Pittsburgh seems to have a question problem. By that I mean, the school district and many other leaders seem intent on asking the wrong questions. Any researcher will tell you, half the battle is asking a good question, one that opens up possibilities and leads to new ways of thinking. The way you ask a question, inevitably shapes the solution you find.
Perhaps we need to flip our thinking. Instead of asking, “How do we reduce our per-student spending?” maybe we should be asking, “What are our students getting for the money we’re spending?” The district is focused on the fact that we spend $20,000 per student and keeps asking how it can reduce that by $2,000. The focus on “per-student spending” disguises the fact that the district is not actually spending all that money on students (or things that directly affect student learning).
If we were actually spending $20,000 on each student, our children would not have lost hundreds of their teachers, classroom aides, librarians, nurses, office staff, parent engagement specialists, and other school support personnel. They would not be sitting in larger classrooms, and going without music programs, tutoring, athletics, and drum sticks for their marching bands.
If we were actually spending $20,000 on each student, we could afford all the wonderful things that our suburban peers have in their schools. For instance, last month when I toured my alma mater, Upper St. Clair High School, they proudly showed me the gorgeous new library with its separate resource room that is staffed with a teacher from every single subject, every single period of the day to help any student who needs it. Imagine!
But the district asks again and again, “how can we cut per-student spending?” rather than “how can we get a resource room like that for our kids?” At the Excellence for All parent steering committee meeting a few weeks ago, the district asked parents to play an austerity-budget game, distributing worksheets with pretend money and forcing parents to make “choices” such as cut the custodian or cut the school nurse. These are false choices and get us no closer to solutions for our students.
At the last Envisioning advisory group meeting, the administration shared with us a graph indicating the areas that the district has any control over spending (they can’t touch many line items because of state policies or legal obligations, such as debt service). By far the largest “actionable” area of the budget is in school operations, meaning mostly teachers. So any attempt to seriously reduce “per student” spending almost has to come from eliminating teachers. Closing schools alone will not “save” the district money unless it cuts more teachers and increases class sizes. How does that get us closer to the kind of education our kids need and deserve? (Remember my 7th grader with 35 students in his class? Let me tell you about the head wound he came home with last week from gym class with 35 kids trying to swim laps in a pool the size of my living room.)
I’d like the district to explain to us why our high schools can’t have a resource room staffed with teachers from every subject, every single period of the day. They tell us that we don’t have the money for that (because, contrary to logic, we are spending “too much per student”). They tell us we are spending “too much” on teachers, but at the same time, we can’t have that resource room because we don’t have the teaching resources – and to free up money for such things, we need to close more schools and fire more teachers. Excuse us if we don’t follow the logic here. I think it’s time for some fresh questions.
For instance, we might look at that steeply climbing expenditure line in our budget deficit forecast and ask, “What can we do to pressure our legislators to actually address pension reform to help our schools?” That leads to other questions, such as, “Why are our legislators considering Senate Bill 1085, which will eliminate the charter school double-dip pension payments, but only on the state’s side, without any savings for school districts?” [See “When Charters Cause Harm”] Or, “What’s the district doing to pressure our legislators to reinstate the charter reimbursement line which Gov. Corbett slashed?” That line alone cost Pittsburgh $14.8 million last year – a third of the district’s projected budget gap. [See “Charter Reform Now”]
Here are some more questions: What if the Gates Foundation had spent $40 million to help Pennsylvania “empower effective education policy” instead of its “empowering effective teacher” program, which reinforces high-stakes-testing on our kids? What if that money – and the $2.4 million the district spent on outside consultants to tell us how to close schools – had been spent on our crushing debt service (which is $471 million)? And here’s a really good question: Does anyone have $471 million?