The latest report on Pittsburgh Public Schools is bad, but no one seems to be asking the right questions. On Monday, A+Schools released its annual summary of Pittsburgh school performance with a dreary assessment: despite years of determined effort, student test scores are down, the racial achievement gap is widening again, and the graduation rate has declined. [A+Schools 2012 Report to the Community] But neither A+Schools nor the Pittsburgh Public School district seem to want to talk about two of biggest reasons why: horrifyingly bad decisions made by the state and poverty.
Let’s start with the state, which, as we all know by now, cut nearly $1BILLION from public schools last year, then carried those draconian cuts forward into this year’s budget. Pittsburgh school superintendent Dr. Linda Lane is always careful not to point the finger of blame at state budget cuts, as the district valiantly attempts to avoid the wrath of Harrisburg. I get that. Just look at Philadelphia if you want to see what happens when you’re on the administration’s bad side. (For a refresher course on Philadelphia, see “This is What Privatization Looks Like.”) But Governor Corbett cut close to $30million from Pittsburgh schools, and it’s time the district started educating the community about exactly what the consequences of those cuts have been.
To take just one example, last year the Pittsburgh Public School that my children attend was forced to eliminate its after school and Saturday tutoring program for its most struggling students. Our PTO raised money to revive a scaled back program midway through the year using volunteers. It’s a wonderful thing, but still does not reach the number of students who previously received school services from professional educators. And the school lost in-classroom paraprofessionals and its textbook and supply budget. These are the kinds of things that have a direct impact on student learning. Why are we pretending that disappointing test scores have nothing to do with these massive budget cuts?
Dr. Lane alluded to the state budget cuts when she tried to explain why student scores on Pennsylvania’s standardized tests (the PSSAs) dipped this year, saying that it was likely a combination of teachers worried about whether they would have their jobs and the loss of preliminary assessments used to identify which students need additional help. [Post-Gazette, 11-13-12] She and many other school superintendents around the state have also pointed to increased security measures during the exams, which created test anxiety, especially for the youngest students.
A+Schools alluded to a “budget crisis” only once in its 118 page report, without actually naming state budget cuts as a problem: noting the teachers who have been laid off and schools that have closed, the report says, “The budget crisis that provoked these changes is not over.” [p. 5] Readers who catch the reference at all, may well be left with the impression that the school district has a budget problem entirely of its own making. The District certainly must share responsibility, but we can’t ignore the role of the state in setting disastrous educational policies that are harming students and seriously undermining the ability of our public schools to boost achievement. To see the many ways in which the situation in Pittsburgh is tied directly to Pennsylvania policy, consider for example how the state has:
- Reneged on its commitment to equitable school funding, pulling the plug on the implementation of the Legislature’s own six-year plan which was already two years underway. (See “A Shameful Betrayal”; also see why this had nothing to do with the end of stimulus money, in “Should Schools Have Known the $$ was Temporary?”)
- Pulled reimbursements for charter school tuition payments, costing school districts millions. In Pittsburgh the total loss will come to $14.8million by 2014. [Post-Gazette, 11-14-12]
- Refused to fix the cyber charter funding formula that forces school districts to overpay cyber charter schools by millions of dollar. (See “One Million Per Day”)
- Gave $77.1million from the earned income tax since 2007 to the city instead, to help its financial problems. [Post-Gazette, 11-14-12]
- Forced many local districts to raise property taxes, including a third of those in Allegheny County this year alone. Yet the Pittsburgh Public School district has not raised taxes in over a decade! (See Brian O’Neill’s piece comparing the city’s track record to suburban school districts, some of which have hiked taxes by more than 50% in the same period: Post-Gazette, 11-8-12)
- Attempted to take away local control by democratically elected school board representatives by installing a statewide charter school authorizing board. (See “Where are the Real Republicans?”)
- Failed utterly to take on the looming pension crisis, which can only be appropriately addressed at the state level and threatens to swallow school district budgets. (See “Pension History 101”)
I could go on, but the point is that state level budget cuts and policies are directly and negatively impacting our kids.
I am equally puzzled why no one wants to talk about the impact of poverty on declining student test scores. When the Post-Gazette reported on the A+Schools dismal findings, it concluded with what should have been the most important sentence in the entire article: “The student body is also poorer, with the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunches 3 percentage points higher than in 2010-11 at 71.3 percent.” [Post-Gazette, 11-13-12]
That’s a substantial climb – and it means that well over two-thirds of Pittsburgh’s public school children are feeling the direct results of poverty. Think about poor nutrition; inadequate pre-natal care; high exposure to health risks such as premature birth, lead poisoning, and asthma inducing smog; and the instability of frequent moves, substandard housing, and food insecurities, to name just a few. And research shows that what happens to children outside the school doors has the greatest impact on their learning: schools are important, but we cannot pretend that academic performance is not affected by poverty. [Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 256-57]
I continue to be frustrated with reports such as this latest from A+Schools that focus on student scores on high-stakes-tests. While the authors caution against using these scores alone to judge schools (and correctly avoid labeling individual schools with their AYP status, which only serves to further attach “failing” labels to them), the bulk of the pages do just this. There is no doubt that we have serious problems here in Pittsburgh, but we cannot begin to address them adequately if we are unwilling to connect local equity and student achievement issues to state level budget cuts, harmful policies, and the effects of poverty. Dr. Lane might have to worry about appearing to make excuses for the District’s performance if she mentions such things – but we here in the grassroots must make the connection, and do so loudly.