The State of Public Education

Earlier this week we heard the president’s State of the Union address, but what about the State of Public Education? Fortunately for us, Rev. David Thornton of Grace Memorial Church in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, delivered just that at the Rally for Public Education. His passionate defense of public schools and plea for equity as a social justice issue was one of the highlights of the event and had the crowd on its feet.

For more details on the rally, which drew over 320 people to the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty on Sunday, please be sure to read “What a Rally!” With many thanks to Barry Specter, a retired Steel Valley teacher, we continue to add links to that post to video footage as it becomes available, so you catch up with those who were lucky enough to be in the crowd – or relive your favorite moments. After you have heard Rev. Thornton’s eloquent delivery of the State of Public Education (transcript below), you might also want to view Pittsburgh CAPA student Sheryl Sesay’s spoken word and song about the music teacher she lost to budget cuts. With tears streaming down her face, she moved the audience to tears as well. And Vanessa German’s piece about the children in her neighborhood brought the house down. Don’t miss this chance to hear Pittsburgh’s emerging artist of the year make you feel with every fiber of your being just what is at stake in this battle for our schools.


The State of Public Education
(transcript of address delivered by Rev. David Thornton)

Our public schools are staggering under massive state budget cuts. Two years ago, Governor Corbett cut one billion dollars from public education. And then he did it again last year, compounding the damage. Our kids are now missing nearly two billion dollars from their schools. Will we stand for it? (crowd answers, “NO!”)

Because of those cuts, our students here in Pennsylvania have lost almost 20,000 of their teachers. Our kids have lost music, art, library, and foreign languages. Schools have been forced to slash tutoring programs and even Kindergarten – the very things we know work. Here in Southwest PA, our children are sitting in classes with 35 and even 39 students. Will we stand for it? (crowd answers, “NO!”)

And our poorest students have been hit the hardest. For years, our state used an unequal funding formula to distribute the education budget, so that the poorest districts got the least. The legislature fixed this problem in 2008, but Governor Corbett took us back to the old funding formula, locking in disparity. He locked in social and economic inequality. He locked in racial inequality.

This year, the Governor proposes giving our schools a slight increase – 90 million, which returns about five percent of what he has cut. It won’t fill the budget hole he created two years ago. It won’t bring back the teachers we lost, or restore the arts programs we need so badly in our schools. And what’s worse, Governor Corbett will hand out that money using the old formula, so that once again, our poorest students will get the least. And he proposes that we tie education funding to pension reform and the sale of state liquor stores. These are false choices and hold our children hostage to a political agenda. This is not a sustainable plan for funding our schools and does nothing to fix inequality. Will we stand for it? (crowd answers, “NO!”)

But our fight is not just a fight to restore a few programs in each of our schools. Ours is a fight for social justice. We know that kids who attend well-funded schools actually rank at the top of the world on international tests. But the U.S. has the second highest child poverty rate among all industrialized nations: to our great shame, 26 percent of all our children under the age of five are now living in poverty. That’s over a quarter of our kids growing up in poverty. Will we stand for it? (crowd answers, “NO!”)

And poverty has a profound impact on education. Kids who aren’t getting enough to eat, who are sleeping on the floor, who don’t have warm coats to wear, whose lives are full of instability or violence. It is said that poverty is no excuse for low student performance in school. But poverty is real: we need healthcare and community based programs in our schools, nurses, social workers, and parent engagement specialists. The very people we’ve lost to budget cuts.

To be sure, we have serious issues in our schools that need serious attention. The racial achievement gap, the dropout rate, the school to prison pipeline. These are real. Here in the city, only 18 percent of our African American male seniors were academically eligible last year for a Pittsburgh Promise scholarship. Some of our high schools have a 60 percent rate of students chronically missing school. Will we stand for it? (crowd answers, “NO!”)

But the answer to these problems is not defunding public education. It is not closing down public schools, taking away the last pillar of strength in some of our communities. The answer is not blaming our teachers. The answer is not privatization, or choice, or competition, or any of the other corporate-style reforms that take the public good out of public education. These have actually done more damage to our poorest students and students of color. They’ve taken public, taxpayer dollars and sent them into private hands. They’ve reduced our kids to data points and created a culture of high-stakes-testing that has narrowed the curriculum to reading and math; taken away history, science, and the arts; and mandated weeks upon weeks of test prep and test taking. These reformers send their own kids to private schools that don’t look like this.

But 89 percent of all our children in this country are educated in public schools. The fact is, public education has not failed: most of our kids’ schools do a great job of teaching our children. The problem is policy makers have failed public education: they have failed to fund it adequately. They have failed to fund it equitably. They have failed to acknowledge the effects of poverty and to provide wrap-around services in our schools.

So here’s the bottom line. We must have adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for public education. Because we believe public education is a public good. It’s an old idea – going all the way back to the first public school established in Boston in 1635. We are embracing the American ideal of the common good. And we insist that our policy makers live up to this ideal, so that every child has a great, public education.

6 thoughts on “The State of Public Education

  1. Thank you Yinzercation for posting these wonderful links. What beautiful, moving words and performances! And Dr. Thornton’s speech is very inspiring!

  2. Famed author Sharon Flake has shared Sheryl Sessay’s video on her Facebook and Twitter pages. She stands with Sheryl and all children, and says, “She [Sheryl] is proof of the great job you all [teachers!] do, along with a terrific family.” Thank you Jessie, thank you Yinzercation, thank you progressive Pittsburgh parents, teachers, clergy, and all the foundations and groups who made this important event happen. Thank you, Sharon Flake, for sharing Sheryl’s message. And most importantly, thank you, Sheryl, for speaking so eloquently, inspiring so many of us, making us cry for your loss- and cry in awe and appreciation of your outstanding and miraculous talent. You are the best of Pittsburgh, and nothing our greedy corporations-first Governor does can dim your shining light.

  3. Jessie,
    This is what I think Yinzercation should work for. In this article you capture the essence of the problem. I’m less enthusiastic for your “opt out” message. I agree that the focus on testing is downgrading education and forcing teachers to focus on the basics, that many children, including yours and mine, don’t really need. They have the basics and need to move on too enrichment. But I’ve also been in education long enough to know that without testing of fundamentals, some children are just written off as not capable. There’s a greater chance that this can happen with more poor children whose parents do not have the time to fight for their children. I think we need to look at the State of the District data and advocate for the children who are not achieving. They need some of the wrap-around services you mention and they need culturally appropriate teaching methods, including art, music, and PE, to help them achieve. Thanks for keeping the conversation going. I’m sorry I missed the Rally because I was out of town.

    • Thanks, Sandy. I appreciate your comments. I do think it’s very important to remember that the Opt Out movement is not against assessment — of course we need good assessment — but we are no longer talking about the simple end of unit tests that we had growing up. The problem is HIGH-STAKES-testing. The high-stakes attached to these tests have warped our schools, labeling kids and teachers and entire districts as “failures” — and then used that “data” to withdraw resources (rather than offer additional help!). The high-stakes have led to cheating scandals, and when districts have to make drastic budget cuts, they are forced to focus on reading and math — the two things that are “measured” on these tests — slashing art, music, library, and everything else that we ought to care about for all our children.
      I agree that equity is the core issue. But high-stakes-tests have actually HURT our most vulnerable children more than anyone else. High-stakes-testing is ultimately about equity. I hope you will watch Dr. Tim Slekar’s video segment from the Rally and let us know what you think. And we will be having another community conversation on Sunday at the Squirrel Hill Library at 3:30.
      Thank you for everything you do for public education!

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