Why should we here in Southwest Pennsylvania care about what happens in state politics? That’s the question put to me by the editor of the Pittsburgh City Paper last week during an interview for a forthcoming story they are doing on our old friends at the Students First PA super PAC. It’s a good question, and the answer has everything to do with how we are going to save our public schools.
As we have learned, the state plays an enormous role in what happens inside our local schools, through both funding and policy. When Governor Corbett cut nearly $1 BILLION from public education last year (and then carried those cuts forward into this year’s budget as well), we saw the direct and immediate impact: our children lost teachers, tutoring programs, textbooks, librarians, arts, custodians, sports, and so much more.
State-level education policies are just as significant when it comes to equitable funding for our schools: for instance, Governor Corbett’s administration decided to stop reimbursing school districts for charter school tuition payments. Pittsburgh Public Schools estimates that decision alone will cost $14.8 million by 2014. [Post-Gazette, 11-14-12] When our legislature adjourned a few weeks ago without summoning the courage to address the cyber charter school funding formula, they forced our schools to continue over-paying those charters by $1million per day. (See “One Million Per Day”) And sometimes state policies target specific districts, such as the 2007 decision requiring Pittsburgh Public Schools to hand $77.1million over to the city. [Post-Gazette, 11-14-12]
In addition to these state-level funding decisions, the administration and Pennsylvania legislators set policies that directly affect our schools. Consider, for example, the recent bill that would have installed a statewide panel to authorize new charter schools, removing control from local, democratically elected school boards, while centralizing power in the hands of political appointees. The bill would also have exempted charter schools from our state’s right-to-know laws, keeping executive salaries secret among other things. (See “A Victory.”) Charter schools cost districts millions of local taxpayer dollars – Pittsburgh alone is spending $52.4million this year on them – and local boards ought to retain fiscal oversight. [Post-Gazette, 11-19-12] If we are not paying attention to these “policy weeds,” then we will discover that they have grown up to strangle public education.
But you don’t even have to be in the weeds to see the connection between what is happening at the state level and the recent decline in student performance. That makes yesterday’s Post-Gazette editorial about the recent A+Schools report all the more frustrating. (See “Bad Report.”) Without even mentioning state budget cuts, the editors wrote: “Traditionally this city has been the beneficiary of a close-knit community of neighborhoods committed … to maintaining a strong urban school district,” and concluded, “For the sake of Pittsburgh and everyone with a stake in it, let’s keep it that way and make sure the next report card shows marked improvement.” [Post-Gazette, 11-18-12] In effect, the editorial board has reproduced the report’s assumption that all the city’s problems are of its own making – implying that all the answers lie within the city as well. We have got to get past this way of thinking, which not only ignores the immense role of state politics in what is happening locally, but also reinforces the city vs. suburban, us vs. them, mentality that prevents us from seeing how public education connects us all.
We all need to be paying attention to what is happening right here in Duquesne, as that school district collapses under the multiple pressures of post-industrial decline. The state has just announced a new Chief Recovery Officer (CRO) who will be in charge of planning next steps for the district. [Post-Gazette, 11-17-12] Given the administration’s track record with other CRO appointments – remember how they put the fox in charge of the henhouse in Chester Uplands? – we better reserve judgment until we learn more. (See “Taking the Public out of Public Education.”) But already the charter school applicants are circling, with two new proposals, either of which would essentially charterize the entire remains of the Duquesne school district. [Post-Gazette, 11-19-12]
Still don’t think what the state does matters to your kids in your school district? Take a look at Pennsylvania’s largest cyber charter school, PA Cyber Charter, which has made a little boomtown out of Midland over in Beaver County. With 11,000 students enrolled all across the state, PA Cyber now gets payments from home school districts in every corner of Pennsylvania totaling more than $100million a year. That’s $100million of taxpayer money that is not going to local school districts – and coincidentally, the same amount Governor Corbett tried to slash from this year’s state education budget. All that money has led to a cesspool of corruption and unethical behavior (recall that Florida condo exchanging hands to launder payments), with executives resigning and now under investigation by a federal grand jury.
The Post-Gazette ran an excellent investigative report yesterday that is worth reading in its entirety, but to summarize: more administrators now stand accused of setting up a kickback scheme, acting as paid consultants to funnel their own school employees into a graduate program. “In 2011 and 2012,” the reporters note, “PA Cyber paid Franciscan University of Steubenville a total of $1.3 million in tuition for the charter school’s employees” who were getting a master’s degree in on-line education that those administrators helped to establish. That $1.3million in tuition came straight out of taxpayers’ pockets, while the program expected to earn millions in profit. [Post-Gazette, 11-18-12]
By way of comparison, Pittsburgh Public Schools does not offer any tuition assistance for teachers seeking graduate degrees, its administrators are not acting as highly paid consultants for other institutions, and it did not just put taxpayers on the hook for millions paid to an out of state private school. Yet the state has not only allowed PA Cyber Charter to operate this way, it has gone out of its way to change the ground rules for charter schools, to inflate their student performance relative to traditional public schools. (See “A Liar and a Cheat.”)
The bottom line is that state politics matters. This isn’t Las Vegas: what happens in Harrisburg does not stay in Harrisburg. The Pennsylvania legislature and the Governor’s education administration make funding decisions and set policies that directly impact our local schools. We here in the grassroots not only have to pay attention, but we must insist that others connect the dots as well.