Pittsburgh’s school board is about to get a major shake up. Five of its nine spots are open this year, and there are multiple candidates running in some districts. Because of the nature of city politics, many of these seats are likely to be decided in the May primary, so we just have a couple months to get to know those who are running.
Making this election cycle more confusing, the city has just re-drawn school board lines, moving entire neighborhoods into new districts. [See Post-Gazette, 11-12-12 for list of changes.] And the new map does not align with other political boundaries such as those for city council, state representatives, or even school catchment areas. But these are extremely important races and it’s worth taking a minute to make sure you know which district you are in.
New board members will be making crucial decisions about school closings. (And we know for sure Pittsburgh will see more devastating loss of neighborhood schools in the next couple years.) Board members also sign-off on accepting grant money from foundations and approve contracts with consulting firms. [Remember “PPS: Planning a Privatization Scheme?”] And they approve new charter schools, which are frequently opened to replace the public schools that just closed.
In fact, charter schools and the use of high-stakes-testing for teacher evaluation are two of the hottest school board issues across the country right now. In Los Angeles, mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tried to take over the school board in 2006 as several other large cities have done (called “mayoral control,” this has been a key strategy to remove power from democratically elected school boards, allowing for swift imposition of the corporate-reform agenda, especially school closure). When his attempt failed, Mayor Villaraigosa switched to backing school board members who support corporate-style reforms. He solicited donations from New York’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave a whopping $1 million, and from Michelle Rhee, whose StudentsFirst group gave another $250,000. [New York Times, 3-4-12]
We need to seriously question why these wealthy individuals and astro-turf groups are dumping millions into the Los Angeles school board races. The good news this morning is that it appears all those dollars did not work: with returns now in, it looks like school board member Steve Zimmer, a moderate who dared to question privatization, has retained his seat against an opponent who was backed by the mayor, Bloomberg, and Rhee, as well as the Los Angeles Times editorial board and billionaires Eli Broad (of the Broad Foundation that trains school superintendents) and media mogul Rupert Murdoch. [DianeRavitch, LA Upset] That’s a major victory for public education advocates in California – and a lesson for us in Pennsylvania.
School board elections matter. They matter a lot. And one of the benefits of being in Pittsburgh, say, and not Los Angeles, is that – at least so far – we don’t have ultra-wealthy outsiders tromping in with their dollars and agendas, trying to trounce on our democratic process. So please do your part and get to know your local candidates. Here’s the perfect chance to ask questions and learn where your future school board members stand on privatization, school closures, charter reform, high-stakes-testing, and sticking up for adequate state funding: on Monday, March 11, 2013, PIIN will host a town hall meeting from 6:30-9PM with all the school board candidates at University Prep 6-12 at Milliones, in the Hill District (3117 Centre Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15219).
In advance of this town hall, Yinzercation has been working with a coalition of education partners to develop a vision statement for Pittsburgh public schools, including a pledge for school board members. Members of the coalition include PIIN, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Action United, OnePittsburgh, and A+Schools. We want school board members who are more than just fiscal watchdogs in these challenging financial times. With the district scheduled to run out of money in 2015, it will be too easy to let budgets drive decision-making.
In other words, we need school board members with vision, who are:
- Careful policy makers and objective evaluators of data and research-based reforms
- Wise stewards of public school resources
- Promoters of public education as a public good
- Fearless advocates for restoring adequate State funding for our schools
- Advocates for enhanced revenues and fair executors of the school board taxing authority to ensure that everyone pays their fair share.
- Committed to achieving equity by supporting teachers, parents, students and community members in developing school specific plans to implement the District’s Equity Plan.
- Real partners with all stakeholders to set the highest professional standards and nurture collaboration across our school system
- Leaders who engage parents, educators, administrators, and community members in authentic, ongoing dialogue that improves our school and enriches our democracy
- Committed to implementing community driven solutions that come from real engagement and collaboration between parents, students, educators, administrators and community not outside consulting firms.
This is some of the language we have been working on. What do you think? Please come to the town hall on Monday and get this crucial conversation going. Keep the grassroots in our elections so there’s no room for the billionaire corporate-reformers to play with Pittsburgh’s school board.