School Choice: Trick or Treat?

Boo! Halloween is a scary time of year, so I suppose it’s an appropriate week to talk about “school choice.” Tomorrow evening, A+ Schools is sponsoring a panel discussion with Dr. Howard Fuller, a well-known advocate of charter schools, vouchers, and tax-credit programs. Dr. Fuller will also be the keynote speaker at a full-day seminar sponsored by the Heinz Endowments at the University of Pittsburgh. I’m not sure if anyone will be handing out chocolate, but as we consider whether these programs actually work for students I hope folks will ask: is school choice a trick or a treat?

A former civil rights activist and superintendent of the Milwaukee Public School district, Dr. Fuller is now a professor of education at Marquette University. He serves on the Milwaukee Region Board of Teach for America, and the Milwaukee Charter School Advocates, and is an Advisory Board member of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools and the National Association for Charter School Authorizers. His Black Alliance for Education Options is funded by the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, Betsy DeVos of the American Federation for Children, and many others who like to talk about school choice as a way to “rescue” poor black and brown children from “failing public schools.” [See “Big $” for a rundown on many of these organizations.]

Let’s start with charter schools. As I have argued before, there are a handful of “good” charter schools, but most are not serving Pennsylvania students well at all. [See “12 Problems with Charter Schools”] The state considers a score of 70 or above on its new School Performance Profile (SPP) system to be in the acceptable academic range. (I have also argued that the SPP system is highly flawed, but let’s go with the state’s own data here.) Pennsylvania’s public schools average 77.1, but charter schools lag more than ten points behind, with an average of 66.4.

Here in Pittsburgh, only 4 of the 9 charter schools authorized by the district received an SPP score above 70 last year. And crucially, not one of those schools is serving the same population as the Pittsburgh Public School (PPS) district. For instance, 18.1% of PPS students have special needs, but none of the top ranked charter schools comes close to serving that proportion of kids with special needs. Two of the four also do not educate the same proportion of students living in poverty or African-American students. (This includes City Charter High School, whose founder, Richard Wertheimer, will be speaking on the A+ panel with Dr. Fuller.)

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 1.31.18 PM

The situation is much the same in Dr. Fuller’s Milwaukee: the charter schools there are not educating the same students as the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). One recent report found that “MPS educated three times as many students learning English and twice as many students with special needs, compared with independent charters. The charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of white students and lower percentage of students in poverty than MPS.” What’s more, the two Milwaukee charter schools with the lowest grade “were Milwaukee Math and Science Academy and Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, formerly called CEO Leadership Academy and connected to voucher school advocate Howard Fuller.” [Journal Sentinel, 9-23-13]

In addition to those charter schools listed in the chart above, Pittsburgh pays to send students to another 13 charter schools (authorized by other school districts and not accountable to the city’s school board) as well as 9 cyber charter schools. [Post-Gazette, 10-14-14] Not one of Pennsylvania’s 14 cyber charters schools scored over 70 on the SPP system; in fact, eight of those schools had scores below 50! And over half of all Pennsylvania brick and mortar charter schools (55%) also scored below 50. [Rep. Roebuck Charter Update, 4-14] These dismal numbers are backed up by recent research: a national study last year concluded that Pennsylvania’s charter schools are the third worst in the entire country. It found that charter students here cover 29 fewer days of reading material on average, and 50 fewer days of math than traditional public schools. [Stanford CREDO, National Charter School Study 2013]

This evidence strongly suggests that charter schools are far more “trick” than “treat” for our students. Yet Dr. Fuller argues that poor students, and especially students of color, need access to more charter schools. Presumably he means the “good” ones. But remember, even the “good” ones in Pittsburgh are not educating the same students as the public school system. Let me be clear: schools like the Environmental Charter School are gorgeous and all of our students deserve the small classes and other opportunities offered there. I want all of our children to have theater training with someone as amazing as my friend Hallie Donner at the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School.

Will Dr. Fuller talk about how to (finally) feed innovative ideas from charter schools back into traditional public schools so that all students can benefit? Will he talk about how to get rid of the under-performing charter schools that are costing our district a fortune and preventing us from spending desperately needed dollars on student programs? Will he suggest specifically which public schools we should close if we open more charter schools (because that is, in fact, what we will actually have to do)?

Maybe he would like to comment on the recent report released by 27 (!) Pennsylvania school superintendents from five different counties in the Lehigh Valley area calling for desperately needed charter reform. Explaining the need for a revised charter funding formula, one superintendent noted, “The charter school concept is a caterpillar that never became a butterfly … In this story, the caterpillar eats the green leaves of taxpayer dollars and deprives the larger community of children from receiving valuable supplies and interventions.” [Morning Call, 10-17-14]

Perhaps Dr. Fuller will comment on the situation in Hazelwood, where the district created an education desert when it closed all the local public schools. It shifted the neighborhood’s students to Pittsburgh Minadeo in Squirrel Hill and then sold the former Burgwin school to Propel, which opened it as a charter school this year. Now Propel Hazelwood has 123 students paid for by Pittsburgh – almost exactly the number of students (113) that Minadeo lost in enrollment this year, causing it to lose teachers and leading to increased class size. [Post-Gazette, 10-14-14] How does Dr. Fuller want to account for this constant churn and displacement, and the consequences (such as larger class size and fewer resources) for those “left behind” in the public school system?

I suspect Dr. Fuller will also talk about vouchers, which Milwaukee has had since 1990. In her book, Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City (2013), journalist Barbara Miner explains, “After more than 20 years, one of the clearest lessons from Milwaukee is that vouchers, above all, are a way to funnel public tax dollars out of public schools and into private schools. Vouchers, at their core, are an abandonment of public education.” Wisconsin state test scores show that poor children are not performing any better in voucher schools than in traditional schools (and actually had worse math scores in voucher schools).

The people of Pennsylvania have joined citizens in numerous other states rejecting voucher systems. In a nutshell, vouchers are unconstitutional, expensive, not supported by research, and funnel money away from public schools to private institutions that lack accountability, both fiscally and academically. [See “Vouchers, Coming Again Soon”] So would vouchers really be like candy for our children, or a nasty trick?

Finally, Dr. Fuller promotes tax credit programs, such as those initiated in recent years in Pennsylvania. These programs are actually tax cuts for corporations that cost us $150 million per year by funneling revenue that should have gone to the state for our budget needs into the hands of private and religious schools instead, with zero accountability to the public. [See “EITC No Credit to PA”; Keystone Research Center, “No Accountability,” 4-7-11]. Yet Dr. Fuller’s Black Alliance for Education Options (BAEO) actually boasts about its role in creating those programs here in our state.

Even more shocking, the BAEO claims it was “instrumental in passing the law that led to the state takeover of the School District of Philadelphia, which has led to an increase in quality educational options for poor families.”  That’s right — the BAEO is proud of the state takeover of Philly, which has mercilessly defunded that school system and created horrific conditions there. It’s even worse than that Halloween when you thought you would get a full sized Hershey’s bar from the house down the street and wound up getting a toothbrush, instead.

Tomorrow’s A+ event is being co-sponsored by PennCAN, which will be giving away copies of Dr. Fuller’s new book, No Struggle No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform, to the first 100 people in the door (costumes are apparently not required). PennCAN is an off-shoot of the Connecticut based ConnCAN, founded by hedge fund managers with a long history of funding charter schools and charter management organizations (CMOs). These are not educators, they are financiers who know about making money for their portfolios, and view schools as investment opportunities. [See “Can or Con?”] Here in Pennsylvania, PennCAN promotes charter expansion, a statewide authorizer of charter schools (that would remove control and accountability from democratically elected local school boards), vouchers, funding for early childhood (something we agree on), the elimination of teachers’ seniority, and teacher evaluation based on high-stakes student testing.

Are these the answers we are looking for to help all of our children? Why aren’t they talking about things like smaller class sizes, libraries for all students, the restoration of art and music, tutoring programs, and wrap-around services? Charter expansion, vouchers, and tax credit programs don’t get us great public schools for all our kids. So you decide: is school choice a trick, or a treat?

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Where’s the Money?

Governor Corbett seems to be having trouble finding the money to pay for our children’s education. So we’ve put together this helpful list of potential state revenue sources to help him out. Because there is money that could help us restore the devastating budget cuts to our schools (now totaling $2.3 billion), but it’s just not going to our kids.

Possible State Revenue Sources

  • Close tax loopholes: the Delaware loophole costs our state $500 million in missed tax revenue every year and more than 20 other states have already closed it. The “89-11” real estate transfer scheme cost Pittsburgh schools alone millions of dollars before it was tightened last year. What other loopholes can be closed right now? [See “Corporate Grinches”]
  • Impose a severance tax on Marcellus shale: most states with major mineral resources like ours have a severance tax, not just a mere impact fee. This could yield $334 million per year. [Post-Gazette, 12-27-13]
  • Get rid of the new bonus depreciation rule: the Corbett administration adopted this federal tax incentive in 2011 and it quickly cost far more than the $200 million it was anticipated to drain from the public and now could cost up to $700 million. [See “We Have a Priority Problem”; PBPC, “Revenue Tracker” report, 3-9-12]
  • Keep the capital stock and franchise tax: Gov. Corbett wants to eliminate these by next year as a gift to corporations. But if lawmakers freeze the tax at 2012 levels, the state could raise around $390 million. [PBPC, “Budget Analysis,” 5-29-13]
  • Eliminate sales tax exemptions for millionaires: helicopters and gold bullion top the list of hard-to-swallow exemptions. [PBPC, “Kids or Tax Breaks,” 3-19-13]
  • Tax cigars, chewing tobacco, and loose tobacco: unlike other states, Pennsylvania does not tax these products. Doing so could generate $56 million per year. [Post-Gazette, 12-27-13]
  • Cap discount to businesses that remit state sales tax: a Post-Gazette analysis suggests that “big stores like Wal-mart, Target and other would be most affected” and would save the state $44 million. [Post-Gazette, 12-27-13]
  • Rescind the new Voter ID bill: it solves no actual problem in the state, has been declared unconstitutional by a Pennsylvania judge, will be expensive to legally defend, and will cost taxpayers an estimated $11 million to implement. [PBPC report, 5-10-11]
  • Fix the cyber-charter funding formula: Taxpayers and school districts could be saving $365 million per year – that’s $1million per day – if cyber charter schools received funding based on what they actually spent per student. [PA Auditor General, “Charter School Funding Special Report,” 6-20-12]
  • Shut down the EITC programs: they cost us $150 million per year by funneling corporate tax money that should have gone to the state for our budget needs into the hands of private schools instead, with zero accountability to the public. [See “EITC No Credit to PA”; Keystone Research Center, “No Accountability,” 4-7-11]
  • Reduce high-stakes-testing: The new School Performance Profile system, largely based on student test scores, cost us taxpayers $2.7 million to develop over the past three years and it will cost an estimated $838,000 every year to maintain. [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] This does not include the five-year, $201.1 million contract Pennsylvania made with Data Recognition Corporation to administer high-stakes-tests to our students. [PennLive.com, 12-1-11]
  • Stop the charter-school “double dip”: due to an administrative loophole in the law, all charter schools are paid twice for the same pension costs – once by local school districts and again by the state: by 2016 this double dipping will cost taxpayers $510 million. [Reform PA Charter Schools]
  • Stop handing money to international giants. The new sweetheart deal with international giant Dutch Royal Shell will cost taxpayers $1.675 billion. That’s billion with a “b.” [Post-Gazette, 6-4-12]
  • Make choices to fund schools, not prisons. While the state has slashed funding for public schools in 2011 and 2012, it has not done so for prisons, and has actually increased the 2013 Department of Corrections budget by $75.2 million ($63 million of which is for correctional institutions). [PBPC, “Final Budget Analysis,” 7-9-13]

There you go. I think we just found hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to adequately, equitably, and sustainably pay for public education. You’re welcome.

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

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.

—————-

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

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!

Budget Forecast

On Wednesday, Governor Corbett gave us a sneak peak at his proposed education budget for this year, which he will formally announce in a few weeks. Speaking of the millions of Pennsylvanians worried about further cuts to their public schools, he said, “I think they’re going to be happy” with the budget. But then he immediately tempered that with: “I think you know not everybody’s going to be pleased with the budget address, but I think a number of people are and will be at least satisfied.” [Republican Herald, 1-10-13]

I don’t know about you, but I won’t count myself satisfied until we see the nearly $1BILLION he slashed from our schools in 2011 restored. As we well know, that massive reduction was carried forward in the 2012 budget, locking in the largest cuts to public education in Pennsylvania history. And our children are reeling from the effects: they have lost almost 20,000 of their teachers in the past two years; watched as art, music, and library have been eliminated; suffered from cuts to tutoring programs, special education, transportation, and even Kindergarten. All of these draconian cuts have hurt our poorest students the most – in part because Gov. Corbett reneged on our legislature’s pledge to fix the state’s terribly broken funding formula. By taking us back to the old system, Corbett has literally locked in historic inequalities that have been damaging public education in Pennsylvania for decades. [For more on this, please see the posts under “Claim 3” on “The Facts” tab.]

We are eager to hear what the governor will announce on February 5th, but it is already clear that he plans to continue blaming everyone else for the deep wounds he has inflicted on public education. On Wednesday he again claimed, “We are fixing the fiscal mess that I inherited. A 4 billion-dollar deficit, spending out of control, spending beyond our means and we had to do that.” [Republican Herald, 1-10-13] Funny how Governor Corbett wants to talk about billions of dollars and out of control spending, when he himself wants to give Royal Dutch Shell Oil Co. $1.675 BILLION of our taxpayer dollars. He proposed handing the international corporate giant $67 million a year for twenty-five years starting in 2017, ensuring that our children and grandchildren will be paying this boondoggle for years to come. [See “Can Shell Educate Our Kids?”]

State budgets are about priorities. And Governor Corbett and his allies in the legislature have made it abundantly clear where their priorities lie: for instance, this past year they refused to halt the ongoing phase-out of the capital stock and franchise tax, costing us taxpayers another $275 million over two years. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center explains that this “is part of a decade-long pattern that will see the commonwealth spending $2.4 billion on corporate tax breaks in the new budget. That amount has tripled over the last 10 years and does not count the hundreds of millions of dollars lost annually to corporate tax loopholes.” And it’s mostly giant corporations that benefit from these tax giveaways, without any obligation to actually create jobs. [PBPC 2012-2013 Budget Analysis]

And while Gov. Corbett was proposing to cut another $100 million from education last year, he managed to find that same amount – $100 million – for a “voucher in disguise” program: his EITC tax credit program is now giving away public money to private and religious schools. He also created a new $50 million program for students living in the attendance boundaries of “low-achieving schools,” as defined by the state using high-stake-test scores. [See “2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?”] And by refusing to fix the broken charter school funding formula, the Governor and our legislators force our public schools to overpay charter school operators an estimated one million dollars every day. [See “One Million Per Day”] So when Governor Corbett told a reporter, “I think we’re starting to turn the corner … we seem to have started to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” I have to wonder: what corner? what light?

The light that we saw shining Wednesday on the Governor as he made these comments actually came from retired teachers protesting his budget cuts. He was visiting the Pine Grove Area school district for a presentation on the role Pennsylvania played during the Civil War: ironically, this was the very district where Corbett himself taught high school for one year, leading him to claim credentials as an educator (remember the “lifetime achievement award” for education he got back in May?). That district out in Schuylkill County, has lost $1.1 million in education cuts these past two years. The retired teachers there held signs saying, “Put education first, restore funding now,” and “We are one for public education.” Jane Fennelly, who taught math and physics at the high school, summed it up, saying, “Public education is needed for a strong democracy.” [Republican Herald, 1-10-13]

I applaud these retired teachers for taking a public stand for public education. The budget forecast might be chilly, but Governor Corbett is right about one thing: there is light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s coming from the grassroots as parents, teachers, students, and community members demand adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for our public schools.

It’s Raining – Money

It’s still raining in Pennsylvania – campaign money, that it. As the elections have heated up, candidates pushing school privatization efforts such as vouchers have received a windfall from some well-organized and extremely wealthy out-of-state pockets. While we’re mopping up and rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy, we better take a look at what else has blown into our state, and the consequences we could be dealing with for years to come.

Remember Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children (AFC)? The former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and married to the heir of the Amway fortune, DeVos is the founder and board chair of the AFC, which works across the country to promote her “school choice” agenda. In the run-up to this spring’s primaries, the AFC funneled over $1million into Pennsylvania politics through the Students First PAC. (Last year AFC contributed $120,000 and in 2010 it paid $1.2 Million into Students First PAC.) [PA state campaign finance reports] In the past few weeks alone, the AFC has dumped another $400,000 into the superPAC. [Keystone State Education Coalition, 10-29-12]

A few years ago, Ohio fined DeVos’s group a record $5.2 million for illegally shifting money into that state to support “school choice” candidates. [Associated Press, April 5, 2008] Wisconsin also fined her group for political misconduct. Following these incidents, DeVos simple rebranded her organization as the current American Federation for Children. The AFC also accepts donations from the likes of Charles and David Koch, the ultra-wealthy and ultra-conservative brothers who are well known for their anti-union politics. [The Nation, May 2011; for more on the AFC, see It’s All About the Money, Money, Money”]

Joel Greenberg, who just made the list of Pennsylvania’s top political campaign donors, is on the board of the AFC. He and two of his financial investment partners, Arthur Dantchik and Jeff Yass, founded Students First PAC back in 2010 with $5.2 million they happened to have lying around. [Public Source, PA top political donors report] Now Students First PAC operates as the conduit for AFC campaign contributions. Since September 28th, the superPAC has spent $534,000 on Pennsylvania elections. Where is all that money going?

Far and away the top beneficiary these past few weeks has been Representative Jim Christiana, from right here in Southwest PA. The Republican from Beaver County received a deluge of $100,000 from Students First PAC – twice as much as any other single candidate. The superPAC gave a handful of candidates two donations, but Christiana received no less than five separate checks, totaling about a fifth of all their giving. Why?

It’s certainly not because Rep. Christiana faces any serious political challenge. His opponent hasn’t had a campaign event since August and has just 40 “likes” on his Facebook page. (Honestly, this is the best the Democratic Party could do in what should be an extremely important race? Even the word “Endorsements” is spelled wrong on his website.) [Elect Bob Williams site] So why shower Rep. Christiana with cash?

The answer is pretty obvious. Christiana has become the go-to guy for Governor Corbett’s school privatization legislation. Back in June, he introduced our shiny new Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, a voucher-in-disguise that will divert $200 million in public money to private and religious schools. (See “2-4-6-8 Who Do We Appreciate?”) Christiana hails from Monaca in Beaver County, site of the proposed Dutch Royal Shell cracker plant, which Gov. Corbett intends to hand $1.675 BILLION to do business in Pennsylvania. (See “Can Shell Educate Our Kids?”) Just a few weeks before Christiana brought the EITC bill forward, he received a nice fat check for $25,000 from “Fighting Chance PA,” another new superPAC started by – you guessed it – Joel Greenberg, Arthur Dantchik and Jeff Yass, founders of the Students First PAC.

These guys have also taken notice of a more tightly contested race in our neck of the woods, funding Republican senate candidate Raja who is running against Democrat Matt Smith, currently a representative in the state house. [Keystone State Education Coalition, 10-29-12] Fortunately for public education advocates in the South Hills area, Rep. Smith offers the clear choice: he has met with Yinzercation parents and stands solidly behind adequate and equitable public funding for our public goods.

But we better be asking ourselves just what Philadelphia hedge fund operators are doing, dumping their spare cash in political races over here on the other side of the state. And we have to pay attention to the millions flooding into Pennsylvania from Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children. It’s still raining campaign money, and there will be a lot of storm damage if public-education advocates don’t get out to the polls next week – come hell or high water.

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