All They Want for Christmas … is Art Education

Last night at the final board meeting before the winter holidays, Pittsburgh students told school board directors what they want for their schools. If Santa was paying attention, he didn’t have to write down very much. The students’ wish list contains only one item: arts education.

The students who spoke at the meeting attend Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 and are concerned about the impact of several years of budget cuts on arts education across the district. They reached out to Yinzercation, and steering committee member Kathy Newman worked with them and helped them understand the process of presenting to the school board. Two of those students, seniors William Grimm and Margaret Booth, are co-presidents of the CAPA chapter of the National Arts Honors Society (NAHS). Through that chapter, they collected statements from other CAPA students about why the arts are important in public education.

National Arts Honors Society CAPA chapter co-presidents, Will Grimm and Meggie Booth, at their presentation to the Pittsburgh Public School board.

National Arts Honors Society CAPA chapter co-presidents, Will Grimm and Meggie Booth, at their presentation to the Pittsburgh Public School board.

As Grimm explained, “Recent budget cuts to the arts have had a profound impact on our district, especially CAPA. The visual artists lost their sculpture class, the instrumentalists their private lessons…it hit everyone hard.” Before presenting the statements from his fellow students, he told the board of directors, “They are real responses from real students who know how much the arts matter. These are from students of every grade, gender, race, and background. They are the voices of the ones most affected but least heard.”

You would have to have a heart like the Grinch – three sizes too small – to not be moved by these students:

  • “Art is empowering. It gives an outlet for emotions to youth struggling to figure them out. The arts allow a freedom no other discipline can offer. Without art, I would be nowhere; and everyone deserves the right to be somewhere.” – 11th grade
  • “Cutting money towards the arts is like cutting out a child’s personality. Students aren’t at school to just do math, science, English or social studies. We are here to learn about the world and how to interact with it.” – 9th grade
  • “To deprive public schools of the accessible and thriving art programs is to completely ignore a monumental aspect of a child’s development—their creativity.” – 10th grade
  • “We need to keep the arts in schools because nothing has taught me more about myself, what I believe, and how I connect with the world around me than the arts.” – 12th grade
  • “I believe that art should be kept and funded in schools because of the expressive value and apparent lack of freedom in school otherwise. Arts give people a sense of belonging and keep many people level headed. Art means everything to us and we thrive off of it’s cultural value.” – 12th grade
  • “…when we think of nuclear fission and sending men to orbiting celestial bodies, paint brushes and piano keys don’t come to mind. However, sometimes what matters is what we don’t see. Art has had an underlying current propelling academia. Leonardo da Vinci sketches of the human body led to research into anatomy. Philosophy and film inspired rockets to the moon. Why should we keep the arts? We should keep the arts because they provide direction to the force of math and science.” – 12th grade
  • “Art is important because it brings beauty to the world.” – 11th grade
  • “Why is this even a question?” – 12th grade

Margaret Booth began her testimony by saying, “Shakespeare gave me the words in 4th grade when I participated in the Shakespeare Scene And Monologue Contest with my elementary school. Frida Kahlo gave me strength in 9th grade as I admired her paintings and her story. The arts, in general, have given me the voice I have today.” Here is the rest of what she told the school board:

I have been in the Pittsburgh Public Schools since kindergarten. If I were to pick one aspect of these past years that has influenced me most significantly as a person, I would pick the exposure I have had to art, whether it be drawing on construction paper, acting in a play, or playing a screechy version of jingle bells on the school-provided violin.

During my time at CAPA, I have met hundreds of students with similar stories about how the arts have opened opportunities and possibilities in their lives. While I know the majority here agree with me about the importance of the arts in our schools, I am here today to reiterate the message that the arts have a profound impact on students, especially young children who begin to internalize self-worth at such an early age. When I think about my own confidence building, which can be attributed to early exposure to the arts, it saddens me to think that all children will not get these opportunities soon enough. As Colfax cuts middle level choral programs and Linden is unable to offer instrumental programs until 5th grade, I see systematic potential barriers for students from lower income homes, minority students, and those with disabilities from entering a school such as CAPA.

But aside from CAPA, I believe that students everywhere need exposure to the arts sooner. There have even been notable studies showing increased achievement in STEM classes when students also participate in art. This is because the confidence the arts offer is invaluable; art is neither right nor wrong, it is a life long process of creation that trickles down into the confidence to do anything.

As budgets are planned, I would ask you to keep the imaginative quality of youth in mind. The arts give students like me a voice louder than their own. Give them an instrument or a marker or music and they will give you a masterful new idea that could change the world. The arts unlock creative thinking and new approaches to problem solving quite different from STEM programs, something our future desperately needs.

I hope the Pittsburgh Public School board and administration listen to these wise students. If they have to send a letter to the North Pole as well, I’m sure these students would do it. But arts education is difficult for elves to manufacture and for reindeer to deliver. So we will continue working with these fabulous young people to make sure our state legislators – who control the purse strings for public education – hear them, too.

Books for ARThouse Kids

Remember our Manchester Miracle? Two years ago we helped engage literally thousands of people all over the world in a book drive that wound up completely renovating the library at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8. [For original story, see “Library Books and Equity”] It’s time for another miracle.

Our friend, the amazing artist Vanessa German, is opening a reading room in the new ARThouse. This art-making space for children in Homewood literally started on Vanessa’s front porch as neighborhood kids gathered to watch her paint and make sculptures. The Love Front Porch project outgrew the porch and moved into a nearby house that Vanessa purchased with support from the community. It’s a beautiful place where young people gather after school to feed their creative souls, make art, eat snacks, do homework – and read.



Vanessa explains, “we are building a reading room at the new ARThouse because i noticed this year that kids would come right after school not going to their homes or homework programs and they’d sit right down in the midst of the paint and scramble and attempt to find 5 equations that equal 132. with, not surprisingly, great frustration. also the reading room because it is going to be soft and quiet and comfortable and, hopefully, filled with reams and reams of adventures.”


The architect of our Manchester Miracle, children’s librarian extraordinaire Sheila May-Stein, has hand-picked a list of books for the ARThouse. You can purchase new books from this Amazon Wishlist she has compiled and they will be sent directly to the ARThouse. (If you have books shipped from another source, please send them c/o Vanessa German, 7803 Hamilton Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15208.) You may also drop off gently used children’s and teen books on the porches of Yinzercation steering committee members Kathy Newman (Squirrel Hill: 5353 Beeler Street) or Tara McElfresh (Morningside: 1001 Chislett St).

As many in our community already know, Sheila is having major surgery tomorrow and has asked that folks send books to the ARThouse along with their healing thoughts for her extended recovery. What an amazing thing Ms. Sheila has started. And it’s already taking off:

  • In the past 48 hours, over 150 books have been purchased from the list.
  • Writer Katha Pollitt from The Nation, who supported our Manchester Miracle, got actress Salli Richardson of “I Am Legend” to retweet and rapper Missy Elliot to favorite her tweet about the project.
  • Children’s author Arnold Adoff put our message out on his Facebook page.
  • Homewood native Robin Walker Williams, is arranging for Vanessa to be on early morning TV shows to discuss the reading room project.
  • The founder of Awesome Pittsburgh bought 7 books and is sharing the message. (And Tara McElfresh is going to write a $1,000 grant to Awesome Pittsburgh for the ARThouse!)
  • The Homeless Children’s Education Fund is sending books.
  • The Homewood Children’s Village has 100 books they are donating.

Sheila asks, “What can you say when people all over Pittsburgh decide to take time out of their day to send biographies of Handel and Mozart to children in Homewood? When Lakota origin tales and giant coffee table books with full color plates of Basqiat’s work are on their way to wondering eyes and little hands? Each book a message straight from a heart to a child: you matter. you have value. you belong on this earth.” These children are all of our children. They belong to all of us:

Vanessa German: “we made books and ate pizza last week. we were the writers, publishers and makers. we are so bold.”

“we made books and ate pizza last week. we were the writers, publishers and makers. we are so bold.” – Vanessa German

“Miyah made a great journal last week. high design if you'd have asked me. yesterday she came in. pulled last week's journal from her book bag. with the pages filled. she then went into production on a new journal.i remarked. you could be an entrepenuer. a young book maker. i went outside to work with some of the younger artists. when i came back in at the end of the evening. she had 5 new books laid out. creating masterful, colorfilled covers. and she is SOOOO quiet. she moves like a light wind from the east. remarkable.” – Vanessa German

“Miyah made a great journal last week. high design if you’d have asked me. yesterday she came in. pulled last week’s journal from her book bag. with the pages filled. she then went into production on a new journal.i remarked. you could be an entrepenuer. a young book maker. i went outside to work with some of the younger artists. when i came back in at the end of the evening. she had 5 new books laid out. creating masterful, colorfilled covers. and she is SOOOO quiet. she moves like a light wind from the east. remarkable.” – Vanessa German

Vanessa posted this poem on October 9th, when we had lost three African-American teenagers in one week to violence:

don’t think that it isn’t heartbreaking that our children are being killed and left for useless and worthless in a world that all too often neither celebrates, acknowledges or even considers their inherent, immutable, wisdom and beauty. don’t think that we don’t grieve them all. because we do. and every child we love. is every child we love. and we love the children we love as we love ALL the children whose names and places we know and do not know. and we celebrate them. in art and dancing and joy and food. and we celebrate them as the celebration in and of itself is an honoring of their remarkable remarkable-ness, is an honoring of their profound and mysterious and glorious humanity. we honor them as we honor and celebrate ourselves. and every joy we share in. is a healing. every ounce of paint and glue and water, every seed of glitter every juice box every t-shirt every over-crowded classroom Arthouse and city park is a healing. and we grieve. and the grief is an honoring. and we celebrate them in our humanity, in the courage of our human commitment and political will– we stand for us all. Love.

Can you send a book from the Amazon Wishlist and then help spread the word? Vanessa German, the ARThouse, and the children of Homewood need our help. Let’s make another miracle.

Vanessa German

Vanessa German performing at our Rally for Public Education, February 2013.

Black Holes

Could someone fetch Rep. Daryl Metcalfe back from outer space? Earlier this week, the Cranberry Republican co-sponsored a bill in the state house to send the proceeds of liquor store privatization to infrastructure improvements, rather than to education, as Gov. Corbett had initially proposed. [See “Kids or Booze”] Pennsylvania certainly needs to support all of its public goods – including infrastructure – but what is appalling about Rep. Metcalfe’s bill is that it rests on a shameful disregard for public education.

At a news conference with several other Republican legislators, Rep. Metcalfe complained, “When you give the money to the education establishment like this, it’s like throwing it into a black hole.” Wow. This man thinks our children’s future is a black hole. He calls our schools “the education establishment” as if our kids are somehow the problem. Of course, what he really means is that our teachers are somehow the problem, as he makes clear in his next sentence: “All it will be used for is to drive those salaries up that are continuing to be one of the main drivers for our pension problem.” [Post-Gazette, 4-16-13]

Actually, we do have a pension problem – but the blame for that lies heavily with Pennsylvania legislators themselves who have kicked the can down the road to this point. [See our “Pension History 101” for an easy to read explanation of this important issue.] Rep. Metcalfe suggests that providing desperately needed funding to our schools will “drive those salaries up” – does he mean that districts will turn around and give raises to teachers? Highly unlikely when most schools are now struggling to even buy textbooks or chalk. Perhaps he is worried that school districts will hire back some of the 20,000 teachers our children have lost these past two years? Heaven forbid our kids get their art and music teachers back in their classrooms. Or that we will ever see full-time librarians again.

Perhaps Rep. Metcalfe needs to actually talk to the families he represents, where kids are now missing over $6 MILLION from their schools. Here’s a breakdown of the cuts since 2010-2011 to the five school districts in his 12th PA congressional district. [Data from Save Pennsylvania Schools]

Butler Area School District $2,723,093
Freeport Area School District $728,596
Mars Area School District $514,272
Seneca Valley School District $1,270,871
South Butler County School District $1,011,179



One of those districts, Seneca Valley, was trying to figure out how to keep its Junior ROTC program alive last year with all the budget cuts – a program you might think a former Army man like Daryl Metcalfe would appreciate. At the time, Seneca Valley was also discussing “closing the pool and cutting the swim program, reducing Title I reading programs or further reduction of elementary school staff.” At that point, the superintendent warned that, “elementary class sizes already are larger than best practice recommendations.” [Post-Gazette, 4-12-13] The district wound up being forced to cut 14 positions – 11 of them teachers, including “one art teacher, two math teachers, one social studies teacher, two science teachers, two English teachers, a Spanish teacher and two health/physical education teachers.” [Post-Gazette, 4-17-12] Yes, this is the “education establishment” that Rep. Metcalfe is so worried about. To him, social studies, science, and English teachers are black holes. Or perhaps dark matter.

How does he explain his outer space theory to his representatives in the Mars Area School District, which debated cutting all art, music and physical education in its elementary schools last year? The district wound up having to cut its Kindergarten and first grade art teacher, cut back on art classes at the High School level to four days per week, eliminated two guidance counselors and two technology teachers, and did not replace four retiring teachers, “two in art, one in health and one in foreign languages.” [Post-Gazette, 5-10-12] It looks like art got sucked into a gravitational budget hole in Mars.

Last spring, students in Mars stood on the sidewalk holding signs imploring board members to “Save Our Specials.” Perhaps they could help us tell Rep. Metcalfe that their education is not a black hole but rather a bright shining star. It’s time to go super nova on Rep. Metcalfe and his fellow Pennsylvania legislators and demand real pension reform that protects taxpayers, teachers, and our schools. And we must insist on adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for public education – so that we are nurturing the astrophysicists of tomorrow who will study the real black holes.

Public Education as Social Justice

Many of us here in the grassroots talk about our movement for public education as a civil rights issue. But what does that mean? In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose life and legacy we celebrate today, it seems appropriate to consider how our fight for public schools is a fight for economic and social justice.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to see the ways in which budget cuts and corporate-style-reforms have actually hurt our poorest students, who are often students of color. Pennsylvania has been under-funding and inequitably funding schools for decades. The legislature’s own “Costing-Out Study” back in 2006 estimated Pennsylvania was short-changing kids by $4 billion and established a six-year plan to phase in more appropriate state funding. But Governor Corbett’s historic 2011 budget cuts of nearly $1 billion scrapped the plan, disproportionately affecting our poorest children by re-setting state funding calculations to the previous, inequitable formula. [See “A Shameful Betrayal.”]

Pennsylvania also relies heavily on local property taxes to pay for schools: it falls in the bottom ten of all fifty states in the nation in the proportion of education funding provided at the state level, pushing responsibility instead down on local school districts. This exacerbates inequalities, as wealthier communities are able to afford adequately funded schools and poor communities struggle. Urban areas with high proportions of un-taxable non-profit and government owned property (such as Harrisburg) have been especially hard pressed to find the resources they need for schools. As a result, some poor districts actually wind up taxing their residents at an even higher rate than wealthier areas. Deindustrialization, which has hit Pennsylvania’s rust belt towns particularly hard, has drained population from many urban centers, increasing the burden on remaining residents to pay for infrastructure such as schools (just look at what is happening in Duquesne). And white flight to suburban areas has hardened residential racial segregation.

Funding inequalities, then, have reinforced both the effects of poverty and trenchant racial disparities, contributing to a persistent racial achievement gap. Let’s remember that 26% of all children aged birth to age five are now living in poverty. That’s over a quarter of our kids. And the connection between poverty and education is crucial: we know that middle class students in the U.S. attending well-resourced public schools actually rank at the top of tests with our international peers. [For more, see “Poverty and Public Education”]

We also know that corporate-style-reform measures – “school choice,” high-stakes-testing and accountability, privatization, and school closure – have affected our poorest students the most. School-choice models such as charter and cyber charter schools, vouchers, and business scholarship tax credit programs drain resources from public schools while educating only a tiny fraction of students. Most children remain in their local public schools with fewer resources. And those schools are often labeled as “failures” using the results of high-stakes-tests and punished with further cuts and even closure, causing immense disruption to communities.

These corporate-style-reforms have also created perverse incentives for local decision makers. Teachers have to “teach to the test;” districts have jettisoned music, art, languages, and history to focus on just those things that will be tested (reading and math); principals are forced to choose staffing a first grade classroom over a school library. Looking at education as an economic and social justice issue requires us to think about more than just budgets: it’s about students having books on their library shelves and a full-time librarian so they can use them. It’s about access to music and art and teachers freed from the chains of high-stakes-testing so they can teach, human being to human being.

This weekend the Post-Gazette reported some extremely important findings from the “Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey,” conducted by the organization PittsburghTODAY, under the auspices of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research. [Post-Gazette, 1-20-13] Among other things, this survey looked at education in the greater Pittsburgh region – what we call Yinzer Nation – and found some important differences along racial lines (which in our area has tended to be reduced to a line between black and white).

First some good news: the researchers found that residents in our area, regardless of race, think highly of their local schools. At least 8 out of 10 survey respondents rated the quality of education as “good,” “very good,” or “excellent.” Significantly, the report notes that “only 3% of residents overall who had children in school felt the quality of education was poor.” [Unless otherwise noted, all data from The Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey, July 2012.] That means that those who are actually using the school system and are most familiar with it feel overwhelmingly confident in it. That’s in stark contrast to the narrative of “failing public schools” which we constantly hear from the corporate-reformers. What’s more, compared to a 2003 study, Allegheny County residents report an increased level of satisfaction with their schools: from just over 65% rating their schools as “excellent” or “very good” in the survey ten years ago, to nearly 70% giving their children’s education that rating now.

However, African Americans were twice as likely as those of other races to rate their children’s education as only “fair” or “poor.” Similarly, more than two-thirds (67%) of African Americans say school funding is “generally inadequate” or “completely inadequate.” That rate is also twice as high as non-African Americans. And perhaps most stunningly, “only 14.9% of African Americans considered their schools to be very safe, while 51.4% of residents of other races characterized their schools as such,” and were also “much more likely than other races to describe their schools as somewhat or very unsafe.” These are significant differences that reflect real disparities that we must remember as we think about public education as a social justice issue.

The survey found other results important to our grassroots movement. First, it appears that folks are becoming increasingly concerned about school funding. In Allegheny County alone, the proportion of residents scoring school funding as “generally inadequate” or “completely inadequate” rose from 26% in 2003 to 35% in this latest survey, with the rate of those who considered funding to be completely inadequate more than doubling. And while about half of all residents in Southwest Pennsylvania would like to see greater spending on schools, about 89% of African Americans support spending more on public education. [Post-Gazette, 1-20-13]

Finally, as we think about the collateral damage being done to our schools in the name of corporate-style-reforms, let’s focus on the fact that 68% of those surveyed say that arts education in schools is “very important” or “extremely important.” Fewer than 4% said it was “not important” at all. The report noted that, “Support for teaching the arts in school was the greatest in the City of Pittsburgh, where nearly 74% of residents consider it a very important or extremely important endeavor.” Overall in the region, 82% of African Americans rated arts in the school as “very important” or “extremely” important versus 67% of non-African Americans, perhaps reflecting the reality of where budget cuts have hit the hardest.

These numbers ought to fuel the fires of our movement and propel us to strive for greater inclusiveness in our grassroots efforts. As Dr. King said in his famous letter from a Birmingham jail in 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Testing and More Testing

It’s National Education Week and it’s time to talk about testing. High-stakes-testing that is. These are not the old end-of-unit quizzes you and I took in school. We’re talking about an entirely new system of labeling and punishing schools that is having dire consequences for students. Hand in glove with other corporate-style “reform” measures and draconian state budget cuts such as we’ve seen here in Pennsylvania, high-stakes-testing lies at the heart of the modern attack on public education.

So where did this come from? The high-stakes-testing and accountability movement solidified under federal law in 2001 when President George Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This legislation radically transformed public education policy by dramatically increasing the role of the federal government and mandating standardized testing to measure student achievement. It also created a culture of failure and blame, accusing teachers of poor performance when their students did not do well on the tests, and then labeling schools as failures when their students struggled. This effectively reinforced an existing national narrative of “failing public schools.” And while there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary, that narrative conveniently fits with what many people already believe about cities, urban schools, and minority students, lending the narrative even more power.

NCLB effectively created the system of “teaching to the test” and “canned curricula” giving teachers less and less control over their classrooms, while students spend more and more time preparing for tests and practicing test-taking skills. Students are certainly learning how to take standardized tests, but not actual content: when they are tested on the same material in a different format, they cannot demonstrate any real subject mastery. Even those students in districts that have shown impressive gains over the past few years under NCLB cannot transfer those skills, failing to perform on different tests of similar content. [Daniel Koretz, Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, 2008].

The massive increase in school time spent on test preparation inevitably detracts from time on other learning tasks. Yinzercator Pamela Harbin points out that this year Pittsburgh Public School sixth graders – including my own son – will take 23 of these tests, nine more than last year. Teachers are increasingly being evaluated on their students’ test scores and little else, even though these tests were never designed for this purpose. And schools that fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the federal law are threatened with punitive sanctions, including loss of funding, and in the worst-case scenario, complete closure.

High-stakes-testing has therefore set the stage for a plague of cheating scandals as desperate students, teachers, school districts, and even states try to game the system. (See how this has made Pennsylvania’s own Secretary of Education “A Liar and a Cheat.”) NCLB set the unrealistic target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students in reading and math by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed. In a nationwide study of high-stakes-testing, Arizona State University researchers concluded, “The scores we get from high-stakes tests cannot be trusted—they are corrupted and distorted. Moreover, such tests cannot adequately measure the important things we really want to measure. Even worse … [h]igh- stakes testing programs corrupt and distort the people in the educational system.” [“The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators Through High Stakes Testing, 2005”]

What’s more, high-stakes-testing has drastically narrowed school curricula with its laser focus on reading and math. These are essential skills, but our children have lost music, art, foreign languages, history, science, and much more in the quest for higher standardized test scores in these two areas. And when Governor Corbett cut nearly $1BILLION from our schools, many districts were forced to eliminate programs, keeping only those classes that would be measured on standardized tests. When we lament as a community empty library shelves and rally behind our very own Manchester Miracle, we must stop to consider how high-stakes-testing has created a climate in which libraries are expendable. [If you haven’t already, be sure to read why cutting libraries is so short-sighted in “Libraries (and Librarians) Matter.”]

And now we have new tests. Under new federal Common Core Standards, states are phasing in new standardized tests – here in Pennsylvania they will be called Keystone Exams – which will be significantly more difficult. Last year, Kentucky became the first state to use the new Common Core in its testing and “the percentage of students scoring proficient dropped by a third or more in elementary and middle school compared with the old test.” [Post-Gazette, 11-8-12] In an on-line comment to that story, the National Association of Secondary School Principals applauded the Pittsburgh Public School district for trying to “prepare their stakeholders” for what will in all likelihood be a “precipitous drop” in test scores. “Otherwise,” they noted, “a different narrative will be created for them, and the scores will just become one more bludgeon for public-school detractors.”

This is exactly the point. These high-stakes-tests are being used to hurt schools, not help them. Schools with low-scoring students do not get extra resources or offers of help. They get labeled as failures and threatened with sanctions. And despite all the additional tests, our children are not learning more – they are learning less. They are losing their libraries, arts education, tutoring, and so much more.

Enough is enough. Since it’s National Education Week, let’s spend some time this week educating ourselves about the real consequences of high-stakes-testing. Stay tuned and we’ll talk some more about a growing national movement resisting this cancerous plague in our public schools.

Cuts Have Consequences

This should come as no surprise. When you cut close to a billion dollars from public education, there are going to be consequences. Just so we’re all clear on exactly why we’re in this fight for our schools, let’s take a closer look at what has happened to them this year.

Last week the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) released the findings from a survey of the state’s 500 school districts. [PASBO/PASA survey, 10-1-12] The results are not pretty. With a 53% response rate, the survey clearly shows that our schools are struggling to deal with massive budget cuts by increasing class size, cutting programs, and eliminating teaching staff. Here are the highlights:

  • 51% increased class size. This is on top of larger class sizes imposed by 70% of school districts in 2011-12.
  • 43% cut electives such as foreign languages, arts, music, physical education and even some courses in math, science, English and the social studies. Elective courses were already reduced in the prior school year by 44% of school districts in 2011-12.
  • 40% delayed textbook purchases. This is on top of the 41% who did so last year.
  • 32% reduced or eliminated tutoring or other programs for struggling students. 35% of districts statewide said they had already decreased tutoring/additional instruction time in 2011-12.
  • 21% eliminated summer school programs. (Summer school allows students to make up the necessary credits to allow them stay on grade level and to graduate on time.)
  • 4% reduced or eliminated early childhood education (pre-kindergarten). This is in addition to the 6% of school districts that reduced or eliminated pre-K in 2011- 12.
  • 2% reduced or eliminated full-day kindergarten. That’s on top of the 5% who cut full-day kindergarten in 2011-12.
  • 43% reduced or eliminated student field trips.
  • 30% cut extra-curricular activities, including establishing or increasing fees for participation in activities.
  • 20% delayed their planned building or school renovation projects.
  • 30% furloughed teachers and staff, with teachers making up almost half (47%) of the cuts.
  • If extrapolated to the state as a whole, respondents have eliminated or left vacant nearly 4,200 positions. PASBO-PASA had estimated in August 2011 that school districts eliminated or left vacant 14,590 positions in school year 2011-12: that’s 18,790 lost educator jobs in two years.

Jay Himes, who has been executive director of PASBO for 17 years, said “I can’t think of anything even close” to the education cuts we’ve seen these past two years. And Jim Buckheit, executive director of PASA, commented, “It’s important to note the cumulative impact of these reductions.” [Post-Gazette, 10-2-12]

Indeed. Just looking at those numbers above makes it hard to stomach the response from our very own state Education Department. Spokesman Tim Eller looked at the survey and had the nerve to claim that funding is not hurting schools, saying, “This is the typical rhetoric that these organizations have been spewing for more than a year and quite frankly, they continue to misinform the public.” [The Morning Call, 10-2-12] These organizations? Spewing? We’re talking about those crazy school business officials who probably get together at their meetings to discuss how to save money when ordering pencils. These are not extremists with a political agenda. The radicals in this story are those currently inhabiting the Governor’s mansion and the Education Department appointees who claim that sharing this survey data is somehow misinforming the public.

Even more outrageous, Spokesman Eller went on, “All fingers should point to the Obama administration and how its one-time stimulus program created the funding cliff that Gov. Corbett, as well as school districts across the state, faced during his first year in office.” [The Morning Call, 10-2-12] Here we go again. We’re back to this sorry strategy: blame it on the stimulus. Talk about spewing rhetoric in a deliberate attempt to misinform the public.

Governor Corbett and his Education Department appointees have been using the federal stimulus program as a convenient cover story for the past year as they have actually made deeper cuts to public education. They claim that the state is simply reverting to 2009 education funding levels. (See why this is actually “A Shameful Betrayal” of Pennsylvania’s commitment to equity through a bi-partisan plan that was years in the making and well underway before Gov. Corbett’s draconian cuts gutted the effort.) The fact is, this governor actually spent $372 million less last year on public preK-12 education than the state spent before it started using federal stimulus money. (See our full analysis in “The Numbers Game.”)

These radicals are slashing public funding for one of our most cherished public goods: our children’s future. Just look at the increased class sizes; the cuts to arts, languages, and even core subjects; the loss of tutoring; and the number of school districts that have resorted to eliminating early childhood education and Kindergarten. And you tell us schools are not hurting because of funding cuts? Look at that survey data again. These are the real consequences of unprecedented cuts to public education.

Insane, Irrational, Irresponsible

The Governor has added another new talking point. Now he is suggesting that we should blame school districts for cutting programs because they aren’t tapping their supposedly vast reserve accounts to pay for them. Speaking during his regular appearance on a Philadelphia radio program, Gov. Corbett criticized school districts because they “are making a concerted effort not to go into those reserves.” [Delco Times, 5-16-12]

Actually, as Gov. Corbett well knows, over 70% of the state’s school districts are already spending down their reserves to balance their budgets this year. [Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, September 2011 study] Those reserve accounts are meant to be used for major planned construction projects or for emergencies such as a broken furnace. Not all districts have reserves, and those that do are certainly planning to use them for the massive spike in pension costs that are coming our way. (See why the state’s refusal to deal with the looming pension crisis is creating a recipe for disaster in “Pension History 101”.)

For example, last year when Pittsburgh Public Schools learned of the Governor’s nearly $1 BILLION in state cuts to education, it projected that it would deplete its reserves entirely by next year. The school board’s sound fiscal policy requires the district to maintain 5% of the current year’s budgeted operating expenses in reserve, but the district was already starting to run an operating deficit that would eat into those reserves. With the massive state cuts, Pittsburgh and other districts around the state were suddenly facing a dire situation: they would have to immediately cut programs, lay off teachers, and increase class sizes while continuing to eat into reserves and while knowing full well that the pension spike looms on the horizon. [Data from PPS presentation May 19, 2011.]

Yet here is the supposedly fiscally responsible governor telling school districts to essentially wipe out their savings accounts to pay for Kindergarten and other academic programs. As Jay Himes of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials points out, “To take the governor strictly on his own advice would be the same thing he criticized the school districts for doing with the federal stimulus funds. … This is one-time revenue. It shouldn’t be used haphazardly or without discipline.” [Delco Times, 5-16-12]

Since February, Gov. Corbett has been telling everyone who will listen that he has actually increased state spending on education (funny, then, that districts everywhere face huge budget gaps and are cutting programs). This past week he added a new talking point, telling us that we should blame school districts for cutting arts education because they are the ones making that choice. (For more on the etymology of this talking point, see yesterday’s piece, “The Governor’s Rash.”) And now Corbett tells us that if districts with reserve accounts cut those programs, “that’s their decision to do that, because they have the money in reserve, but the parents don’t know that.” [Delco Times, 5-16-12]

Wow. So now he not-so-subtly implies that school districts are trying to horde money and not tell parents about it? This is another tactic from the divide-and-conquer playbook and we will have none of it.

Right now school districts are making draconian cuts to essential but not legally required programs, like Kindergarten, because the state has left them with no alternative. Jim Buckheit of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, points to the abundance of research on the critical importance of early childhood education and says, “Most educators would rather get rid of high school before they got rid of kindergarten, but we’re mandated to have high school.”

While Corbett points his finger at local school board members, many of them are shaking their heads in disbelief at the empty bag the governor has left them holding. The Harrisburg school district announced yesterday that without state funding, they will eliminate Kindergarten, all athletics, and student transportation – and they will still have a $7-8 million budget gap next year. Harrisburg school board member Brendan Murray said, “This is absolutely insane, I never thought running for office we would have to say those [programs] are off the table.” [Penn Live, 5-16-12]

Insane is the right word for it. Irrational comes to mind. We can see through this new talking point, too, Governor Corbett. And it’s fiscally irresponsible.