth Avenue / 15213). The doors open at 6:15PM, and the program begins promptly at 7PM. It will be an empowering evening.

Where are the Real Republicans?

Real Republicans don’t vote to take away local control. Real Republicans don’t try to concentrate power in the hands of the state and with small groups of political appointees. Real Republicans don’t thumb their noses at public accountability. Yet this is exactly what Governor Corbett and the legislature are trying to do with the latest charter school “reform” bill that goes before the Senate Rules Committee today. [Senate Bill 1115]

This deeply flawed bill was Gov. Corbett’s latest attempt to ram through a statewide authorizer, which would take control away from local, democratically elected school board representatives and permit only a state commission of political appointees the right to open new charter schools and to supervise them. [See “Real Charter Reform” and “Now That’s More Like It” for details.] It now appears that the governor’s office and legislative leaders have agreed to set aside the authorizer portion of the bill so they can focus on other pieces of the legislation. That is a partial victory for our grassroots movement, which has made a big noise about this issue. But a spokesman for Senate Republicans said there is still “broad support for a statewide authorizer among Senate Republicans.” A spokesman for House Republicans said views were more “far-ranging” in that chamber. [Post-Gazette, 10-15-12] We know this issue will be coming back.

Meanwhile, the bill retains equally terrible measures that should have all citizens up in arms, liberal, moderate, and conservative alike. Perhaps most egregious, SB 1115 will exempt charter school operators from Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law. We taxpayers are supporting charter and cyber charter schools to the tune of $1 billion. As the Delco Times editorial board wrote yesterday, “Given the growing influence – and cost – of charter schools, you would think the public would want to know as much as we possibly can about their operation and their financial dealings, given the increasing amount of public dollars flowing into their coffers.” They also noted, “Make no mistake, the charter school explosion in Pennsylvania has become a big business, a very lucrative business.” [Delco Times, 10-14-12] Since when do good Republicans want less accountability for taxpayer dollars?

Let’s remember charter school management corporation owner Vahan Gureghian, who was Governor Corbett’s single largest individual campaign donor and a member of his Education Transition Team. In the first ten years after Gureghian started his charter operation in 1999, he had already collected $60.6 MILLION from the public coffers. While salary data for public school administrators is public information, we don’t know what Gureghian is paid – or his wife, who is general counsel for their company. The Philadelphia Inquirer originally filed a right-to-know request all the way back in 2006 asking for salary figures: the Commonwealth Court ruled they had to disclose that information, but the Gureghians have appealed and six years later the case is still bouncing around. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 2009-06-11] Meanwhile, last fall Mr. and Mrs. Gureghian bought 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]

And on this side of the state, PA Cyber Charter School is under federal investigation for what appear to be far ranging financial misdeeds. Just Friday, the Post-Gazette reported that the school’s founder, Nick Trombetta, bought a Florida condo for $933,000, and then sold it “to a business created by one of the school’s former executives for just $10.” [Post-Gazette, 10-12-12] These are the people raking in millions and millions of public dollars, yet fighting tooth and nail to keep their business dealings away from public scrutiny. When was the last time your local school administrator bought a Florida condo for close to a million dollars? Why should the public not have the same access to the financial records of charter school operators as they do to traditional schools? What happened to Republicans’ fiscal conservatism?

The proposed bill also contains a measure that would allow the state to pay charter schools directly. While this seems benign, the Keystone State Education Coalition (KSEC) points out that this would effectively “deny local school districts any ability to monitor the validity of charges and payments of taxpayer funds before they are paid.” [KSEC, 10-15-12] In other words, this is another way to remove local control from democratically elected school boards who represent the interests of their communities and taxpayers. Conscientious Republicans value real oversight.

And last but not least, SB1115 would create a statewide charter funding advisory commission. Again, boring sounding bureaucratic details – until you realize that three quarters of the members of the commissions would be charter school and cyber charter operators in addition to the Governor’s political appointees. KSEC notes that, “Of 17 members, only 3 would represent school districts.” [KSEC, 10-15-12] Where’s the accountability to taxpayers in that plan?

The real Republicans I know would not be in favor of SB1115. It’s far from fiscally conservative, eliminates accountability and oversight, and strips away local control. In fact, this bill is fairly radical and it’s time our legislators see it for what it is. They also need to know that here in the grassroots we are paying attention to those details. Would Pennsylvania’s real Republicans please stand up?

The Manchester Miracle

Look what you did. Yes you. All of you here in Yinzer Nation have created a miracle on the Northside. Just three weeks ago, the library at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 had only forty books in its fiction section. Sheila May-Stein, newly hired by the District to rotate through several buildings to rebuild their libraries, snapped the now-iconic photo of those empty shelves.

As you know, our call to fill those shelves went completely viral and literally thousands of people around the world shared this story. Celebrities were tweeting and blogging about it; we were on the news; we were on the front page of the paper. As of today, you have purchased over 850 brand new books for the library from an Amazon wish list. By the end of that first week, boxes had started pouring in from as far away as England, Canada, and Australia. People near and far dropped off literally thousands of donated books. [See “Library Books and Equity” for the original story and “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books” for an explanation of how this situation occurred in the first place.]

But even more important than all of those wonderful books, is the way that this Manchester Miracle has pulled together the entire community. School libraries have become one of the canaries in the coalmine of public education: rather than accept their demise, Southwest Pennsylvania has stepped up to pump oxygen back into the system. Most importantly, the local neighborhood has embraced the Manchester library and is shaping this action to meet its own needs. That’s what real community empowerment looks like.

Get out your tissues, because the following list (and slideshow at the end) might just make you cry with happiness. And as you read, please look for further volunteer opportunities! We still need lots of help coordinating this Manchester Miracle:

  • Through her foundation Educating Teens, Inc. (which does HIV Awareness and community uplift), Manchester neighborhood resident Kezia Ellison approached Sam’s Club and got them to commit to completely refurbishing the library. They will repaint, install new lights, carpeting, shelves, furniture, and a circulation desk. And they will donate a bank of computers for the students to use. The Pittsburgh school board approved this last night and the work will be done in just two weeks! (That’s a miracle right there.)
  • Perlora has donated two designers who will work to transform the space.
  • Kezia Ellison is also working with the school’s #1 amazing community volunteer, Mr. Wallace Sapp, who is in the school almost every day, on a new project they’re calling Manchester Reads. They have big ideas for getting local celebrities on posters with books in their hands, and for using the school library as a local community resource.
  • The students and staff at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Bethel Park raised over $234 to buy books. They used buckets and signs to advertise, then voted on which books on the Amazon wish list they wanted to donate.
  • The Literary Guild book club at Baldwin High School in the South Hills is sponsoring a book drive.
  • A second grader at Pittsburgh Colfax held a bake sale at his family’s yard sale, and decided to split the money between his school library and Manchester’s. When Sheila picked up his little card, $20 slid out, and she said, “If 7- or 8-year old boys can go to this much effort to heal the world, surely the rest of us can. Thank you, darling boy!”
  • A mom from Mt. Lebanon brought a flatbed of book donations to Manchester that her 8-year old daughter and her daughter’s friends had collected.
  • Amy Boardley Watson, Kristie Orchard-Lindblom, and Jen Primack are making large pillows for children to lounge on while reading books – especially helpful for children in the school’s autism program.
  • Famous children’s author Laurie Halse Anderson not only blogged and tweeted about us, she sent a huge package including her picture books, books unique to the African American experience, her novels, and a gorgeous audio book collection.
  • Katha Pollitt, author and award-winning The Nation columnist, sent a huge box of books and a personal note.
  • The PPG corporate librarians are working on setting up a two-year grant for the school.
  • Students in the University of Pittsburgh’s Library Information Science (MLIS) program want to volunteer to help catalogue all the new books.
  • Bridget Belardi-Creath (a Pitt MLIS graduate with Sheila) typed out 2,000 labels for books and sent them in.
  • Teresa Smith, a mother and teacher at Manchester, bought a brand new ficus tree for the library.
  • One day recently, Sheila reported that, “A drop-dead movie star of a parent engagement specialist came through the door with a plan to get the community and parents involved.”
  • Rachel Lamory of Animal Nature collected many books to donate.
  • A group of inspiring women from the local Bidwell Church are looking forward to volunteering.
  • Brenda Simpson, a grandmother from the Manchester neighborhood, has been coming in to volunteer for hours before she goes to work in the Post Office.
  • Keturah Wasler, a volunteer from East Liberty, works all day like a whirlwind.
  • Kathie is a mom from Lawrenceville with kids in private schools who is so passionate about public education that she has been volunteering entire days of her time to work in the library.
  • Reading is FUNdamental has volunteered.
  • Bridget Kennedy from the Leadership Program at CORO Pittsburgh has been volunteering. Can you join these folks and volunteer a few hours of your time during the school day?
  • Joe Wos from ToonSeum set up a 20% discount program on any graphic novels (a favorite among kinds) purchased for donation to the cause at the museum. They will also be sending over a slew of new graphic novels and comics and have offered a free cartooning workshop for the kids. Who can follow up with them?
  • Beginning with Books co-founder donated a large number of books and then wrote to her book club and two writing groups to help spread the word
  • Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild offered to have a book drive and get involved with the school. They would be a terrific partner for a followup celebration. Who would like to coordinate?
  • A local Usborne Books representative would like to set up an online book fair. Anyone like to coordinate with her?
  • Phat Man Dee, a local jazz band, is interested in doing a fundraiser. Who wants to speak with them?
  • The Allegheny Library branch wants to help, but we need someone to coordinate with them.
  • The boys in the Pittsburgh Colfax middle level “Guys Read” club plan to organize joint field trips with the middle level Manchester students to talk about some of their favorite books together.
  • Carnegie Mellon University reached out to the District and offered to connect local corporations with individual school’s Amazon wish lists. It’s possible that other schools will be using the Manchester model and this will help fill the shelves at the remaining schools without libraries.
  • A national group of writers was so inspired by our work that they started a project, “Fill The Shelves,” that is using our model around the country. They have already helped several school libraries.
  • Deborah El, children’s librarian in the Carnegie Library system, helped build the Amazon wish list, and is keeping it populated. Haven’t bought a book yet? The list is still open for business.
  • Katherine Becker Laney, librarian at Sewickley Academy, picked through their collection for duplicates and sent them over to Manchester.
  • Jonathan Mayo got in his truck and drove thousands of donated books from Sheila’s house to the school. Then he got the Pirates to donate some sports books.
  • Joe Starkey, a local sports writer for the Trib and radio personality, came into the school this week with lots of donated sports books and read to the students.

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Are you sniffling yet? I hope you are feeling inspired by this incredible action. And I also hope we remember the underlying problems of equity and funding that we must work to address head-on. If anything, this list ought to remind us of the incredible amount of work it takes to operate and maintain a school library – work that cannot be sustainably provided by volunteers and that cannot happen when our schools only have a librarian one day per week.

Pittsburgh’s new equity plan calls for a library in every school, but does not place a full time librarian in each. In fact, only 14 out of 51 schools currently have a full time librarian and most of the district’s librarians have five schools assigned to them. Some schools that used to have a full time professional have lost those services, which is really a step away from equity for all. Through staff reductions, the District also lost its head librarian, an essential position for coordinating efforts throughout the city, planning collection development, and capitalizing on economies of scale when purchasing books – none of which now seems to be happening.

Pittsburgh alone has lost over $28 MILLION in the past two years of draconian state budget cuts. [See newly revised PSEA Budget Calculator] We need to be asking serious questions of both the District and our state legislators and holding them accountable for adequate and equitable funding for our schools. But if our grassroots movement can pull off the Manchester Miracle, surely it’s up to the task.

A Liar and a Cheat

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis just got caught telling a whopper. He claimed that cheating caused the drop in standardized test scores all across Pennsylvania. Those scores, released a few weeks ago, show a steep decline and mean that 665 fewer schools in the state met education targets. Sec. Tomalis refused to admit that massive budget cuts could possibly have anything to do with the decline, and laid the blame on 100 teachers who remain under investigation for things such as unusual marking patterns on their students’ exams.

Ah yes. One hundred teachers – out of 148,500 education professionals in the state last year – caused scores to drop. The math here doesn’t even make sense. And if teachers helped their students cheat, wouldn’t their test scores have gone up? Never mind. This isn’t about logic. This is about denying that unprecedented state budget cuts have hurt students.

Yet we now have extensive evidence of just how bad Gov. Corbett’s gutting of the education budget has been for our kids. All across the state school districts have been forced to increase class sizes, eliminate tutoring and summer school programs, and lay off teachers. In the past two years, Pennsylvania school children have lost over 18,000 of their teachers and educational staff. (See “Cuts Have Consequences” for all the details.) And we’re supposed to pretend this has had no impact on their learning?

Sec. Tomalis boldly proclaimed that the state’s technical advisory committee reviewed the test scores and was asked, “Could budgets have impacted them? They said no.” In fact, Marianne Perie, a senior associate at the Center for Assessment in Dover, N.H. who facilitated that committee, said no such thing happened. They apparently talked about funding briefly but did not analyze its impact on test scores. “We walked out of there not feeling satisfied we had come up with a solid explanation for the drop,” she said. “As a technical advisory committee, we do not typically comment on policy issues. Funding is a policy issue. We had no data with which to make any analysis of the relationship between the decrease in funding and the drop in scores.” [Post-Gazette, 9-29-12]

Perie later told the Post-Gazette, “I wouldn’t say we ruled it out … I would say we had no comment on it.” [Post-Gazette, 10-8-12] That’s a far cry from concluding that 100 teachers caused test scores to drop in the entire state. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Education Department’s spokesman Tim Eller refused to provide a copy of the committee’s report saying, it’s “under review to determine what portions can be publicly shared.” [Post-Gazette, 9-29-12] Yes, wouldn’t want any of that pesky truth to misinform the public.

It’s bad enough that the state’s education secretary is lying about teachers and our students to cover up the devastatingly obvious effects of budget cuts. But now he seems bent on cheating to boost the appearance of charter school performance, too. You see, too many charter schools are not making education benchmarks, called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), set under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Granted, NCLB is probably some of the worst education policy our country has ever passed. It has created a culture of punishment and fear, with student “achievement” measured by these highly problematic standardized tests that don’t begin to assess real learning, and teachers evaluated on those test scores and little else. It has narrowed the focus in our schools to reading and math, jettisoned real education in favor of high stakes testing, prompted cheating scandals across the country, and nurtured a system of “teaching to the test” on top of weeks of school time spent on test taking and nothing else. NCLB set a pie in the sky target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed.

In Pennsylvania only 60.9% of school districts made AYP this year, compared to 94% last year. This was the result of both falling test scores, but also a big step up in proficiency targets: this year 78% of students had to be proficient or advanced in math and 81% had to be proficient or advanced in reading in order to make AYP. [Post-Gazette, 9-21-12] Apparently the Corbett administration was not pleased with the way charter schools were stacking up, so Sec. Tomalis simply changed the rules so that it would be easier for charter schools to make AYP than traditional public schools.

Sec. Tomalis made the change without federal approval, which is required. The U.S. Department of Education says that Pennsylvania’s request to amend the rules is being considered, but that a state is not permitted to make changes without final approval. An investigation by the Lehigh Valley Morning Call revealed that Sec. Tomalis’ change “might have skewed the results of the 2011-12 PSSA scores to make it appear charter schools were outperforming traditional public schools.” [Morning Call, 10-5-12]

The paper found that “a higher percentage of charter schools made AYP in 2011-12 than they did in 2010-11, including 52 that had one or more grade spans that did not hit testing benchmarks. In addition, 14 charter schools that had failing grades last year moved into the passing category this year.” Traditional public schools are not allowed to have a single grade span miss testing benchmarks. But these new rules clearly favor charter schools. For instance, 21st Century Cyber Charter School was allowed to make AYP even though its 11th graders failed to meet benchmarks. And Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School in Philadelphia made AYP even though its middle school failed on five of six reading targets and four of six math targets. [Morning Call, 10-5-12]

This is absurd. Stuart Knade, chief legal counsel for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, also points out that “the change might give the Legislature the false impression that charter schools outperform traditional public schools.” That could have real consequences as our legislators “consider bills supported by Corbett to expand the number of charter schools and change how they are authorized in Pennsylvania.” [Morning Call, 10-5-12] The state already approved four new cyber charter schools this summer, despite massive evidence that cyber charters suck up far more public dollars than it actually costs them to educate students and that they deliver far worse learning outcomes than traditional public schools. [See “Trouble Seeing the Money” and “One Million Per Day” for details.] Knade correctly asserts, “The General Assembly needs to ask what is real and why are we being fed this kind of façade.” [Morning Call, 10-5-12]

So now we have Sec. Tomalis caught fibbing about the impact of 100 accused teachers on statewide test scores, denying that budget cuts have anything to do with those test score declines, and changing the rules so that charter schools look better. From where I sit, that makes him both a liar and a cheat. And what he’s really doing is cheating millions of Pennsylvania school children out of the adequately and equitably funded educations they deserve.