Who’s Crazy?

There were at least 117 people standing on a downtown street corner yesterday in the freezing cold to tell Governor Corbett what his budget cuts have done to our schools. Parents, students, teachers, and community members stood shoulder to shoulder, huddled against the wind, while speaker after speaker rattled off the devastation we’ve witnessed over the past two years right here in Pittsburgh. The gutting of art, music, library, tutoring, and other education programs. Increased class sizes. Cuts to sports, activities, transportation, field trips, textbooks and supplies. School closures. Hundreds of furloughed teachers.

Yet the Governor’s office says we must be seeing things, since it claims to have increased state support for public schools by $1.17 billion. [Post-Gazette, 12-10-13] So are we crazy?

After two years of devastating cuts, this year’s budget did increase the “basic education” funding line (one of many education funding categories) by 2%. But overall funding for public schools remains far below where it was a few years ago. Compared to the 2010-11 budget – the year before Gov. Corbett’s historic attack on our schools – this year’s budget is still short over $681 million. [See “Budget Failure” for details.]

In fact, Pittsburgh students are missing $26.8 million from their annual budget, which accounts for well over half (58%) of the district’s predicted budget shortfall. And it’s exactly that budget gap that is driving the district’s plan to close yet more schools, increase class sizes again, and eliminate more classes and programs. [PPS Whole Child report, 12-4-13] Make no mistake, Governor Corbett’s cuts are hurting Pittsburgh students, their families, and their communities.

So it was especially disappointing yesterday when the Governor’s Pittsburgh office locked its doors and refused to allow a delegation inside. We were planning to deliver the postcards filled out by parents, students, and teachers earlier this year at our Rally for Public Education. What contempt for democracy. This is not the first time: remember last year when his office refused to allow school children to come in with their hand-drawn cards and letters? That was the same day he shut down his phone lines after getting calls from public education advocates. [See “The Governor Must Listen”]

And now the administration is calling us names. In response to yesterday’s rally, which was one of over 60 simultaneous demonstrations in cities across the country coordinated by a growing grassroots education justice movement, Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, lamented, “Unfortunately, the AFT [the American Federation of Teachers], as well as other traditional public education establishment organizations, continues to misinform the public about the governor’s record of education funding in Pennsylvania.” [Post-Gazette, 12-10-13]

The use of the words “traditional” and “establishment” are clearly meant as an insult, to suggest that Pittsburgh’s religious leaders, parents, and students are somehow aligned with the teacher’s union in defending a broken status quo. Yet it is traditional to want great public schools for all our children. Why doesn’t the Governor? And the group standing on the freezing street corner yesterday was loudly rejecting the status quo – instead calling for the very things research shows will improve education for all students: smaller class sizes, a nurse in every school every day, arts education and more.

So who’s crazy? Certainly those of us standing outside on a December afternoon wondered if we might be a little nuts. But crazy is slashing $2.4 billion from public education while repeatedly claiming to have done the opposite. Crazy is calling parents, students, and teachers the “establishment” and accusing them of lying to the public. Crazy is locking the doors and refusing to allow kids to talk about what is happening to their public schools.

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