It’s been a rough couple of weeks for our public schools, and they’re not even in session. In the heat of the summer Pittsburgh schools – and our teachers – have come under attack.
First, in an appalling public statement on the residency requirement for city police officers, the Fraternal Order of Police president, Sgt. Mike LaPorte, called our schools “bloodbaths” and suggested that Pittsburgh officers want to flee to the suburbs for their children’s education. [Post-Gazette, 7-8-13] It seems to me that Sgt. LaPorte has not actually spent much time around our city schools lately. His comment insults Pittsburgh families, the overwhelming majority of whom (80%) send their children to our public schools.
Do our schools still have problems? Absolutely. But bloodbaths? Absolutely not. Sgt. LaPorte should be encouraging his officers to be a part of the solution building Pittsburgh’s future, rather than taking pot-shots at our public schools in an attempt to justify his policy position on residency requirements. It’s not only factually wrong, but it strikes me as unethical, and entirely unproductive, for one of our community leaders and public servants to bash public education. Strong schools make strong communities – and isn’t that what our police force is working for, too?
In a response to LaPorte’s comment, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers president Nina Esposito-Visgitis wrote an op-ed piece explaining the many ways in which our public schools are anything but a bloodbath. For example: “More than 70 percent of Pittsburgh’s teachers hold advanced graduate degrees.” That’s far more than the national average of 52 percent for public school teachers and 38 percent for private- and charter-school teachers. [Post-Gazette, 7-24-13] Did you know that two Pittsburgh public high schools (Allderdice and CAPA) were rated in the top 20 Pennsylvania high schools this year and ranked among the best in the country by U.S. News and World Report?
In the wake of the FOP bashing, Jake Haulk, president of the right-leaning Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, wrote an opinion piece claiming that the Pittsburgh Promise program is a failure. [Tribune-Review, 7-20-13] Citing declining enrollment in city schools as his proof, he neglected to note that this has largely been due to the decline in the student-age population in Pittsburgh (not a lack of faith in its schools). Pittsburgh schools have actually seen a leveling off of population decline, and in fact, as Pittsburgh Promise executive director Saleem Ghubril pointed out in a response piece, our Kindergarten enrollment has been up the last two years. [Tribune-Review, 7-24-13]
More troubling, though perhaps not surprising, was Dr. Haulk’s suggestion that we “redirect some of the vast sums of taxpayer dollars and Promise money to real education reform.” By which he means, “create scholarships for elementary and secondary students to allow them to opt out of Pittsburgh schools and enroll in private or parochial schools.” This is, of course, the voucher system that Gov. Corbett has tried to impose since coming into office, and which remains wildly unpopular with voters (not to mention unconstitutional since we have that tricky little clause in the Pennsylvania constitution forbidding taxpayer money from being used for religious schools).
The bottom line that Dr. Haulk seems to want to ignore is that voucher and tax credit schemes don’t actually work for students. Most of the money goes to families who are already enrolled in private schools – in other words, it does not “rescue” kids from “bad” schools. There is no evidence that these programs improve student performance. (And our existing tax credit programs were created with no accountability so we have no way of knowing how students might be doing in them.) What vouchers and tax credits do succeed in doing is draining desperately needed revenues from the state right at the time our public schools are missing $2.4 billion in budget cuts.
Private schools do not, cannot, and will not serve all our kids. Mr. Ghubril stated it beautifully: while acknowledging that our “safety net [of public education] has many holes in it,” he said that, “until [Haulk] offers a better safety net that is required to educate all children, I will spend the rest of my days, with a needle and thread, sewing as many of the holes as possible.” And then he invited “all good-hearted people to pick up their needles and sew.” Amen to that.
Now if only we could get Jack Kelly, columnist over at the Post-Gazette, to listen. This past weekend he wrote a column about home schooling that served as a thinly veiled excuse to attack teachers and their unions. His piece was full of misused statistics, apples-and-oranges comparisons, and unsupported claims to draw conclusions that will actually hurt kids. He ends by saying, “Public schools fail mostly because they’re run for the benefit of administrators and teachers … As long as we have teachers unions, public schools will stink. But if we relax rules and de-emphasize credentials, they wouldn’t stink as much.” [Post-Gazette, 7-21-13]
Really? Less credentialed, meaning less qualified, teachers are going to help our students? How is that supposed to happen? Mr. Kelly apparently thinks that our teachers have too many master’s degrees. Or maybe too many Ph.D.’s? Or is too much experience the problem?
And he says our public schools stink. Wow. Maybe he needs to go on a tour with Dr. Haulk and Sgt. LaPorte. I’m sure we could arrange one. Frankly, I’m getting sick of the tired old line that teachers only care about themselves and their contracts. As the Facebook meme going around this summer says: “I went into teaching for the money, said no teacher ever.” Improving public schools does not happen by vilifying our public school teachers.
Now, if the nastiness from Kelly, Haulk, and LaPorte weren’t enough, this week we learned that Pittsburgh has just approved 36 new furloughs – on top of the 280 last year – and returned 32 educators to furlough status (these were staff who had been laid off and then brought back for temporary positions). [Post-Gazette, 7-25-13] That means our kids will be missing 68 educators next month when they return to their schools. All of those furloughed are teachers and professionals such as early intervention specialists working in schools (not central administration). The majority are paraprofessionals who work right in the classroom with students, so this will have a direct and immediate negative impact on children.
And some of the kids who will be hurt the most are the very ones we should be investing the most in: because the district is losing over $2 million due to federal sequestration cuts, it is closing six early childhood classrooms. Yes six entire pre-K classrooms.
Budget cuts. Furloughs. Closed classrooms. Name calling. Attacks on teachers. Maybe Sgt. LaPorte was right – there is a bloodbath in public education. Just not the kind he’s thinking about. And it’s going to be full of the blood of our children unless we collectively stand up and fight back.
Wednesday, July 31st
Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, Action Planning Meeting
PFT Building, 10 19th St., Southside