I was honored earlier this year to be asked to serve on Mayor Peduto’s Task Force on Education. That group just wrapped up its fourth meeting last night and many folks have been asking how it’s going, so here’s a quick report.
I am optimistic by nature and was excited about the opportunity to get the Pittsburgh Public School administration, board members, and educators together with elected representatives from City Council, the mayor’s office, and community members to think about how to improve our schools and neighborhoods. Meeting process and organizational issues have beaten back some of that optimism, but I remain hopeful that (perhaps small) steps towards progress can be made.
The Task Force was actually created through a City Council resolution a year ago, when we were facing the potential closing of several more Pittsburgh schools. That resolution, authored by Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, specifically called for the group to consider school closings and the district’s financial situation as well as equity issues. While some of us were asked to serve on the Task Force in the winter when it was announced to the press, others were invited later, and there was a several month delay while the Mayor’s office hired an education program manager and then an outside “mediator” to run the group.
A number of us objected to the idea of a “mediator,” rather than a facilitator, for these meetings, as it suggested that our work would be confrontational or conflict-ridden, which was not at all how we saw our role. After the first meeting in June, the Mayor’s office terminated the contract with the mediator. [Post-Gazette, 7-29-14] After our third meeting in September, we learned that the new education program manager had never moved to the city and had resigned. [Post-Gazette, 10-7-14]
The June meeting was largely spent trying to determine the agenda of the Task Force, with the discussion ranging from district finances to safety, housing, poverty, teacher quality, and relationships to outside entities such as foundations and businesses. (Full disclosure: I was not able to attend the first meeting as it was rescheduled at the last minute when I was having minor surgery. As it turned out, not one of the four parents on the Task Force was then able to attend.) The group decided to focus on school closings in the next meeting.
However, at that second meeting in July, we learned that superintendent Dr. Lane would not be bringing forward recommendations for any new school closures until the board asks for such a list. With the threat of imminent school closures off the table, the Task Force spent the second meeting in another discussion of what the agenda ought to be, focusing finally on 1) how PPS and the city can collaborate, and 2) how the groups might work together to improve public perceptions of the schools. While I (and others) pushed for the inclusion of community schools in the conversation – as this recommendation comes from the grassroots, is a natural fit with the theme of collaboration, and represents the work of many hundreds of our community members – the topic was shelved for future discussion.
At the third meeting of the Task Force in September, I presented ideas for collaboration between the district and the city stemming from the extensive work we had done for the last Great Public Schools Pittsburgh report. These are all specifically ideas for collaboration to improve the fiscal situation of the district (there are lots of other ways we could foster collaboration, but no ideas were presented). I will re-print all nine suggestions from the report here, though some lend themselves more to collaborative work with the city than others (stick with me, or skip ahead to read about the final Task Force meeting):
- Engage the entire community in a concerted effort to restore the state budget cuts. Since Governor Corbett’s historic budget cuts to Pennsylvania’s public schools in 2011, the Pittsburgh Public School district has lost $26.8 million per year. Just a single year’s loss represents well over half (58%) of the entire projected PPS deficit of $46 million. The cumulative loss to PPS over the past three years totals $80.4 million – far exceeding the district’s entire expected shortfall in 2015. In other words, the loss of state funding has been devastating to Pittsburgh students and is the single largest threat to the district’s financial well-being. Restoring the state budget cuts ought to be our community’s top priority. Fortunately, Pennsylvania could do just that. There is money in the state budget, but it’s not going to public education. Budgets are about priorities. [See our running list of “Where’s the Money” for a list of our revenue source ideas.]
- Lobby for a fair funding formula. Following its own 2006 “Costing-Out Study,” the Pennsylvania legislature concluded it was short-changing public schools $4 billion and established a six-year plan to phase in increased state funding for public education using a new, fair funding formula. The state was two-years into this plan when Governor Corbett took office and eliminated the new formula, making Pennsylvania one of only three states in the nation without a modern, equitable way to distribute its education budget. [Education Law Center, “School Funding Report 2013”] The current formula costs districts such as Pittsburgh millions, in part because it does not account for the actual number of students with special education needs nor the actual cost of educating those students. Pittsburgh has a larger proportion of special education students, including children with multiple disabilities, than many other districts. Right now, 18.1% of Pittsburgh students receive special education services, but the district is only reimbursed based on a flat rate of 16% in the broken funding formula. In addition, the state’s own Special Education Funding Commission recently found that special education funding has not increased since 2008-09, effectively pushing rising costs onto local school districts. [“PA Special Education Funding Commission Report,” December 2013]
- Work with state legislators for charter reform. The way Pennsylvania pays for charter schools is broken. An outdated and seriously flawed funding formula enacted by the PA legislature mandates that our local school districts make tuition payments to cyber charter schools that far exceed what it actually costs to educate children. In many districts across the state, local schools are able to provide cyber school services to students at half the cost cyber charters are charging. [Data and analysis at Reform PA Charter Schools]
Our legislators need to stop taxpayer overpayment to cyber charter schools – currently estimated at $365 million every year – by limiting cyber charter school tuition rates to what it costs local school districts to provide the same or better cyber school service. We should also be auditing cyber charter schools at the end of each school year and returning excess cyber charter school payments to school districts.
In addition, due to an administrative loophole in the law, all charter schools are paid twice for the same pension costs – once by local school districts and again by the state. Our state legislators need to stop this “double-dip” pension payment system, which by 2016-2017 will cost taxpayers $510 million. They also need to stop charter and cyber charter school management companies from using taxpayer dollars allocated for educating children on advertising and political lobbying. Currently, for-profit management companies of charters and cyber charters can spend tax dollars on 7-figure CEO salaries, expensive advertising, shareholder profits, billboards, TV and internet advertising, and more.
- Collaborate with the City of Pittsburgh to find mutually beneficial solutions. For example, we should consider shifting the balance of earned income tax revenues split by the city and the school district. In 2003, the state required the school district to turn over a portion of its earned income tax revenue to the city, which was bankrupt at the time. This has resulted in a loss of $84 million to the Pittsburgh Public Schools. [Post-Gazette, 11-4-13] We urge the district to work with Pittsburgh’s new mayor, Bill Peduto, who has expressed an interest in re-visiting this state-mandate. The mayor’s transition team recently reported on many other ways it recommends the city and school district work together to find mutually beneficial solutions, including cost savings with shared services. The new cabinet-level Chief of Education and Neighborhood Reinvestment position within the mayor’s office is a step in the right direction, as is the new 21-member task force proposed by City Council. These efforts recognize that strong schools make strong communities, that we can no longer afford to silo the school district off on its own and expect it to thrive, and that the future of our city depends on finding bigger solutions to our mutual challenges.
- Ensure that everyone pays their fair share. In the last property assessment, the Pittsburgh Public School district lost more than $10 million in tax revenue from large corporations. [Post-Gazette, 12-6-13] For instance, BNY Mellon got a $1.5 million tax bonus from the reassessment. Despite its promise to support the city, Rivers Casino has petitioned to reduce its assessment every year since it opened, attempting to shortchange Pittsburgh schools by $1 million per year. [Post-Gazette, 8-25-12] In addition, some large non-profits do not pay anything to the school district. For example, Allegheny County controller Chelsa Wagner conservatively estimates that if UPMC, the largest land-owner in the county, were to pay property taxes just on its holdings in the city of Pittsburgh alone, it would owe the school district $14 million. [Post-Gazette, 3-21-13] If UPMC submitted PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) to PPS, schools would gain $8.5 million a year. [Special report, Post-Gazette, 9-23-12] We urge the district to work with the new city administration to ensure that all corporations pay their fair share to support our public schools.
- Consider a small local tax increase. A recent survey found that Pittsburghers would support a small increase in their local taxes to support public schools. [Great Public Schools Pittsburgh community report, October 2013.] This is not surprising given that a similar tax was recently approved by voters to support public libraries. [Tribune Review, 2-26-13] We support the Pittsburgh school board’s January 2014 decision to raise taxes, yielding $3 million for the district. [Post-Gazette, 1-22-14]
- Work with federal legislators to end sequestration. Federal cuts due to the U.S. government sequestration cuts cost Pittsburgh Public Schools over $2 million in the 2013-14 academic year. This has already resulted in the loss of six early-childhood classrooms. [Post-Gazette, 7-25-13]
- Explore alternative sources of revenue with existing resources. We believe the district can repurpose schools that are supposedly “under-enrolled,” and attract more students to those schools. The district can expand the magnets for which there is tremendous demand. For example, the district could take some of the most selective magnets in the city, such as Sci-Tech, Dilworth, and CAPA and expand them. The district could also expand into the area of adult education as well as rent space in its underutilized schools. We also encourage the district to fully consider proposals put forth by the community for monetizing existing assets as put forth in the October 2013 VIVA report.
- Partner with local foundations and community organizations. Community based schools have been successfully implemented in other cities with local partners helping to cover the costs of many of the programs and services envisioned in this report. Pittsburgh is blessed with philanthropic and business sectors actively engaged in public education: one goal of the community schools strategy is to get all partners “pulling together” rather than working piecemeal. By engaging foundations and local businesses in the planning and implementation phases, they will also be able to make more strategic use of their resources. For example, partners might spend a dollar once to support a community health care clinic in a school, rather than spending that dollar three times to support three different program goals around “Communities,” “Healthcare,” and “Children and Education.”
These were the only suggestions put on the table in September. The highlight of that meeting for me was the participation of our three student members, who emphasized the way in which gentrification in city neighborhoods is pushing out families and entire schools (ala Reizenstein, now Bakery Square). Their insightful comments about poverty, housing, tax credits for urban development, and the city’s ability to attract and retain families were truly inspiring.
At the September meeting we learned that our fourth, and what was to be our final, meeting in October would be open to the public. The focus of that meeting last night was to be on “marketing” ideas to improve public perceptions of Pittsburgh Public Schools. A few Task Force members and folks from the audience contributed ideas, and also shared a number of pressing concerns in response to Dr. Porter’s question, “What can be better about our schools?” [For more details, see Post-Gazette, 10-21-14]
I reminded the Task Force of the following marketing-related recommendation from the Mayor’s Transition Team subcommittee on PPS partnerships (which I also served on last December):
“Mayor as an Advocate for Positive School Press: The mayor holds regular meetings and publicity events at our schools. The mayor regularly highlights positive events occurring at the schools as a part of these media events. This will increase media attention on positive events occurring at our schools. It will make the positive relationship between the city and schools apparent.”
I then presented ten additional suggestions – gathered from the community in conversations with parents, students, teachers, and others – about how the Mayor and City Council could partner with Pittsburgh Public Schools to serve as media and public relations advocates for public education:
- What if this is the “year of the public school” in Pittsburgh? Hold every press conference at a different public school throughout the city.
- Use the schools for public meetings and include students.
- Feature PPS students whenever possible (such as inviting students to help pick the art for his new office – which was brilliant!) More student bands at city events, students leading the pledge of allegiance, students reading their work. Use PPS students as “the face of Pittsburgh.”
- Create a website featuring PPS stories and graduates. Or include these in existing web sites.
- Highlight PPS graduates whenever and wherever possible: Hall of Fame, emphasize in mayoral and City Council proclamations, emphasize to the press.
- Designate each week a certain school’s week. With 50 PPS schools, every week of the year could celebrate a different school: “Pittsburgh Manchester week,” then “Pittsburgh Lincoln week,” etc. Or double up, and feature two schools each week for 25 weeks during the school year. Concentrate news stories on those schools and use it as a way to engage families and communities in the process.
- Engage students, families and communities in creating the list of “What works in my school” or “What’s great about my school.” Otherwise it’s not authentic and rings hollow. Kids can spot what’s phony.
- Sponsor a student media or video contest to have kids tell their stories about #PPSWhatWorks, #PPSrocks.
- Acknowledge that we want these success stories in every PPS school; not an attempt to whitewash or paper over problems. Stories of “What is Great” are both real and aspirational.
- Encourage billboard and other media donations for an ad campaign featuring students and parents explaining why #WeChosePPS
We learned that our final meeting will be with Mayor Peduto himself, and then the Task Force will submit its concluding report by December. If you have anything to add, please let me know and I will bring it to the table! I consider these small windows through which we can make our voices heard. Process issues can frustrate our attempts, or even slam those windows shut, but our determination and commitment to education justice for all students is strong stuff. And I am still encouraged that our new mayor truly wants to hear from the community. So let’s hear your ideas!