Stop This Bill

The charter school reform bill SB1085 is on the PA Senate’s calendar today. This bill does not provide the reform that we need and will actually cause more harm to public schools. [Please see “Killer Weeds” for all the gory details.] Have you called your state senator yet about this legislation? Did you just mutter “no” to yourself? Would it help if I begged?

Pleeeeeease????? Seriously, we need you to call your state senator and urge them to vote no on SB1085, which will remove local control over your tax dollars. Click here now to find contact information for your state senator. Here’s what SB1085 would do [from Keystone State Education Coalition]:

  • allow colleges and universities to authorize new charter schools without local approval, even though they have no financial stake or accountability to the public for the school’s performance.
  • eliminate enrollment caps on charter schools, allowing for the unfettered expansion of charter schools in PA.
  • increase the initial term of a charter from 3 years to 5 years, and allow a charter school to be granted a 10 year renewal, which would slice accountability in half.
  • allow two or more charters to consolidate and transfer oversight to the PA Department of Education, while local taxpayers would still pay the tuition.
  • remove the provision that requires charter applications to be evaluated based on the extent to which the school may serve as a model for other public schools (which was the original purpose of charter schools).

All of this matters because the state is actively foisting new charter schools on Pittsburgh, even after our school board has voted against them. This is adding millions to the district’s budget deficit just as we are being told we must close more schools in our communities in order to address that deficit. We have a looming $46 million budget gap, but we are currently spending $53 million to send 10% of the district’s kids to charter schools. [See “When Charter Cause Harm and Leaders Fail to Lead”] I am not suggesting that we simply close charter schools – that’s not legally possible and it’s not as simple as that. But we ought to be asking what our students are getting from charter schools.

While there are certainly exceptions, on the whole Pennsylvania’s charter schools have a terrible track record of student performance. The latest national research found that charter students in our state cover 29 fewer days of reading material on average, and 50 fewer days of math than traditional public schools. That puts Pennsylvania in the bottom three states in the country. [Stanford CREDO, National Charter School Study 2013] The state’s cyber charter schools are particularly problematic, with not a single one making Adequate Yearly Progress last year. [PA Dept. of Education, Charter School PSSA Performance] And don’t forget that the state Auditor General last year found that cyber charter schools are over-charging school districts $1 million every single day. [See “One Million Per Day”]

We desperately need charter reform. But SB1085 is not it. Please call your state senator now! And if you have a few minutes more to spare, please consider calling any or all of these Senate officers:

Majority Leader Senator Dominic Pileggi 
(717) 787-4712  dpileggi@pasen.gov

Majority Whip Senator Patrick Browne 
(717) 787-1349  pbrowne@pasen.gov

Majority Caucus Chair Senator Michael Waugh 
(717) 787-3817  mwaugh@pasen.gov

Majority Caucus Secretary Senator Robert Robbins 
(717) 787-1322  rrobbins@pasen.gov

Majority Appropriations Chair Senator Jake Corman 
(717) 787-1377  jcorman@pasen.gov

Majority Caucus Administrator Senator John Gordner 
(717) 787-8928  jgordner@pasen.gov

Majority Policy Committee Chair Senator Edwin Erickson 
(717) 787-1350  eerickson@pasen.gov

Thankful Top Ten

A lot of my Facebook friends are posting a message every day this month detailing the things for which they are grateful. It occurred to me how easy it would be for me to fill a month’s worth of posts just noting the many things I am thankful for in our public schools.

But I’ve been distracted from writing those posts since we’ve had such a busy month: with actions ranging from the PIIN Town Hall meeting to greeting Gov. Corbett on his campaign launch to hosting a forum for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia students [“A Week of Action,” “Calling All Students”]; battling the terrible charter reform bill barreling our way [“Killer Weeds”]; raising important questions about a potential contract with Teach for America [“Six Questions for Teach for America,” “Too Few Answers”]; and drafting an education platform with our grassroots colleagues around the state for the Democratic candidates for governor [“What They Should be Saying”]. I’m worn out and ready to eat pie!

But I’m still feeling the spirit, so here just in time for Thanksgiving, I offer my top ten education justice gratitude list. I am thankful for:

  1. Students who are speaking up about their education and their schools. I love the new Student Bill of Rights [Pittsburgh Courier, 11-22-13] and am grateful to the many students who have testified recently before City Council and the school board.
  2. Teachers and staff who work with our children every day and volunteer countless hours after school and on the weekends. I wrote about “Teacher Heroes” after the Sandy Hook tragedy last year, which has been back in the news this week, and I wish I could send that piece as a thank you note to every one of our teachers.
  3. Our democratically elected school board, which is accountable to the public and has been working in recent years – with urging from A+ Schools, local foundations and others – to make itself more transparent and open. I am grateful we don’t have mayoral-control in Pittsburgh.
  4. Mayor-elect Bill Peduto who believes that the strength of our city is tied to the strength of our public schools. I am grateful that he has appointed a cabinet level education officer and for his commitment to collaborating with the district and community partners to find more holistic, sustainable solutions.
  5. Pittsburgh City Council for recognizing that closing schools harms communities, and ultimately our entire city, and for calling for a moratorium on school closures.  [See “A Moratorium Makes Sense”]
  6. Grassroots colleagues around the state who are working to knit our sometimes-disparate battles into an authentic, inclusive, and strong education justice movement.
  7. Thoughtful critics who disagree with me, who have taken the time to sit down over coffee and talk, and who engage in productive public dialogue. I am grateful for civil discourse.
  8. Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, an unprecedented coalition of parents, students, teachers, community members, faith leaders, local unions, and social justice activists. The work of collaboration is messy and hard, but I am grateful for the power of commitment and strength in working together.
  9. The thousands of people who are getting involved in education justice: just this past week, over 1,300 people signed our petition asking the school board to delay its vote on the contract with Teach for America, closing Woolslair elementary, and selling our property to a charter organization until the public has more information and the four new board members can participate in those decisions.
  10. Parent activists like these who packed the Pittsburgh school board public hearing last night:

PamPresentsPetition11-25-13

  • Pam Harbin (above) presented the school board with the GPS petition containing 1,341 signatures and hundreds of supporting letters.
  • Kathy Newman opposed a contract with Teach for America saying, “I offer my services as a CMU professor-free of charge-to help recruit qualified STEM teachers to teach in our schools.”
  • Michele Boyle asked the board to “stop foreclosing on our student’s second homes. Stop closing schools!”

What are you thankful for in our education justice movement?

What They Should be Saying

It’s a lot of chilly heads as eight Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania governor have already tossed their hats in the ring. All eight are eager to take on Governor Corbett, whose latest approval rating is so far in the tank that only 20% of registered voters think he deserves re-election. With 61% of those surveyed a few weeks ago saying the state is “on the wrong track,” even Republicans are calling for Corbett to step aside (44% think he should let someone else run). [Franklin & Marshall poll, 10-31-13]

Not surprisingly, that same poll found, “Nearly one in four (22%) registered voters believes unemployment and the economy is the state’s most important problem, followed closely by schools and school funding (21%).” With education consistently rated as Pennsylvania’s #2 concern, right behind jobs and the economy, candidates for the state’s highest office need to be talking about what they will do for our public schools. A few have started, but the conversation needs to get much louder and deeper.

To give them a boost, the education grassroots community has developed this handy guide. Here’s the list of Democratic candidates for Governor and what they should be saying about public education:

John Hanger, former Secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection
Jo Ellen Litz, County Commissioner of Lebanon County
Rob McCord, Pennsylvania Treasurer
Kathleen McGinty, former Secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection
Max Myers, businessman and former pastor
Ed Pawlowski, Mayor of Allentown
Allyson Schwartz, U.S. Representative
Thomas W. Wolf, businessman and former Secretary of the PA Department of Revenue

What Democratic Candidates for PA Governor Should be Saying about Public Education

Public Education Funding

  • I believe that public education is a public good. Public education is an investment that we as taxpayers make together to benefit students, parents, and communities. Public schools play a vital role in building strong communities throughout the Commonwealth.
  • Adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding of public education will be a top priority of my administration.
  • I will reverse the more than $1 billion in state funding cuts to public K-12 schools and public higher education.
  • I will enact a fair, accurate and transparent formula to allocate state tax dollars to school districts. This formula will take into account the actual number of students living in poverty, students learning English, and students with a disability. It will also take into account the fact that some school districts lack the overall economic ability to raise adequate revenue to fund their schools. State dollars will be allocated based on those differences.
  • I will close tax loopholes that harm our public schools, such as the “89-11” real estate transfer mechanism that diverts desperately needed funds from school districts.

Keeping public education public

  • I oppose vouchers.
  • I oppose parent trigger laws and other efforts to privatize public education.
  • I oppose any expansion of Pennsylvania’s current controversial education tax credit programs (Education Income Tax Credit-EITC and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit-OSTC) and will work with PDE to address serious deficiencies within the programs to bring them more in line with norms in other states.
  • I oppose school closures on the basis of test scores and mass school closings, which have been shown to be enormously disruptive to students’ academic and personal lives. School closings should be approached with prudence and with the end result being an improved academic and quality of life and public options for children.

Charter school reform

  • I recognize that the current way that PA pays for charter and cyber charter schools is structurally flawed, fiscally unsustainable, and weakens traditional public schools. The current law mandates that taxpayers fund two separate and duplicative systems of public education by taking money from one group of children (in traditional public schools) and giving it to another (children in charters).
  • I will work with the legislature to craft a sustainable charter school funding formula that will create efficiencies for taxpayers, relieve the overwhelming financial burden on our school districts, and help strengthen Pennsylvania’s entire system of public education.
  • I believe charter school payment rates are not accurately calculated.  I will work to reform the charter school funding formula for special education so that charter school payments are capped at the actual costs of providing children with services. I will also work with the legislature to revise the funding formula for cyber charters to account for the fact that they do not operate a full brick and mortar school building.
  • I will work with the legislature to pass a charter reform bill that holds all charter and cyber charter schools accountable to the public, ensures transparency in their finances and operations, and holds them subject to Pennsylvania’s existing Right to Know laws.
  • I support the authority of local school districts to authorize charter schools in their own communities. I will not support a law that allows an outside entity to authorize a charter school in a community nor will I support a state-wide authorizer.

Early Childhood Education

  • I will work for good prenatal care for every pregnant woman in Pennsylvania, because the risk of learning disabilities and other challenges to learning begin in the womb.
  • I will increase supplemental funding to Head Start so thousands of low-income children on waiting lists will have the opportunity to receive a high-quality early childhood education that will prepare them to enter kindergarten ready to learn.
  • I will enact mandatory kindergarten that is responsibly funded throughout the state.

Teaching and Learning

  • I value experienced, professional teachers and reject rhetoric that disparages teachers and the craft of teaching.
  • I believe that every public school should offer a full, rich curriculum with the arts, science, history, literature, world languages, and physical education. I will work with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to make sure that our policies, including testing requirements, support this.
  • I support smaller class sizes, especially for low-income, high-poverty districts with high needs.
  • I oppose the expansion of costly high stakes testing in Pennsylvania and in particular the current Keystone exams. I will call for a full review of the impact of Keystone exams on disaggregated student populations within each school district in order to determine whether these exams best serve the needs of students and families as well as improve accountability measures within school districts.
  • I support efforts to build healthy school climates such as evidence-based restorative justice programs and de-criminalizing minor offenses that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.
  • I recognize that poverty and racial segregation are serious social problems and that we must address these root causes that affect the academic performance of far too many of our children.
  • I will seek capital investments in school facilities to improve and modernize Pennsylvania’s school buildings.

Helen Gym, Parents United for Public Education, Philadelphia
Rebecca Poyourow, Ph.D., Parents United for Public Education, Philadelphia
Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D., Yinzercation, Pittsburgh
Susan Spicka, Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley, Shippensburg

Killer Weeds

The PA General Assembly is back in session today and we need to go wading into the policy weeds for a moment. This is where we pay attention to potentially-lethally-boring policy details around bills such as SB 1085. These are killer weeds all right, but the real threat is to our schools. I promise you’ll be perfectly safe as you read this message: your blood pressure might rise, but then you will click “Take Action” at the bottom of this page, and you will feel much better.

Remember Senate Bill 1085? This is a charter “reform” bill that will actually hurt school districts. [See “When Charters Cause Harm”] In a recent analysis of the bill, the Education Law Center concluded, “Ultimately, SB 1085 would gut local control over charter school authorization and growth, encourage unfettered expansion of even poorly-operated charter schools, take already underfunded school districts to the brink of financial collapse, and remove important accountability tools that school districts can use to ensure that charter schools are performing well and equitably serving all kinds of students.” [Education Law Center SB1085] Those are very strong words coming from our lawyer friends.

In opposing passage of SB 1085 in its current state, the ELC explains that the bill would:

  • Permit any charter school, good or bad, to grow without permission from any authority.
  • Permit charter schools to unilaterally amend the terms of their charter, at any time, for any reason.
  • Double the length of a charter from five to ten years, which would slice accountability in half.
  • Permit institutions of higher education to authorize new charters, even though they have no financial stake or accountability to the public for the school’s performance.
  • Permit “multiple charter school organizations” to avoid accountability to the communities they serve by electing to be authorized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
  • Create a funding commission that is stacked in favor of charter schools and not permitted to consider the fiscal impact of charter expansion on their local communities.

Why does this matter? Why should you spend another minute in these uncomfortable policy weeds that are scratching your legs and harboring who-knows-what slithering creatures? Just stand still for a minute and you’ll be fine. We need to go into these weeds once in a while to hold our legislators accountable for making policies that will help, not hurt, our schools. Right now, we desperately need good charter legislation.

Just take a look at the news that broke over the weekend about an FBI probe of another charter school here in Pittsburgh. [KDKA 11-8-13] The state Auditor General, Eugene DePasquale, found “potentially criminal” spending at the Urban Pathways charter school. The charter school spent tens of thousands of dollars on fancy restaurants, retreats at elite resorts including Nemacolin Woodlands, and even paid for the mobile phones of board members’ spouses. DePasquale said these expenses are “a waste of taxpayer money” and is particularly concerned that Urban Pathways is also using Pennsylvania tax dollars to pay for a new school it is starting in Youngstown, Ohio. He’s turned the investigation over to the FBI. [Tribune Review, 11-11-13]

Larry Feinberg, a public school director from the other side of Pennsylvania, and co-founder of the Keystone State Education Coalition, reminds us, “Charter schools were supposed to be laboratories of innovation.” Instead, he says, “In Pennsylvania, they have been laboratories of fraud, waste, abuse and lack of transparency.” [Keystone State Education Coalition, 11-11-13] Now watch your blood pressure as you read Feinberg’s list:

  • In Pittsburgh, Nick Trombetta, founder of the state’s largest cyber charter, is on trial under a 41 count federal indictment for allegedly stealing $1 million.
  • In Philly, June Brown is on trial, accused of defrauding the four charters she founded of $6.7 million. Joan Woods Chalker, 75, a top lieutenant in Brown’s school network who worked with Brown for more than 20 years and served as a chief executive at one of her charters, has pleaded guilty to three counts of obstruction of justice. She stood accused of conspiring with Brown and the others in a scheme to defraud four charter schools of $6.7 million, then staging a cover-up.
  • In Wayne, PA, K12, Inc.’s Agora Cyber Charter used tax dollars to pay for more than 19,000 local TV commercials. Agora has never made AYP, but Business Week reported that it had made over $31 million for K12, Inc. in one academic year.  K12’s CEO was paid $5 million in 2011.
  • In Harrisburg, PA Office of Open Records executive director Terry Mutchler said her office had received 239 appeals in cases in which charter schools either rejected or failed to answer requests from the public for information such as budgets, payrolls, or student rosters. She said her office ruled in favor of the schools on just six of those appeals. “They don’t feel they should be subject to this law, or, candidly, subject to you,” Mutchler told senators on the state government committee, which is considering legislation to amend the five-year-old law. “They are a cancer on the otherwise healthy right-to- know-law.”
  • In Palm Beach Florida, the Governor’s largest individual campaign donor is building a new 20,000 square foot mansion on a $29 million beachfront lot. He has been fighting a right-to-know request for over 6 years regarding financial details of his management company’s operation of the state’s largest brick and mortar charter school. Standardized-test scores dropped precipitously at that Chester Community Charter School after an investigation of possible past cheating brought new scrutiny to the school’s testing practices. Results for 2012 state tests show that, schoolwide, scores fell about 30 percentage points in math and reading, with double-digit drops in every grade. Some fell more than 40 percentage points.

Now see why the policy weeds matter? We need real charter reform, but SB 1085 is more like a snake in the grass. Please TAKE ACTION – yes, click on those words to visit our colleagues at the PA School Board Association where you can send an email to your senator asking her or him to oppose SB 1085. Really. You will feel so much better. And then you can walk on out of these killer weeds.

When Charters Cause Harm (and Leaders Fail to Lead)

Pittsburgh got some most unwelcome news this week: the state is foisting two charter schools upon us that our school board voted against. This will add millions to the district’s budget deficit just as we are being told we must close more schools in our communities in order to address that deficit. Meanwhile, our legislators are debating a very poorly designed charter “reform” bill that would actually take more control away from local, democratically elected school boards and make it even harder for districts to balance their already bare bones budgets.

Pennsylvania’s charter schools have a terrible track record of student performance. The latest national research found that charter students cover 29 fewer days of reading material on average, and 50 fewer days of math than traditional public schools. That puts Pennsylvania in the bottom three states in the country. [Stanford CREDO, National Charter School Study 2013] The state’s cyber charter schools are particularly problematic, with not a single one making Adequate Yearly Progress last year. [PA Dept. of Education, Charter School PSSA Performance]

The Pittsburgh school board voted to revoke the charter of Career Connections Charter High School in Lawrenceville when it “found few … students were participating in legitimate internships, a core part of the school’s mission. The district also cited a finding that student performance on standardized tests had worsened.” [Post-Gazette, 9-24-13] Last month the state’s charter school appeal board upheld the Pittsburgh decision, but then this week decided that Career Connections could stay open while it takes its case to the courts (which will cost us taxpayers even more money).

The state appeal board also decided to overturn the Pittsburgh school board’s rejection of an application from Propel Charter Schools to open a new school in Hazelwood. [Post-Gazette, 10-16-13] The Propel chain of schools actually has a better track record than most charters in the state, though its Northside location did not make AYP last year. Propel is a non-profit, is locally run, and has a local board of directors – all critically important. But what is its secret for success?

Propel claims that its secret lies in six principles, including “agile instruction” (letting teachers actually teach in their classrooms, giving them data and support, with no hint of bell-to-bell-scripted curricula) and a “fully valued arts program” (with kids getting art every single day). [Propel Schools Principles] The school boasts of its small class sizes, support for students and families outside of school, highly qualified teachers (all state certified and most with graduate degrees), and extensive professional development for its staff. These are exactly the things we want for all of our children and in all of our schools.

So what’s the problem here? In Pittsburgh we’re being told that we can’t have these things because we’re going broke. We have a looming $46 million budget gap. Guess how much we spend sending kids to charter schools? $53 million. Yep, that’s right. We are spending more to send 10% of our kids to charter schools than it would cost to plug the budget gap, which is forcing 90% of Pittsburgh public school students to go without art, music, small class sizes, or “agile teaching.”

Now the math isn’t quite that simple (and I’m not suggesting we simply close all our charter schools). But consider this: like many school districts, Pittsburgh’s charter school payments are ballooning, up $5.5 million last year alone from the previous year. With the state’s massive defunding of public schools, Governor Corbett slashed reimbursements to districts for charter school tuition payments, costing Pittsburgh $14.8 million last year. [See “Charter Reform Now”] That amount right there is almost a third of the district’s projected budget gap. A third!

Over the past decade, Pittsburgh has endured four rounds of school closures to deal with population loss and persistent financial crises. The choices the district made left Hazelwood without a single public school – a literal education dessert. And now Propel wants to buy the former Burgwin school building in that neighborhood, which is on the market for $475,000, and then turn it into a charter school for 400 students. [Post-Gazette, 10-16-13] (I must point out that the district’s Envisioning plan considers enrollment under 500 at an elementary school to be “under-utilized” and grounds for closing.) With 400 students enjoying nice small classes, this new Propel school will cost Pittsburgh at least $5.1 million every year. So did closing Burgwin actually wind up saving money in the long term?

We visited the closed Burgwin school on our Rolling Rally bus tour back in May.

We visited the closed Burgwin school on our Rolling Rally bus tour back in May.

Now to add insult to injury, the state has not only forced Pittsburgh to accept these two charter schools – regardless of how they fit or do not fit into the larger strategic plan and budget slashing measures the administration is currently laying out for the rest of the city’s children – but our state legislators are also considering a charter “reform” bill that would make it harder still for districts to be accountable for those schools. Our colleague Susan Spicka, who works in the grassroots education justice movement out in the middle part of the state, explains that Senate Bill 1085, which came out of committee on Wednesday, is “a really bad bill that would overhaul current charter school law … and will likely move in the Senate floor as early as the week of 10/21.”

SB 1085 (and to a large extent its companion bill in the House, HB 618) would authorize an institution of higher learning to be a charter school authorizer instead of local school districts. Spicka explains, “This would strip control from taxpayers and locally-elected school boards and allow charter schools to be authorized by an outside entity, set up shop in our communities, and send us the bill.” School districts would also lose control over approving the operation of any charter schools that want to consolidate into a new, larger entity in their district. And the bill would permit an unfettered expansion of charter schools in Pennsylvania while removing language that used to call for charter schools to be models of innovation for traditional public schools – supposedly their very reason for being. [Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley, 10-17-13]

So where is the administration’s leadership on these state policies that are hurting our district? Why isn’t our school board speaking up? What about our teacher’s union? We haven’t heard a peep. There may be meetings happening behind closed doors, but that is doing little to harness the power of the people. We know that it’s only pressure from a large number of people working together with our legislators that will make better state policies that stop hurting our schools and our children. The silence of our educational leaders does more than simply fail to engage people in the solution: it leaves the public with the impression that the entire budget problem is of the district’s making, and that the entire solution must therefore lie within the district’s control as well. It’s that kind of constricted thinking that leads us to assume the only thing we can do now is to close more schools and hurt more communities.

We need bigger thinking. Out of the box solutions. A full, authentic involvement of the entire Pittsburgh community. We cannot sit back and refuse to engage with state legislators who are making decisions that directly impact the district. So right now, a couple of volunteer moms who write education blogs are asking you to please send an email to your state senator and share your concerns with SB 1085. Check out Susan Spicka’s piece for the exact fixes we would like to see before the bill comes to the Senate floor. If we’re going to get educational justice for all of our children, we are going to have to demand it ourselves.

Can or Con

It must be all the spring rain – new corporate-style reform groups are popping up like weeds. The latest one just appeared in Pittsburgh on Tuesday with an Op Ed piece in the Post-Gazette promoting teacher evaluation. [Post-Gazette, 5-21-13] Called PennCAN, this group is an off-shoot of the Connecticut based ConnCAN, which has started a national effort known as 50CAN. So who are these “cans” and what are they saying?

ConnCAN was founded by investment manager Jonathan Sackler, who is also on the board of an oil and gas production company, a real estate investment company, and several pharmaceutical companies. He is also a trustee for Achievement First, which operates charter schools in four cities, as well as on the board of New Schools Venture Fund, which raises money to “invest” in “education entrepreneurs,” with a long history of funding charter schools and charter management organizations (CMOs).

Ten of the eleven members of ConnCAN’s board are hedge fund managers. In other words, these are not educators thinking about what is best for students: these are financiers who know about making money for their portfolios. Not surprisingly, ConnCAN promotes charter schools, vouchers (“money that follows the student”), teacher evaluation systems that eliminate union protections, and school turnaround (shorthand for firing teachers and principals, or even closing “under achieving” schools). ConnCAN makes bold claims about its work, though Rutgers School of Education scholar Dr. Bruce Baker recently shredded their assertion that their reforms are working in Connecticut. [School Finance 101, 3-7-13.]

Last fall, Mr. Sackler wrote a check for $50,000 to a superPAC (it’s largest donation) that is trying to eliminate the local, democratically elected school board in Bridgeport, Connecticut and replace it with a politically appointed board under the supervision of a corporate-reform mayor. Sackler’s ConnCAN has spawned a national effort, 50CAN, which is working to do the same thing in other states: for instance, in Minnesota, they supported the campaign of a pro-charter, Teach for America alumnus. (Unfortunately, Teach for America seems to be in the corporate-reform camp: a topic for a future blog post, but for starters, see educator and TFA alumnus Gary Rubinstein’s analysis of TFA’s biggest claims.) The chairman of 50CAN’s board is Mathew Kramer, the President of Teach for America, which also put money into that Minnesota race. [DianeRavitch 2-2-13] Other 50CAN board members include the presidents of two charter school chain operators and a representative from DFER (Democrats for Education Reform).

Jonathan Pelto, a former Connecticut state legislator, writes about ConnCAN and related groups explaining, “The charter school industry is spending record amounts to lobby government officials and buy local boards of education.” And he warns, “Backing up their lobbying effort is a broader strategy to change the rules and change the players as a way of ensuring they can build their charter schools and further privatize America’s public education system.” [Guest post on DianeRavitch 2-2-13; also see his alarming 12-2-12 analysis of the group’s teacher evaluation and explicitly anti-union work in Connecticut.]

So is this what we’re seeing here in Pittsburgh with the arrival of ConnCAN’s sister, PennCAN? The group actually started working last year and is just now moving into our part of the state (they’ve been advertising for a public affairs manager who lives in or has connections to Pittsburgh), but their agenda is clear. They want to expand charter schools and advocate for “systems that authorize schools,” which I take to mean a state-authorizer bill that would eliminate local control. (We already defeated this once last fall: see “Where are the Real Republicans?”) They also promote vouchers, which they call “scholarships to attend high-performing schools of [the student’s] choice, whether they be district, charter, private or parochial.” And, of course, PennCAN wants a “statewide evaluation system that incorporates student achievement” – in other words, using high-stakes-testing to evaluate our teachers. The only point of agreement it appears our grassroots movement has with this group is that we ought to preserve funding for early childhood education. [PennCAN 2012 Policy Agenda]

PennCAN’s opening salvo here in Pittsburgh focused on teacher evaluation, an issue that already has some traction given the district’s $40 million Gates Foundation grant for just that. And we’ve seen other local Gates-funded organizations promoting teacher evaluation, including A+Schools and Shepherding the Next Generation, giving the idea additional legs. [See “Big $” and “Astroturf”] Now guess who is funding the national 50CAN? You guessed it: the Gates Foundation. And the Waltons. And Google and Jonathan Sackler, to name a few.

Here in Pennsylvania, the operation is being funded by a Catholic group (the Catholic church in Philadelphia has been lobbying hard for vouchers and tax credits to help keep religious private schools afloat: See “2-4-6-8 Who Do We Appreciate?”). PennCAN donors also include the William Penn Foundation, now being sued by our sister-grassroots organization in Philadelphia for illegal lobbying efforts aimed at promoting more charter schools in that district. [See “When Foundations Go Bad”] And don’t forget Janine and Jeff Yass – that would be the Jeff Yass who made Pennsylvania’s top campaign donor list in the fall. He and two other of the top political donors in our entire state – Joel Greenberg and Arthur Dantchik – went to college together and then founded a Philadelphia hedge fund company. Then they founded the Students First superPAC to funnel millions of their dollars, plus those from out of state donors, into the races of pro-voucher candidates. [See “Charters are Cash Cows”]

So that’s who we’re dealing with. Nice bunch of corporate-style reformers bent on privatization. We’ll look at their claims more closely in a future piece, but for now, we’re calling this can a con.

Big $

The way some of them throw around the green stuff, you’d think corporate-style education reformers were made of money. Oh wait. Some of them are. As Big Money plays a bigger and bigger role in shaping public education, it can be hard to keep all the players straight – from wealthy individuals, to foundations, superPACs, astroturf groups and corporations. Here’s a handy reference guide.

1.  Individuals
Some of the wealthiest people on the planet are pouring their money into corporate-style education reform. Some are doing this through foundations (see below) and others are happy to invest their millions in politics to shape policy or directly into charter schools as money-making investments. Some have a profit motive and others seem more ideologically driven (to privatize public goods, oppose union rights, etc.) One thing all of these folks have in common? Not one is an educator or education researcher. And none of their ideas is based on evidence of what actually works for kids.

  • Start here in Pennsylvania with charter school operators like Van Gureghian, Governor Corbett’s largest campaign donor. He makes so much money that he and his wife bought beach front property in Florida worth $28.9million, while he’s been fighting for years to keep his salary a secret. [See “Soaking the Public”]
  • Recall that 4 of the top contributors to all political races last fall in our state had ties to charter school operators. Wealth advisors are on record recommending that people add charter schools to their investment portfolios, especially in places like Pennsylvania. [See “Charters are Cash Cows”] Cyber charter schools are particularly lucrative investments, as the public taxpayers are currently over-paying them by $1million every single day. [See “One Million Per Day”]
  • How about folks like Philip Anschutz? He’s the oil billionaire with ultra-right politics who owns Walden Media, which made the anti-public school films, “Waiting for Superman” and “Won’t Back Down.” He funds groups that teach creationism in our schools and oppose gay rights, environmental regulations, and union rights. [See “We Won’t Back Down Either”]
  • Then there’s New York Mayor Bloomberg, who likes the idea of privatizing schools so much that he put $1million into the Los Angeles school board races last month to try to maintain a corporate-reform minded majority there. Too bad his horse didn’t win. [See “School Boards Matter”]

2.  Foundations
The “big three” foundation are Gates, Broad, and Walton. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls them the “billionaire boys club,” though each has a slightly different emphasis. And there are others.

  • The Gates Foundation is currently funding teacher evaluation systems throughout the country. As I have argued before, not only does this focus on the wrong thing, by avoiding the issue of poverty (or even early childhood education where many agree we might most effectively concentrate our resources), it starts with the faulty assumption that we have a plague of bad teachers. Though the foundation itself has warned that teacher evaluation should not be based solely on high-stakes-testing, this is exactly what is happening all over the country (or in many places, student testing is being used for a large portion of teacher evaluation). The Gates Foundation is so large and distributes so much money that it can essentially set policy through its grant making. And combined with the Great Recession, school districts and other beneficiaries have not been able to say no to the money nor been willing to point out that the emperor is not wearing any clothes (i.e. that his “reforms” don’t work). Gates has also launched a clever campaign to shift public opinion, by strategically targeting grants to community organizations (for example, over a half-million to A+Schools this year) and astroturf groups (see below) in communities where they are working.
  • The Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with “road”) Foundation runs a non-accredited superintendents training program premised on the idea that business executives with no education experience will improve urban school districts. Both the current and former Pittsburgh superintendents are Broad Academy graduates (though Dr. Linda Lane is an educator). The Foundation promotes teacher effectiveness and competition (i.e. charter schools), and drafted President Obama’s current reform strategy. They also literally wrote the book on how to close schools, using Pittsburgh as an example. Eli Broad also continues to spend his personal millions on corporate-reform, putting a half-million into the LA school board races this spring alone. [Los Angeles Times, 4-24-13]
  • The Walton Family Foundation derives its money from Wal-Mart and gave $158 million in K-12 education grants last year to promote charter schools and voucher programs. Its current top grantees include Teach for America, which has come under increased scrutiny for its method of placing young college graduates with only a few weeks of training in urban schools with the neediest students, where they stay only two years. (Teach for America, by the way, is looking to set up shop in Pittsburgh and has been making inquiries about hiring a local executive director. Stay tuned.) Here in our state the Walton Family Foundation is also funding the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. And they fund Bellwether Education Partners, the group hired by Pittsburgh Public Schools (through subcontract with FSG) to craft its education plan. [Walton Family Foundation 2012 Grant Report]
  • Let’s not overlook the role that other foundations play in education reform. Remember a decade ago when the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, and Grable Foundation (the big three education philanthropies in Pittsburgh) yanked their funding from the school district, forcing them to introduce new reforms? [Post-Gazette, 7-10-02] The history books have yet to finish writing that episode – and there were no doubt both positive and negative long-term outcomes – but it illustrates the power that foundations can wield over a school district.
  • What about when a venerable old foundation starts behaving badly? Our big sister grassroots group in Philadelphia, Parents United, recently filed a legal complaint against the William Penn Foundation “based on the fact that they had solicited millions of dollars in donations for an exclusive contract” with a consulting group, with an agreed “set of ‘deliverables’ such as identifying 60 schools for closure, mass charter expansion, and unprecedented input into labor and contract negotiations – without the School District of Philadelphia being a party to the contract.” After a legal analysis by the Public Interest Law Center that concluded the foundation was essentially engaging in illegal lobbying and funneling private donations for the purpose, Parents United joined the Philadelphia Home & School Council, and the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP in bringing the complaint. [Parents United, 2-14-13]

3.  SuperPACS
The Citizens United ruling opened the door to massive spending by corporations in politics and ushered in the era of superPACS. Without spending limits, now we are seeing just how much influence money can buy in politics (where education policy is set).

  • Students First PA PAC (not to be confused with Michelle Rhee’s national organization, see below), started in 2010 by three Philadelphia investment brokers to funnel millions into the state races of pro-voucher candidates. Co-founder Joel Greenberg is on the board of the American Federation for Children, a national group run by Betsy DeVos with mega-wealthy (and ultra-right) backers including the Koch brothers, who have used the super PAC to channel their out of state dollars into Pennsylvania politics. [See “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money”] And Gov. Corbett tapped Joe Watkins, the chairman of Students First PA, to be the Chief Recovery Officer for the struggling Chester Uplands school district last year – a bit like putting the fox in charge of the hen house, since he now has the power to hand those public schools over to charter operators. [See “Taking the Public out of Public Education”]
  • Fighting Chance PA PAC shares a name with a campaign launched by the “Pennsylvania Catholic Coalition” last spring, an effort associated with the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which has been lobbying hard for voucher legislation to fund its struggling schools. The new PAC was entirely financed by three wealthy Philadelphia hedge-fund founders who started the Students First PA PAC, because apparently one super PAC on your resume is just not enough. And their largest contribution? To Rep. Jim Christiana, a Republican from Beaver County (site of the proposed Dutch Royal Shell cracker plant) who introduced last year’s voucher-in-disguise EITC tax credit bill. Rep. Christiana also received money from the Walmart PAC. [See “2-4-6-8 Who Do We Appreciate?”]

4.  Astroturf groups
Astroturf groups are fake grassroots organizations. They are funded by deep pockets, manipulated to look like local efforts to give the impression that they represent real community opinion. But they are as authentic as a field of plastic grass.

  • Operating at the national level are groups such as Michelle Rhee’s Students First. Rhee is best known as the former Chancellor of the D.C. school district where she publicly fired a principal on film as part of her massive school closure effort there. She became well known for supposedly increasing student test scores, but there are now serious questions of large-scale cheating (by adults). Students First promotes her privatization agenda of charters and vouchers as well as merit pay and teacher evaluation systems based on high-stakes-testing. The Walton Family Foundation just gave the organization $8 million. [Washington Post, 5-1-13] At the same time, Rhee has been caught inflating the number of members in her organization to make it appear that it has a much broader base of support by using deceptive petitions (for un-objectionable issues such as anti-bullying) on the progressive change.org site to capture the names of unsuspecting new “members.” [DianeRavitch, 8-3-12]
  • Parent Revolution practically wrote the book on how to create an astroturf organization. Founded in California by a charter school operator – with major backing from Gates, Broad, and Walton – the group got a “parent trigger law” passed and then hired agents to convince two towns to turn their schools over to the them. But many parents later said they had been purposefully misled and filed lawsuits to try to stop the conversion of their schools to charters. [See “Won’t Be Silent”]
  • Closer to home, we learned just last week that the Gates Foundation is backing a new astroturf group here in Pittsburgh. Called Shepherding the Next Generation, the Washington D.C. based organization has been trying to recruit churches – especially in our African American communities – to preach the Gates agenda of teacher evaluation. [See “Astroturf”] Having one of the wealthiest people on the planet funding outside organizations like this to come into a community and shift the public conversation seriously erodes democracy. This is not about promoting an authentic community dialogue, but about promoting a specific ideology of school reform.

5.  Corporations
Perhaps not surprising, corporations control some of the big money at stake in corporate-style education reform. Here are a few to keep your eye on.

  • Testing companies have significantly benefitted from the dramatic expansion of testing under No Child Left Behind. Nationally, we are spending $1.7 BILLION a year testing our kids. [Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, report Nov. 2012] And corporations like Pearson Education, Inc. and McGraw Hill spend millions lobbying state legislatures to keep their products in favor. [Republic Report, 5-4-12] The new national Common Core Standards are also creating a bonanza for companies that make textbooks and assessment materials.
  • Pennsylvania has a contract with Data Recognition Corporation. Taxpayers in the Keystone state are footing the bill for average spending of $32.2 million a year on testing students. [Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, report Nov. 2012] That’s a lot of money that is not getting spent on actually educating children.
  • Struggling school districts are increasingly turning to hybrid or “blended” learning models to deliver content at least partially on-line as a cost-savings measure. A major 2010 Department of Education review of the literature found that blended-learning does not offer better learning outcomes for students, but it will surely be good for corporate bottom lines. Pearson is promoting its Connections Learning as the solution to schools looking to close their achievement gap and reduce the cost of teachers.
  • Finally, don’t forget about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council where corporate members write business-friendly laws and have them introduced word-for-word into state legislatures. In education reform, ALEC promotes the unregulated expansion of charters and vouchers, keeping both unaccountable to the public while taking away control from local democratically elected school board officials. In Pennsylvania, ALEC issued a guide helpfully pointing out how legislators could get around our troublesome constitution, which prevents public money from being spent on religious schools. The Gates Foundation granted $375,000 to ALEC from 2010-2013, before cutting all ties with the organization last spring after becoming the target of an online petition that gathered over 23,000 signatures in just a few hours. [SeeThere’s Nothing Smart About ALEC”]

Now that’s a lot of money coming from a lot of sources. It’s helpful to think about the “big tent” metaphor here: there are many Big Money players in this tent, with multiple motivations. Clearly some are driven by profit motive and stand to make a lot of money. Some share ultra-right interests in de-unionization and de-regulation and are happy to push those interests in the field of education. Many others are driven by an ideological agenda of corporate-style education reform. One thing is for sure: all that Big Money under one big tent is having an enormous impact on our public schools.

Astroturf

They’re heeeeeere! Yes, we’ve been watching the astroturf groups set up shop in Pennsylvania, and now they are here in Pittsburgh. Astroturf groups are fake grassroots organizations. They are funded by deep pockets, manipulated to look like local efforts to give the impression that they represent real community opinion. But they are as authentic as a field of plastic grass. (For a great example, see this explanation of Parent Revolution, an astroturf group in California funded by venture capitalists interested in charterizing public schools through parent trigger laws.)

The first astroturf group popped up here like a weed last month just as the weather started to warm. Called “Shepherding the Next Generation,” this Washington D.C. based group received money from the Gates Foundation to start working in Pittsburgh. They’re not hiding that fact – it’s right there in small print at the bottom of the flyer they are passing out to local churches in an effort to recruit them (though it’s not on their web site). They call themselves an “alliance of Pittsburgh religious leaders who strongly support community efforts to make sure our children have the best chance at succeeding in school and later in life.” So far, sounds good, right?

Well, first of all, there is no alliance. The group just hired an organizer who has been approaching churches – especially those in our African American communities – to try to encourage them to join. Want a real alliance of religious leaders who have been actively working on public education for the past three years? Try PIIN, the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, with over 50 area congregational members (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, and everything in between).

What Shepherding the Next Generation is really up to is promoting the Gates agenda of teacher evaluation: “We work to educate our clergy members about the critical elements for improving our schools, focusing on teaching effectiveness and helping kids to succeed. The clergy then, in turn, help educate their congregations and the public. … while also encouraging  Pittsburgh Schools to adopt the most effective ways to hire, retain and train good teachers.” [SNG flyer]

shepherding the next generation p1 shepherding the next generation p2

As we know, the Gates Foundation has been pouring its money into teacher evaluation programs around the country, including $40 million to the Pittsburgh Public School district for teacher evaluation. [See “The VAM Sham”] The problem with this is twofold. First, it focuses on the wrong thing. Gates and the corporate-style reformers who promote teacher evaluation will always say that teachers are the most important “in school” factor affecting learning — but really, this comes out to about 15-20% at most of measurable factors. By far the biggest influence on student learning is out-of-school factors.

And this is where poverty is the real story. So while Gates and others are pumping money into teacher evaluation and trying get “better” teachers, they refuse to acknowledge (or at least downplay) the very real role of poverty and its impact on our kids and learning. A favorite line of the corporate-reformers is that “poverty is no excuse” for student performance. But this is a huge equity issue. What if those organizations put all that money into real poverty programs? It pains me to think about our clergy here in Pittsburgh being urged to talk about fixing education by making teachers better, while ignoring poverty — the issue that should be near and dear to the hearts of all our faith leaders.

Second, even among in-school factors, we have to ask why the corporate-reformers are so focused on teachers. This starts with the assumption that we have a plague of bad teaching. And this is just not what I am seeing. Of course we want good teachers in front of every child. And of course we need to make sure that poor teachers are shown the door. (Though remember the definition of “bad” is a moving target – a “bad” teacher this year might have been great last year, and may be good next year – and much of what we really value in teaching, such as inspiring kids, cannot be measured on a high-stakes-test.) What I am seeing are teachers struggling with massive budget cuts, years of inequitable resource distribution, a drastic narrowing of the curriculum due to high-stakes-testing, and teachers battling a tidal wave of de-professionalization and vilification.

What if Shepherding the Next Generation put its time and resources into fighting for adequate, equitable, and sustainable state funding for our schools? Or lobbied Harrisburg for charter reform that would save our districts millions of desperately needed dollars? What if it helped us have a conversation about the impact of mass school closure on communities of color? What if it worked to help us build local schools into community centers, filled with vibrant resources for the entire neighborhood? Or helped us find creative business partners to fill unused school space?

Even those who are still fans of Gates and his agenda ought to be wary of this astroturf phenomenon. Having one of the wealthiest people on the planet funding outside organizations like this to come into a community and shift the public conversation seriously erodes democracy.

Now how about this group: the “Center for Public Justice” is another Washington D.C. based organization that just waltzed into town. In a Facebook invite that went up last week, the Center says it “has embarked on a new pilot program in the city of Pittsburgh called Christians Investing in Public Education.” What that investment will be is not clear. What is clear, however, is the Center’s evangelical religious mission. The group calls homosexuality “abnormal and immoral” and an “unhealthy form of human relationship.” [CPJ website] They oppose gay marriage and don’t believe in reproductive rights.

They do believe in our public taxpayer dollars being used to fund private religious schools, despite the fact that it’s against our state constitution. (See discussion of the Blaine Amendment, under “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC”.) The Center believes that “public funding should be offered without regard to the religious, philosophical, or pedagogical differences among the variety of certified schools parents choose.” To this end, the group explicitly promotes vouchers and religious charter schools.

The Center also wants to de-regulate what is taught in school. They argue, “Schools receiving public support, whether via vouchers or directly, should be free to hire staff and to design curricula that reflect their distinctive educational, philosophical, and religious missions.” What this really means, of course, is that teachers ought to be able to teach creationism in science class. Never mind that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that this violates the establishment clause of the U.S. constitution (the separation of church and state). There is even a 2005 federal decision that came out of a Pennsylvania court case ruling that “intelligent design” and creationism are the same thing and may not be taught in public schools.

This is a hot topic right now, as a Post-Gazette report this past weekend revealed. Almost 20% of science teachers believe in creationism. And a Penn State survey found that despite the law, between 17-21% of teachers bring the concept into their classrooms. [Post-Gazette, 4-28-13] Have you seen the 4th grade “science” quiz making the rounds on Facebook this past month? It shows the astonishing way in which “young earth” creationists (who take the Bible literally and believe the Earth is only 10,000 years old despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary) are teaching school children that people and dinosaurs lived together on the planet.

Unfortunately, this Center for Public Justice group planned to host three sessions this week – using Pittsburgh Public School space – to meet with parents, teachers, and school administrators. The Education Law Center verified that the school district has a facility use policy allowing all groups to request space. This is obviously a good thing as far as free speech is concerned. But it also means that our own public schools might be forced to host bigoted groups like this one bent on privatizing them right out of existence. So we have to stay vigilant about organizations that pop into town and ask lots of questions.

Fortunately, after we started doing just that last week, the Center announced that it is “postponing” its sessions. Who knows if their decision is related or if they will be back? But we better be on the lookout, because these groups with clear privatization agendas and astroturf organizations have found the road to Pittsburgh. They might be surprised to learn that Yinzer Nation is no fan of the fake stuff – even Heinz Field has real green grass for our beloved Steelers. And PNC Park sports the real stuff for our Pirates, too. Astroturf us? Git’aht!

Charter Reform Now

Charter schools are all over the news today. The Post-Gazette has not one but two articles, there is new legislation pending in the state House this week, and a new grassroots movement launched today aimed at reforming the broken state funding formula. Sounds like time to catch up on what is going on with our charter schools.

First, the Post-Gazette’s cover story looks at the competition to get into both charter schools and the city’s magnet schools. Places like the Environmental Charter School have so many applicants their admission rate is lower than Yale’s. [Post-Gazette, 3-11-13] But a number of Pittsburgh Public Schools also have large numbers of applications for relatively few spots, including Dilworth, Linden, and Phillips. This story did not factor in two of the city’s most coveted schools – Pittsburgh CAPA and Pittsburgh Sci-Tech – which would surely have illustrated just how competitive some of our traditional public schools have become.

While I was glad the paper included Pittsburgh’s public schools in this article, I was disappointed to see it trot out the use of waiting list statistics. This is a marketing tool frequently used by charter school advocates, who claim that there are 44,000 Pennsylvania students on waiting lists. [Post-Gazette, 3-11-13] The problem is that traditional public schools don’t keep waiting lists. They are open to everyone. All the time. For instance, those who do not get coveted spots in Pittsburgh’s magnet schools must be accepted into their feeder pattern school. And the public system is not keeping “waiting lists” for any of their schools. If you don’t get a magnet spot this year, you have to reapply next year with everyone else.

In other words, “waiting lists” are inaccurate comparisons of public demand for particular schools. They have also been prone to exaggeration, as occurred in Florida recently. During a legislative hearing, a charter school lobbyist claimed that there are 80,000 kids on the waiting list in that state, but then back-pedaled fast after being confronted with problems of students being double counted, among other issues with the numbers. [The Answer Sheet, 2-10-13]

Regardless, I appreciate the things that some charters, such as the Environmental Charter School, are able to offer their students. Beautifully designed classrooms. Individualized iPad lessons. Time to hike in local parks. A hands-on curriculum. New playgrounds. An outstanding lunch program. Environmental literacy classes. Low student-teacher ratios. Authentic parent engagement. [Post-Gazette, 3-11-13] These are the things we should have in every public school. Our poorest students, and particularly our students of color, deserve all this and so much more.

Charter schools were conceived back in the 1990s to develop new ideas and share them with traditional public schools. And I am glad to see Pittsburgh superintendent Dr. Linda Lane meeting with the city’s charter schools to warm those relationships. [Post-Gazette, 2-26-13] But in this era of massive state budget cuts, any good ideas that get shared are made nearly impossible to implement as our schools are forced to increase class sizes, furlough teachers, cut the arts, and even eliminate tutoring. So we have to ask, is the problem really that our traditional, urban public schools don’t have good ideas?

One thing we must do is reform the state funding formula so that school districts are properly reimbursing charter schools for what it actually costs them to operate. For instance, the state’s Auditor General estimates that cyber-charters are costing us taxpayers $365 million per year – that’s $1 million per day – in over-payments. [See “One Million Per Day”] State Rep. James Roebuck has just introduced legislation that will go a long way towards fixing a number of problems. [See Post-Gazette, 3-11-13 and PA House Memorandum, 2-25-13] Locally, Rep. Dan Frankel has already signed on to co-sponsor the bill. And Republicans, who seem equally focused on addressing the cyber-charter funding problems, in particular, have introduced other bills.

The time has come for much needed reform and it appears that political will has shifted in that direction. Pittsburgh alone has budgeted close to $53 million for charter schools this year, and that’s up $5.5 million from last year. With the state’s massive defunding of public schools, Gov. Corbett slashed reimbursements to districts for charter school tuition payments – that is costing Pittsburgh $14.8 million this year. [Post-Gazette, 11-13-12] A new grassroots effort, spearheaded by our colleague Susan Spicka in the middle part of the state, has launched today to tell our legislators that they need to act now. Please take a moment to check out the “Reform PA Charter Schools” site and sign the petition.

Let’s fix this funding formula and other regulatory issues (such as accountability and oversight) so that we can move on to talking about beautifully designed classrooms, individualized iPad lessons, new playgrounds, and small classes for all our children.

School Boards Matter

Pittsburgh’s school board is about to get a major shake up. Five of its nine spots are open this year, and there are multiple candidates running in some districts. Because of the nature of city politics, many of these seats are likely to be decided in the May primary, so we just have a couple months to get to know those who are running.

Making this election cycle more confusing, the city has just re-drawn school board lines, moving entire neighborhoods into new districts. [See Post-Gazette, 11-12-12 for list of changes.] And the new map does not align with other political boundaries such as those for city council, state representatives, or even school catchment areas. But these are extremely important races and it’s worth taking a minute to make sure you know which district you are in.

New board members will be making crucial decisions about school closings. (And we know for sure Pittsburgh will see more devastating loss of neighborhood schools in the next couple years.) Board members also sign-off on accepting grant money from foundations and approve contracts with consulting firms. [Remember “PPS: Planning a Privatization Scheme?”] And they approve new charter schools, which are frequently opened to replace the public schools that just closed.

In fact, charter schools and the use of high-stakes-testing for teacher evaluation are two of the hottest school board issues across the country right now. In Los Angeles, mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tried to take over the school board in 2006 as several other large cities have done (called “mayoral control,” this has been a key strategy to remove power from democratically elected school boards, allowing for swift imposition of the corporate-reform agenda, especially school closure). When his attempt failed, Mayor Villaraigosa switched to backing school board members who support corporate-style reforms. He solicited donations from New York’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave a whopping $1 million, and from Michelle Rhee, whose StudentsFirst group gave another $250,000. [New York Times, 3-4-12]

We need to seriously question why these wealthy individuals and astro-turf groups are dumping millions into the Los Angeles school board races. The good news this morning is that it appears all those dollars did not work: with returns now in, it looks like school board member Steve Zimmer, a moderate who dared to question privatization, has retained his seat against an opponent who was backed by the mayor, Bloomberg, and Rhee, as well as the Los Angeles Times editorial board and billionaires Eli Broad (of the Broad Foundation that trains school superintendents) and media mogul Rupert Murdoch. [DianeRavitch, LA Upset] That’s a major victory for public education advocates in California – and a lesson for us in Pennsylvania.

School board elections matter. They matter a lot. And one of the benefits of being in Pittsburgh, say, and not Los Angeles, is that – at least so far – we don’t have ultra-wealthy outsiders tromping in with their dollars and agendas, trying to trounce on our democratic process. So please do your part and get to know your local candidates. Here’s the perfect chance to ask questions and learn where your future school board members stand on privatization, school closures, charter reform, high-stakes-testing, and sticking up for adequate state funding: on Monday, March 11, 2013, PIIN will host a town hall meeting from 6:30-9PM with all the school board candidates at University Prep 6-12 at Milliones, in the Hill District (3117 Centre Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15219).

In advance of this town hall, Yinzercation has been working with a coalition of education partners to develop a vision statement for Pittsburgh public schools, including a pledge for school board members. Members of the coalition include PIIN, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Action United, OnePittsburgh, and A+Schools. We want school board members who are more than just fiscal watchdogs in these challenging financial times. With the district scheduled to run out of money in 2015, it will be too easy to let budgets drive decision-making.

In other words, we need school board members with vision, who are:

  1. Careful policy makers and objective evaluators of data and research-based reforms
  2. Wise stewards of public school resources
  3. Promoters of public education as a public good
  4. Fearless advocates for restoring adequate State funding for our schools
  5. Advocates for enhanced revenues and fair executors of the school board taxing authority to ensure that everyone pays their fair share.
  6. Committed to achieving equity by supporting teachers, parents, students and community members in developing school specific plans to implement the District’s Equity Plan.
  7. Real partners with all stakeholders to set the highest professional standards and nurture collaboration across our school system
  8. Leaders who engage parents, educators, administrators, and community members in authentic, ongoing dialogue that improves our school and enriches our democracy
  9. Committed to implementing community driven solutions that come from real engagement and collaboration between parents, students, educators, administrators and community not outside consulting firms.

This is some of the language we have been working on. What do you think? Please come to the town hall on Monday and get this crucial conversation going. Keep the grassroots in our elections so there’s no room for the billionaire corporate-reformers to play with Pittsburgh’s school board.