The Real Bloodbath

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for our public schools, and they’re not even in session. In the heat of the summer Pittsburgh schools – and our teachers – have come under attack.

First, in an appalling public statement on the residency requirement for city police officers, the Fraternal Order of Police president, Sgt. Mike LaPorte, called our schools “bloodbaths” and suggested that Pittsburgh officers want to flee to the suburbs for their children’s education. [Post-Gazette, 7-8-13] It seems to me that Sgt. LaPorte has not actually spent much time around our city schools lately. His comment insults Pittsburgh families, the overwhelming majority of whom (80%) send their children to our public schools.

Do our schools still have problems? Absolutely. But bloodbaths? Absolutely not. Sgt. LaPorte should be encouraging his officers to be a part of the solution building Pittsburgh’s future, rather than taking pot-shots at our public schools in an attempt to justify his policy position on residency requirements. It’s not only factually wrong, but it strikes me as unethical, and entirely unproductive, for one of our community leaders and public servants to bash public education. Strong schools make strong communities – and isn’t that what our police force is working for, too?

In a response to LaPorte’s comment, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers president Nina Esposito-Visgitis wrote an op-ed piece explaining the many ways in which our public schools are anything but a bloodbath. For example: “More than 70 percent of Pittsburgh’s teachers hold advanced graduate degrees.” That’s far more than the national average of 52 percent for public school teachers and 38 percent for private- and charter-school teachers. [Post-Gazette, 7-24-13] Did you know that two Pittsburgh public high schools (Allderdice and CAPA) were rated in the top 20 Pennsylvania high schools this year and ranked among the best in the country by U.S. News and World Report?

In the wake of the FOP bashing, Jake Haulk, president of the right-leaning Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, wrote an opinion piece claiming that the Pittsburgh Promise program is a failure. [Tribune-Review, 7-20-13] Citing declining enrollment in city schools as his proof, he neglected to note that this has largely been due to the decline in the student-age population in Pittsburgh (not a lack of faith in its schools). Pittsburgh schools have actually seen a leveling off of population decline, and in fact, as Pittsburgh Promise executive director Saleem Ghubril pointed out in a response piece, our Kindergarten enrollment has been up the last two years. [Tribune-Review, 7-24-13]

More troubling, though perhaps not surprising, was Dr. Haulk’s suggestion that we “redirect some of the vast sums of taxpayer dollars and Promise money to real education reform.” By which he means, “create scholarships for elementary and secondary students to allow them to opt out of Pittsburgh schools and enroll in private or parochial schools.” This is, of course, the voucher system that Gov. Corbett has tried to impose since coming into office, and which remains wildly unpopular with voters (not to mention unconstitutional since we have that tricky little clause in the Pennsylvania constitution forbidding taxpayer money from being used for religious schools).

The bottom line that Dr. Haulk seems to want to ignore is that voucher and tax credit schemes don’t actually work for students. Most of the money goes to families who are already enrolled in private schools – in other words, it does not “rescue” kids from “bad” schools. There is no evidence that these programs improve student performance. (And our existing tax credit programs were created with no accountability so we have no way of knowing how students might be doing in them.) What vouchers and tax credits do succeed in doing is draining desperately needed revenues from the state right at the time our public schools are missing $2.4 billion in budget cuts.

Private schools do not, cannot, and will not serve all our kids. Mr. Ghubril stated it beautifully: while acknowledging that our “safety net [of public education] has many holes in it,” he said that, “until [Haulk] offers a better safety net that is required to educate all children, I will spend the rest of my days, with a needle and thread, sewing as many of the holes as possible.” And then he invited “all good-hearted people to pick up their needles and sew.” Amen to that.

Now if only we could get Jack Kelly, columnist over at the Post-Gazette, to listen. This past weekend he wrote a column about home schooling that served as a thinly veiled excuse to attack teachers and their unions. His piece was full of misused statistics, apples-and-oranges comparisons, and unsupported claims to draw conclusions that will actually hurt kids. He ends by saying, “Public schools fail mostly because they’re run for the benefit of administrators and teachers … As long as we have teachers unions, public schools will stink. But if we relax rules and de-emphasize credentials, they wouldn’t stink as much.” [Post-Gazette, 7-21-13]

Really? Less credentialed, meaning less qualified, teachers are going to help our students? How is that supposed to happen? Mr. Kelly apparently thinks that our teachers have too many master’s degrees. Or maybe too many Ph.D.’s? Or is too much experience the problem?

And he says our public schools stink. Wow. Maybe he needs to go on a tour with Dr. Haulk and Sgt. LaPorte. I’m sure we could arrange one. Frankly, I’m getting sick of the tired old line that teachers only care about themselves and their contracts. As the Facebook meme going around this summer says: “I went into teaching for the money, said no teacher ever.” Improving public schools does not happen by vilifying our public school teachers.

Now, if the nastiness from Kelly, Haulk, and LaPorte weren’t enough, this week we learned that Pittsburgh has just approved 36 new furloughs – on top of the 280 last year – and returned 32 educators to furlough status (these were staff who had been laid off and then brought back for temporary positions). [Post-Gazette, 7-25-13] That means our kids will be missing 68 educators next month when they return to their schools. All of those furloughed are teachers and professionals such as early intervention specialists working in schools (not central administration). The majority are paraprofessionals who work right in the classroom with students, so this will have a direct and immediate negative impact on children.

And some of the kids who will be hurt the most are the very ones we should be investing the most in: because the district is losing over $2 million due to federal sequestration cuts, it is closing six early childhood classrooms. Yes six entire pre-K classrooms.

Budget cuts. Furloughs. Closed classrooms. Name calling. Attacks on teachers. Maybe Sgt. LaPorte was right – there is a bloodbath in public education. Just not the kind he’s thinking about. And it’s going to be full of the blood of our children unless we collectively stand up and fight back.

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Wednesday, July 31st
Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, Action Planning Meeting
6:30-8PM
PFT Building, 10 19th St., Southside

Education Victories

We had several significant election wins for public education in Southwest PA last night. And it’s a good thing, because we just got more dire school budget news, meaning these folks are going to have their work cut out for them. But first the good news.

Congratulations to Erin Molchany, a Democrat in State House District 22, which is largely in Pittsburgh’s South Hills. She said the key issues in her race were “reliable public transit… And of course public education.” Molchany is connected to our Yinzercation networks and I had the pleasure of sitting on a Town Hall panel with her last month at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Last night she noted, “There’s a very evident commitment to public education in the district and beyond.” [Post-Gazette, 11-7-12] We look forward to working with Rep. Molchany and having another strong voice for public education in the legislature.

Also in the South Hills, Democrat Matt Smith is moving from the House to the District 37 Senate seat. Smith has been very vocal about public education, calling Governor Corbett’s budget cuts “draconian,” and when he was in the House, “he introduced legislation that would increase funding for full-day kindergarten.” [Post-Gazette, 11-7-12] Smith has also met with Yinzercation parents multiple times and issued a detailed public statement last spring about the impact of state budget cuts on our schools. Both Smith and Molchany were endorsed by Education Voters PA. (For details on other EdVoter endorsed candidates across the state, see the rundown put together by the Keystone State Education Coalition.)

Back in the State House, we are glad to see public education stalwart Dan Frankel, who ran unopposed in this election for his District 23 seat. As minority caucus leader, Frankel is a crucial leader in our state, and has met numerous times this past year with our grassroots movement. Frankel also lent a hand to first-time candidate Susan Spicka, a public education grassroots organizer from the middle part of the state, who put up a spectacular fight in the 89th House District. [The Sentinel, 11-7-12] Spicka had an incredible turn out, and we hope she runs again. She will have lots of support from her public education allies in Southwest PA.

Our schools are going to need all the supporters they can get in Harrisburg this year as the pension crisis looms, threatening district budgets everywhere. For a quick tutorial on this critical topic, please be sure you have read our “Pension History 101.” The Pittsburgh Public School District announced Monday night that it would be broke by 2015. While it has slashed its spending and laid off a historic number of teachers, the district is already in deficit – plunged there in no small part because of state budget cuts – and has been spending down its reserve account. Those reserves will be gone by 2015, at which point the deficit is forecast to grow to $42.78 million. And these projections assume no further budget cuts from the state. [Post-Gazette, 11-6-12]

The pension crisis is a massive threat to public education in our state and will require a serious bi-partisan effort to address. Our job in the grassroots will be to insist that our legislators get started, and that they take every step with the assumption that public schools are a public good worth saving. Dr. Linda Lane, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent, noted that every district in the state is affected by growing pension contributions, but said, “I don’t see a miracle out there to solve it other than money from school districts.” [Post-Gazette, 11-6-12] If local school districts are forced to substantially increase property taxes to compensate for the pension spike, it will only further solidify inequities in our public schools. This is one issue that we must insist that our state legislators have the courage to address.

The good news is that the overwhelming majority of public school families believe strongly in their schools. In a report released this week, the Pittsburgh Public School District found that two-thirds of parents surveyed would recommend their child’s school to a friend. The most enthusiastic support came from parents with children in early childhood centers, where 85% would recommend the school, and in K-5 schools, where 74% would recommend the school. Sixty-seven percent of respondents felt that teaching quality is improving in the district. [Post-Gazette, 11-6-12] These results reflect national trends, as Americans are giving their local public schools the highest ratings in twenty years. Nationally, when asked about the school their oldest child attends, over three quarters of those polled – 77% – gave their school an A or B (and only 6% gave it a D or F). [Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, 8-20-12] (For more on this survey and its results, see “What the Polls Say.”)

In other words, Americans may feel there is a general public education crisis, but when you ask them about the actual schools in their own backyards, they are quite positive about them. Our grassroots movement needs to tap into this overwhelming majority that supports their local public schools. This is truly the “silent majority” that we must give voice to – our work is to amplify those voices so that they can be heard all the way in Harrisburg by our newly elected legislators.

Cuts Have Consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poverty and Public Education

If we’re serious about public education, we need to get serious about poverty in this country. Too often those who wish to discuss the impact of poverty on children’s educational outcomes are accused of using it as an excuse for poor teaching. The new “reform” movement insists that the only thing poor kids need is a “great” teacher – increasingly defined by student test scores – and that any poor student performance must be the result of bad teachers.

Obviously, we should not tolerate incompetent teachers (though this is another reason good principals are so important, as it is their job to recognize sub-par teaching and offer the right kind of help – and to show truly bad teachers the door). And it goes without saying that all children have the potential to learn and do well in school. Naturally, we want all students to have a “great” teacher. However, we need a much better, and respectful, conversation about teacher evaluations that are based on far more than test scores alone. (Just think about the greatest teachers you ever had. Really. Imagine them for just a moment. You most certainly are not remembering the grades you got, but are thinking about teachers who inspired you, challenged you, nurtured your passions, and planted seeds that took years to mature.) High stakes testing has created a perverse system of teacher evaluation that often has little to do with recognizing great teaching.

The larger point is that good teaching matters an awful lot inside the school doors, but what happens to children outside them matters a whole lot more. The education historian Diane Ravitch points out, “Reformers like to say that poverty does not affect students’ academic performance, but that is their wish, not reality.” What’s more, she argues, “the corporate reform movement blames teachers for low test scores, ignoring the underlying social conditions that stack the deck against children who grow up in poverty. There is no question that schools in poor neighborhood must be improved, but school reform will not be enough to end unemployment and poverty.” [The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 256-57]

And the fact is that the poverty rate in the United States is projected to hit levels not seen since the 1960s – before many of today’s parents of school-aged children were even born. Census figures for 2011 will be released later this fall, but economists surveyed this summer broadly agreed that the poverty rate could climb as high as 15.7 percent. The Boston Globe explains, “even a 0.1 percentage point increase would put poverty at the highest level since 1965,” and that “[p]overty is spreading at record levels across many groups, from underemployed workers and suburban families to the poorest poor.” [Boston Globe, 7-23-12]

But the number that is our national disgrace – the number that ought to be on all of our lips, the cause for outrage, and at the top of our country’s priority list – is 26. That is the percentage of children aged birth to five living in poverty. [Tracking Poverty and Policy] That’s right, 26%. Over a quarter of American children start life struggling with the ill effects of poverty, including poor nutrition; inadequate pre-natal care; high exposure to health risks such as premature birth, lead poisoning, and asthma inducing smog; and the instability of frequent moves, substandard housing, and food insecurities, to name just a few.

A whopping 23.1% of U.S. children under the age of 18 live in poverty, putting us second in the world. Among developed nations, only Romania has a higher relative child poverty rate (with 25.5% of its children living in poverty). UNICEF reported this past spring that the U.S. ranks above Latvia, Bulgaria, Spain, Greece, and 29 other countries on this absolutely shameful scale. That ought to make us pay all the more attention to the study’s finding that government spending does lift children from poverty. [Huffington Post, 5-30-12]

We also know, as Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California points out, “Middle-class American students who attend well-funded schools rank at the top of the world on international tests.” He argues that, “The problem is poverty … Study after study shows that poverty has a devastating effect on school performance.” [Post-Gazette, 8-12-12] No surprise then that when the Keystone State Education Coalition analyzed Pennsylvania’s list of what it designated “failing schools” last year, it found the poverty rate at those schools was 80.8% (measured by the percentage of students receiving free or reduced price lunch) versus the statewide average of 39.1%. [KSEC, Feb-2011

It’s true that Pennsylvania’s children actually fare slightly better than the nation as a whole, with a statewide child poverty rate around 20 percent, putting us 14th out of the 50 states. But a report out this summer from the Annie E. Casey Foundation also found “nearly a third of children were in families in which no parent had full-time, year-round employment.” [KidsCount report, 7-25-12] Poverty is real, and it affects an astonishing number of Pennsylvania’s children starting in the years before they even reach school.

These numbers underscore just how stunningly short sighted it was when Governor Corbett attempted to slash $100million from early childhood education and Kindergarten earlier this year. If anything, we need to be investing more in pre-natal care and quality early childhood education programs. And we need more wrap-around services like before- and after-school care, tutoring programs, social workers and community healthcare. Those would be the kind of sound public policies based on proven strategies, backed up by real data, that we ought to expect from our legislators.

The Devil’s in the Details

During Monday’s state-wide call-your-legislator event, many people reported having conversations with the Governor’s office in which various staff members argued that the proposed budget actually increases funding for public education. It is disappointing to see this tired old claim repeatedly pulled out and dusted off for use. But since the devil is always in the details, let’s be clear about exactly how this devil of a budget slashes another $100 MILLION (while carrying forward last year’s nearly $1 BILLION in cuts).

Here is the list of programs that would be eliminated or reduced under the proposed budget, along with those receiving level funding or slight increases (compiled by the Education Policy and Leadership Center). Governor Corbett has proposed collapsing four current budget line items into a new block grant (the basic education subsidy, pupil transportation, nonpublic and charter school public transportation, and school employees’ social security) suggesting this will provide “flexibility.” (See why school district’s say this is fiction.) While this new block grant increases the basic education funding line item slightly (3/10 of 1 percent over last year), it is almost entirely for state-mandated employee pension payments (which translate to actual cuts to student education). Overall, this budget slashes another $100 million, as you can see in the following, devilish details.

These programs would receive a 5 percent reduction, as indicated by the dollar value:

  • Pre-K Counts ($4.139 million cut)
  • Head Start Supplemental Assistance ($1.864 million cut)
  • Adult and Family Literacy ($614 thousand cut)
  • Education of Migrant Laborers’ Children ($45 thousand cut)
  • Services to Non-Public Schools ($4.319 million cut)
  • Textbooks, Materials and Equipment for Nonpublic Schools ($1.314 million cut)
  • Safe School Initiative ($106 thousand cut)

These programs would receive a 10 percent reduction, as indicated by the dollar value:

  • Teacher Professional Development ($718 thousand cut)
  • Community Education Councils ($120 thousand cut)

These programs would be level funded (meaning the same as last year). Total funding is listed for each item.

  • Special Education would be flat-funded for the 4th consecutive year ($1.026 billion)
  • PA Charter Schools for the Deaf and Blind ($39.401 million)
  • Approved Private Schools ($98.098 million)
  • Authority Rentals and Sinking Fund Requirements ($296.198 million)
  • Payments in Lieu of Taxes ($194 thousand)

These education items would be eliminated entirely. Last year’s funding level indicated for each item.

  • Mobile Science Education Program ($650 thousand)
  • School Nutrition Incentive Program ($3.327 million)
  • Job Training Programs ($4.8 million)
  • Accountability Block Grant, most districts use for Kindergarten ($100 million)

These line items received increases, as indicated by the dollar value:

  • Career and Technical Education was increased by 1.5 percent ($1.089 million)
  • PA Assessment was increased by 42.6 percent ($15.601 million)
  • Early Intervention received a 4.1 percent increase ($8.057 million)
  • School Food Services was increased by 2.4 percent ($734 thousand)
  • School Employees’ Retirement was increased by 52.6 percent ($315.880 million)
  • Tuition for Orphans and Children Placed in Private Homes was increased by 3.5 percent ($1.955 million)

This Budget Spells Disaster (but will our kids be able to spell it?)

Yesterday Governor Corbett released his proposed budget for 2012-2013, handing more devastating news to Pennsylvania’s schools. Once again, public education is taking an enormous hit it simply cannot afford: if approved, this budget would cut another $95 MILLION on top of the nearly $1 BILLION schools lost last year. And once again, the Governor is suggesting that schools will actually get a modest increase in basic education funding, when in fact, their overall budgets will be reduced.

The fact is, this proposed budget spells disaster for our schools. And with these cuts to education, soon our kids won’t be able to spell D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R.

Here are some details. The Governor has proposed eliminating the Accountability Block Grant, a $100 million program schools largely use to fund full-day Kindergarten and other student programs. Instead, as the Pennsylvania School Boards Association explains, “The governor has floated a new concept in his budget proposal called Student Achievement Education Block Grant, which combines the Basic Education Funding, Pupil Transportation, Nonpublic and Charter School Pupil Transportation, and School Employees’ Social Security funding line items. With this, the administration says, school boards will have flexibility on how their allocation is spent.”

Collapsing line items and calling it “flexibility” while actually slashing overall school budgets is yet another example of “Dishonesty Disguised as Generosity” (a slippery rhetorical device we explored in relationship to similar claims about this year’s budget.)

In reality, as the Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign makes clear, “this year’s budget continues to shift the school funding burden to school districts and local taxpayers.” In addition to the elimination of the Accountability Block Grant, “there are no increases for basic subsidy and special education in a year when school districts are facing substantial, mandated increases in local pension contributions. This will inevitably mean districts must either cut programs further or raise local taxes more.”

Arriving at the same conclusion, The Education Policy and Leadership Center explains that the new combined block grant “would provide an increase of only 3/10 of 1% over last year’s figure … This modest increase apparently covers only increased social security obligations, and provides no real increase for the basic subsidy to districts.” What’s more, most other line items in the proposed budget were either level funded or received a 5 to 10 percent reduction. These include Pre-K Counts, Head Start, Adult and Family Literacy, and Teacher Professional Development. The budget eliminates several programs completely, including the School Nutrition Incentive Program and Job Training Programs.

The proposed budget now moves into the negotiation phase as legislators hold hearings and debate the final budget, which will not be passed until June at the earliest. That means these next several months are crucial: we must make our voices heard in Harrisburg. Come to the Rally for Public Education on Saturday, 11AM-12PM in Schenley Plaza. And see the Take Action! page for more ways to reach out to your legislators. Together we can fight for our schools and our children’s futures.