The Words We Have Waited For

We have waited four long years to hear these words. There’s no better way to start this morning than to quote Gov. Wolf himself, who put public education at the very top of his budget speech yesterday:

Let’s start with schools.
Our commitment to education is historic.
We are starting with education because, in many ways, education is at the core of everything else that we want to achieve. …
A great public education system will help Pennsylvania attract new businesses, retain talent, and grow the middle class. …
Over the past four years, Pennsylvania took a step in the wrong direction by trying to balance our state budget on the backs of our schools.
It left us with 25,000 educators out of work.
It forced 75 percent of school districts to cut academic programs.
It forced 70 percent of our school districts to increase class sizes.
It left 56 percent of Pennsylvania students with no access to a full-time librarian.
And it forced too many schools to cut art and band to pay for reading and math.
My fellow Pennsylvanians: this is not a formula for success.
We can do a lot better.
It’s just this simple: our state is never going to get stronger as long as we make our schools weaker.
And that is why the very first thing my budget does is restore the $1 billion in cuts to public education that occurred under the previous administration. [Gov. Wolf’s 2015-16 Budget Speech]

I think I hear angels singing. Or maybe that’s choirs of public school children excited to get their music programs back. With that sweet soundtrack in mind, here are the education highlights from the governor’s proposed budget (summaries from EducationVoters PA and the Education Leadership and Policy Center):

  • INCREASE of $400 million for Basic Education Subsidy, the largest in Pennsylvania history according to EdVoters (up 6.98%). This combined line item includes what was for 2014-15 separate line items for Basic Subsidy, Accountability Block Grant, and Ready to Learn Block Grant.
  • INCREASE of $100 million for Special Education (up 9.55%).
  • INCREASE of $120 million for Early Education – Pre-K Counts and Supplemental Head Start (up 87.93%). This will increase the number of children in Pre-K Counts and state-funded Head Start Supplemental Assistance programs by 75% or more than 14,000 children!
  • INCREASE of $23 million for Career and Technical Education (up 37.10%).
  • INCREASE of $4.6 million for Adult and Family Literacy (up 38.10%).
  • INCREASE of $15 million for Community Colleges (up 6.98%).
  • INCREASE of $45.302 million to the State System of Higher Education (up 10.98% increase).
  • INCREASE of $82.138 million to State-Related Universities (up 15.76%). Locally, this would include restoring $14.9 million to the University of Pittsburgh.
  • INCREASE of $2 million for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA) grants to arts organizations (up 23.3%).
  • $9 million for Dual Enrollment requested from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA)
  • An estimated $160 million in savings to school districts from Cyber Charter Reform, including a proposed 10% in charter reimbursement and a flat rate for cyber-charter schools.
  • Governor Wolf also called for a new education funding formula by June 30th (to start in the 2016-17 school year).

What do all these numbers mean for local school districts? Pittsburgh would see an increase of 8.06% with this budget, restoring $14.9 million in combined Basic Education Funding and Special Education Funding to our schools. (See PA Dept of Ed spreadsheet for all school districts.)

As I told the Post-Gazette, this is what parents have been waiting for. This budget puts us on track to get us back to where we were before the education cuts four years ago. [Post-Gazette, 3-4-15] It’s not the end-all, be-all … but it sure is sweet music to our ears. Gov. Wolf even made public education the headline of his widely shared budget info-graphic (below). Now the legislature needs to get to work with our new governor and make it happen!

Wolf'sBudgetInfoGraphic

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Who is Voting for Tom Corbett?

Ever since he slashed close to $1 billion from public education back in 2011, Governor Corbett has been claiming he did the very opposite. So it’s no surprise – though completely ludicrous – that he has been campaigning on his “record of support” for public schools. Still, I spit out my coffee when I saw the full page ad in this morning’s Post-Gazette. (See first image, below.) To set the record straight, I made some factual corrections. (See revised ad, below.) We don’t have Corbett’s deep pockets to take out a full page ad in the paper, but we can share this post – and share the truth!

CorbettPG2014adCorbettAdSpoof

Hurting the Poor

I don’t know how Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, can keep a straight face when he talks to reporters. Again and again he declares that Governor Corbett “has increased state funding for public schools by $1.5 billion” over the past four years. [Post-Gazette, 8-28-14]

Anyone with half a brain or with a school age child can tell you that’s a load of hogwash. Sometimes having school age children makes us parents operate with only half a brain, but we can still tell you that Pennsylvania kids are sitting in larger classes, with fewer of their teachers, and missing critical books, supplies, academic courses, and programs.

Of course, what Mr. Eller means is that Gov. Corbett collapsed a bunch of line items into the Basic Education Funding portion of the budget, so that he could say that this single line item increased. Meanwhile, he decimated overall state funding for public schools. Gov. Corbett also likes to tout the additional dollars he put into pension payments (as required by state law) when he calculates that $1.5 billion figure, but will not account for the fact that he slashed charter school tuition reimbursements for districts, Accountability Block Grants, School Improvement Grants, or other programs such as the Education Assistance and High School Reform programs.

As the following graph clearly illustrates, even allowing for increased state contributions to pension payments, our schools are still not receiving the level of preK-12 funding that they were back in 2008-09! (In this chart the federal stimulus dollars are in yellow and pension dollars in light blue: check out the dark blue columns to see how our schools have been set back more than six years in budget cuts.)

PAbudget_w_pensions

But this is more than a rhetorical debate over which line items to count. Four years into this mess it is now clear that these historic budget cuts have hurt our poorest students the most. A new report out this week analyzes state funding per child and finds that budget cuts to the most impoverished school districts were more than three times as large on average as those made to the wealthiest districts. What’s more, using the state’s own data, the report demonstrates that class sizes increased more in high poverty districts and that reading and math scores declined the most for students living in poverty. [Budget cuts, student poverty, and test scores: Examining the evidence, PSEA August 2014] Look at the disparity in chart form:

Graph-AverageFundingChangePerStudent201011-201415

[Source: PSEA, 8-25-14]

What does that look like here in Southwest Pennsylvania? Just look at the following table of the ten biggest losers in Allegheny County on a per-student basis. Pittsburgh tops the list of districts most harmed by budget cuts with an average per-child loss of $1,038, followed by a parade of high-poverty school districts. It’s worth noting the story of race here, too, as these districts have a large proportion of students of color. Compare these numbers to Fox Chapel, which has “only” lost $36 per student (no students should be losing money for their education), or Mt. Lebanon ($9), or my alma mater, Upper St. Clair, which has actually gained $4 on a per-student basis.

MostHarmedDistricts

 LeastHarmedDistricts

Perhaps Gov. Corbett should spend more time explaining why his policies are hurting poor kids than trying to convince us that he has increased spending on public education. We parents just aren’t that gullible.

Back to School

I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t ready to put the kids on the school bus this morning. I never want summer to end! And this was a particularly busy summer for public education advocates, so we have a lot to catch up on. But first, I need one minute of your time: please take this very quick straw poll to help guide our work together this year. What do you think should be the priorities for Yinzercation in 2014-15?

Now here’s a brief look at some of the issues that have been percolating in the summer heat:

Governor’s race: Yinzercation has been asked by various community partners to work on get-out-the-vote and voter registration efforts. If you are interested in helping to staff a table at a new community event in the Hill District on Monday afternoon, September 1st (Labor Day), please let me know.

State budget / fair funding: Remember that fantastic bus trip to Harrisburg with parents that we organized back in June? While the Governor and legislature wound up passing a sorry budget for our kids, we did get our message out. And as a result, we’ve been invited to host a meeting here with the entire Allegheny County legislative delegation. Want to be a part of this special opportunity? Let me know!

High-stakes testing: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did a 180 last week and finally acknowledged that students are being over-tested. He agreed to allow states to wait another year before implementing teacher evaluation systems based on high-stakes tests, though Pennsylvania will not delay its own state-mandated system. [Post-Gazette, 8-22-14] He could have said much more, but it’s a start. In related news, Pittsburgh Public Schools will be voting this week on some assessment changes: we want to strongly encourage the district’s efforts to 1) reduce the overall number of tests, 2) reduce un-necessary and inequitable stakes associated with too many tests, and 3) focus on quality assessments that provide meaningful and timely feedback to students and teachers.

Equity and resources: Is your school starting the year with equitable resources? Do your students have the books and supplies they need? We want to know! (Drop me a line.) Some parents worked all summer to get students what they deserve. Kudos to Mr. Wallace Sapp and the other parents and community members in Manchester for the successful launch of their Math, Mud, and More summer camp. Mr. Sapp also met with Sen. Fontana and Rep. Wheatley to talk about public education issues.

Charter reform: Over the summer, the Pittsburgh school board voted unanimously to decline a proposed expansion of the Environmental Charter School, which is now in the process of appealing to the state board. In a series of packed public hearings, parents raised a host of critical equity issues, noting “About 28 percent of ECS students are eligible for subsidized lunch, compared to 71 percent in district schools … 21 percent of students are black, compared to 54 percent in district schools … [and] zero percent are English language learners, compared to about 3 percent in district schools.” [Post-Gazette, 7-23-14] While charter schools continue to be contentious and sometimes divide our community, there is clearly still a strong need for public dialogue about the role of charters, civil rights, and state reforms aimed at funding, accountability, and transparency.

School closings: I learned this summer in a meeting of the Mayor’s Task Force on Education that Pittsburgh superintendent Dr. Lane does not intend to bring forward any more recommendations for school closures unless asked to do so by the Board of Directors. This doesn’t mean we won’t eventually see more school closures, of course, but it’s a good sign that we have more room for conversation and creative thinking, such as that put forward by an activate group of Woolslair parents who have proposed an exciting new STEAM model for their school.

Discipline and school climate: Pittsburgh Public Schools released a new student code of conduct that represents a positive step forward in addressing equity and school-to-prison pipeline issues. [Post-Gazette, 8-5-14] I’m pleased to see the way in which the district is trying to de-criminalize minor infractions (such as mobile phone use), though we will need continued public conversation, professional development, and building leadership to see real change.

 

And so it’s back to school this week, and back to work fighting for the public education that all our children deserve. Did you take the quick straw poll yet to help focus our work together this year? Please take one minute to vote for your priorities. What’s most important to you?

Still no Budget

When I left for Alaska ten days ago, parents, teachers, and community members from across the state were still camped out at the Capitol building keeping a vigil for a better budget. The group from Pittsburgh included many ActionUnited volunteers, who worked around the clock.

Volunteers keeping vigil at night with glow-in-the-dark signs!

Volunteers keeping vigil at night with glow-in-the-dark signs!

Delivering coffee to the Governor's mansion.

Delivering coffee to the Governor’s mansion to tell him to “Wake up and smell the coffee: you are hurting Pennsylvania’s children!”

ActionUnited volunteers from Pittsburgh stayed in the capitol around the clock

ActionUnited volunteers from Pittsburgh stayed in the capitol around the clock

Having just returned to the lower-48, I fully expected to see news of a final state budget. Oh, but no. In case you haven’t been paying attention, or have been off-line in the wilderness like me, here’s the current situation.

The Pennsylvania legislature has passed a budget – full of problems – but the Governor has yet to sign it. He is currently holding out because he did not get the pension reforms he wanted. Yet if he doesn’t get his signature on the page before Friday, the budget will go into effect without his stamp of approval. [Patriot News, 7-8-14]

Unfortunately, either way, we’re looking at mostly more bad news for public schools. The budget passed by the legislature once again flat funds the basic education line, which provides the bulk of support to school districts. It does increase special education funding by $19.8 million, which is most welcome after six years of flat funding in this area. However, as Ron Cowell of the Education Policy and Leadership Center points out, “it’s important to note that special education costs to districts have risen more than $400 million during that time.” [Post Gazette, 7-5-14]

The budget sitting on the Governor’s desk also includes a slight increase in education funding through block grant programs. These generally come with strings attached and are less helpful to districts that are desperately struggling to provide basic educational programs. The increase is also $141 million less than what Gov. Corbett initially proposed back in February.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment with this unsigned budget is that it relies on unicorns to pay the bills. We just finished the 2013-14 fiscal year last week short by a half-billion dollars. Sharon Ward of the PA Budget and Policy Center explains that legislators “magically wiped away that inconvenient truth through creative accounting.” Then for the new budget, “lawmakers used one-time transfers, overly rosy revenue projections, and accounting tricks to close a $1 billion projected revenue gap.” For instance, this budget assumes that there will be revenue from new gas drilling on public lands – but that will depend on the outcome of a case still winding its way through the courts. It also assumes there will be revenue from a Philadelphia casino that hasn’t even been built yet! [Philly.com, 7-9-14]

This kind of magical thinking is a recipe for disaster. Overall, Pennsylvania collected less in revenue in 2013-14 than it did the year before. Yet the new budget for 2014-15 counts on adding $1 billion more than we managed to take in this past year. [PA Budget and Policy Center, 7-7-14] Where are we really going to get this money?

Having just returned from mineral-rich Alaska, it’s astonishing to me that Gov. Corbett will not even consider a severance tax on Marcellus shale. Every other major gas producing state has one. Our local guide in Juneau proudly pointed to the Alaska Permanent Fund building and explained that every person in that state gets an annual check, usually between $1,000-$2,000, drawn from oil revenues.

Meanwhile, school districts in Pennsylvania are forced to raise property taxes yet again. Last week, just after the House passed the current budget, the Shippensburg school district voted to raise local taxes to make up for the shortfall in state support it had been expecting. [Philly.com, 7-9-14]

Alaska was gorgeous. But I would like to be able to stay here in Pennsylvania and send my children to properly funded schools. We may not have glaciers, but we do have eagles again, right here in Pittsburgh. Now if only we could fund public education.

It’s Call Your Legislator Day

Today’s the day! We are joining Education Voters PA for a state-wide call-your-legislator day. Over the past three years, our children have suffered enough: they’ve lost thousands of their teachers, art, music, tutoring, library, nurses, counselors, athletics, and so much more. When will it end? Our legislators are debating the state budget right now and things will really heat up over the next few weeks.

Unfortunately, the news out of Harrisburg is not good. Back in February, Gov. Corbett proposed a state budget that would flat fund basic K-12 education, but included some small increases for special education and early childhood education. He also proposed creating a new block grant program, which would come with many strings attached. [See “More Bad than Good”] To pay for it, Corbett’s proposal relies on inflated expectations of leftover year-end revenues that could be carried forward into the next fiscal year. [See “Paying for It”] However, that appears highly unlikely given the latest state revenue projections.

Last Thursday, the state’s Independent Fiscal Office calculated that Pennsylvania would be short $1 billion in revenue needed to fund Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget. Now the governor is looking for ways to cut $800 million from his plan. Will it come out of education? (Or human services? Or any of the other critical things we need?) At the same time Corbett looks to make more cuts, “corporate tax collections have dropped by $292 million compared to last year” because of the numerous tax giveaways our legislators have enacted in recent years. [PA Budget and Policy Center, 5-2-14]

Now is the time to speak up and tell our legislators that, as Education Voters says, “Pennsylvania’s children cannot afford another year of inadequate state funding and political posturing.” Why make phone calls? Just 10 calls in one day can get a legislator to pay attention to an issue: joining together with thousands of other parents, students, teachers, and community members across Pennsylvania on a single day means we can amplify our voices. Please take just a few minutes and make three phone calls:

  1. Call your State Senator. [click here to find the number]
  2. Call your State Representative. [click here to find the number]
  3. Call Gov. Corbett’s office at (717) 787-2500.

For the past three years, we have been demanding adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding for our public schools. Want some tips on what else you might say? Here is what Education Voters suggests we all ask our legislators:

  • Make the proposed increase of $230 million a permanent source of funding in the Basic Education Fund (BEF). This increase should NOT be distributed to school districts in block grants that have many strings attached and can be eliminated in future budgets.
  • Allocate state funding using a fair, transparent, and accurate funding formula. This formula should take political deal making out of the budget process and be based on current data and the real costs of educating students with different needs.
  • Keep the proposed increase for special education of $20 million in the budget. After six years of flat funding for special education, we applaud the decision to finally increase the funding.
  • Restore charter school reimbursement payments to local school districts. Public schools lost hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding when Governor Corbett eliminated this line item in 2011. The legislature made changes to the public education system by adding charter schools, and then put in place the charter reimbursement line to help address the additional costs communities were facing.  Cutting this funding hurt both community school district students and charter school students and compounded an already difficult situation. These funds should be restored until a formula is adopted.
  • Ensure that any savings from the elimination of the charter school pension double-dip payments stay in the education budget and be returned to local school districts. These savings should not go into the general fund where legislators can spend them as they please.

These phone calls work! If you want some more inspiration, check out this fun one minute video of Pittsburgh Public School parents making phone calls in 2012, the year we saved $100 million from being cut from the early childhood budget:

Rolling in Dough, or Debt?

To hear Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of education, Carolyn Dumaresq, tell it, our school districts are rolling in dough. In an op-ed piece this week she said the proposed “2014-15 budget dedicates a record $12.01 billion for Pennsylvania’s early, basic and postsecondary education system.” [Indiana Gazette, 3-23-14] I like how you can roll three program areas together and get one giant-big-huge sounding number. Oh my gosh! Twelve billion!

Politicians apparently like to roll things together. It reminds me of when Gov. Corbett rolled a bunch of line items together in the K-12 “basic education” budget a couple years ago and then went around claiming he had “increased” K-12 funding, while overall he had slashed it by close to $1 billion. [See “The Truth About the Numbers”] Oh wait a minute. The administration is still making these outlandish claims. In her piece, Dr. Dumaresq repeated Gov. Corbett’s old story, saying, “Since taking office, Corbett has increased support of public schools by $1.55 billion.”

Why there you go. All along we thought he had decreased funding, but he has really increased it. Schools are literally rolling in extra dough. Hiring back thousands of laid-off teachers, restoring program cuts, re-opening those early childhood education classrooms – wait, what? They aren’t? Did anyone in the Governor’s office talk to the Allentown School District, which just announced yesterday that it will lay off another 100 teachers and educational staff? [Morning Call, 3-26-14] If only Allentown realized how much cash Gov. Corbett has been giving them. Maybe the check got lost in the mail.

Never mind. Dr. Dumaresq assures us that “Through targeted initiatives, the governor has … infused stronger educational resources into classrooms.” I’m glad those resources are strong, because now that we’ve laid off 20,000 teachers in Pennsylvania in the past three years, they are going to need muscles to do all the heavy lifting of educating 35 kids in a classroom. Seriously, “stronger educational resources”? Do we even know what this means?

That sounds similar to the next assertion that Gov. Corbett has “focused financial resources into initiatives that support all students.” When the governor eliminated our state’s fair funding formula he pretty much assured that financial resources were not going to equitably support all students.

After that op-ed, a sobering dose of reality might be in order. University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg delivered just that in a speech Monday, warning that students are now burdened with “crushing personal debts” as they try to pay for higher education while the state and federal government continue to slash support. [Post-Gazette, 3-24-14] In fact, Pennsylvania cut $67 million from Pitt’s budget three years ago, and then locked those cuts in for the past two years, meaning the University “now receives the same amount of state funding it received in 1995. If adjusted for inflation… state aid has fallen to its lowest level since the university became state-related in the 1960s.”

Yep. Pennsylvania public higher ed is definitely rolling in that state dough. Not. Indeed, Chancellor Nordenberg told the audience that “all but 10 states have begun to reinvest in higher education as the recession’s financial effects have eased; Pennsylvania is one of the 10 that has not.” Rather than rolling in dough, too many public education programs – from early childhood through higher ed – are rolling in debt.

The spot of good news in that area this week came from Pittsburgh Public Schools, which announced that it ended 2013 with an operating surplus of $20.8 million. That came mostly from unexpected increases in collections of earned income and real estate transfer taxes that may or may not continue. In other words, that bump may not be sustainable. And even with the welcome news from 2013, “the district is forecasting a $14.5 million deficit this calendar year, leading the district to run out of money in 2017 when the projected deficit is $59.8 million.” [Post-Gazette, 3-26-14]

So our fiscal crisis has been pushed back another year. But here in Pittsburgh, and around the state, we are still talking about mountains of debt, not dough.