Define Failing

It’s politically hot right now to talk about “failing” schools. To hear many legislators and school “reformers” tell the story, public education in the U.S. is circling the drain. Did you see Michelle Rhee’s obnoxious Olympic spoof ad? Remember the nasty radio campaign back in June, funded by the ultra-conservative and mega-rich Koch brothers, pushing the narrative of “students trapped in failing schools”? [See “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”] But the rhetoric of failure is not only misleading (and sometimes flat out wrong), it is having disastrous consequences on our schools.

The latest example of this comes courtesy of Pennsylvania’s recently expanded EITC corporate tax giveaway. The misnamed Educational Improvement Tax Credit program now has a companion called the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program, which is premised on the notion that our public schools are failures and that students must be rescued from them. To do this, the program borrows from the federal government’s No Child Left Behind, which has been labeling schools as failures for the past decade under one of the nation’s largest policy fiascoes. Under the new EITC program, Pennsylvania has developed a list of 415 “failing schools” and created a voucher-like system allowing students living near them to take public tax-payer money to go to private schools. (Students can also go to another public school in a different district, if they will accept them – more on that later).

But the whole system rests on faulty logic. First, the list of supposedly “low achieving” schools is deeply flawed. Published at the end of July by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the list uses results from the 2010-2011 PSSAs (standardized state tests given to all public school students in grades 3 – 8 and 11) to identify the bottom 15% of schools based on reading and math scores. [PDE list of “failing” schools.] However, a full third of the schools on that list actually reached their student achievement targets set by the state and federal government.

Yes, that’s right, a third of the schools on the state’s list made AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) or were “making progress” under the definition of No Child Left Behind. [See our annotated chart below from the Pennsylvania School Board Association’s analysis.] Those numbers hold true here in Yinzer Nation: in the ten counties of Southwest PA, 22 out of the 73 schools listed – 30% – made AYP or were showing progress. That includes both the schools identified as “failing” in Green and Butler counties, one of the two schools in Beaver county, and six of the sixteen in Fayette county. (There was one school on the list from Washington county, and no schools identified in Armstrong, Indiana, Lawrence or Westmoreland counties.)

What’s more, of the 13 supposedly “failing” schools in Allegheny county, seven of them have already closed. (Noted red on the above chart; see PPS 2012-2013 realignment plan.) Those seven schools accounted for over a quarter of the list (7/27) of Pittsburgh Public Schools. And eight of the 27 PPS schools also made AYP or were “making progress.” Again, that’s 30% of the list in the city of Pittsburgh. As the Pennsylvania School Board Association points out, “Labeling these schools as low-achieving when they have met the student achievement standards set by the state and federal government functions to create two separate and conflicting measurements for student achievement.” [PSBA 7-27-12]

If the state is really interested in rescuing students from failing schools, why didn’t it include charter schools on that list? Only two of Pennsylvania’s 12 cyber charter schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress status last year, and seven have never made AYP at all. (For details on charter school performance, see “Dueling Rallies.”) The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. [Stanford/CREDO report summary, 2011] Shouldn’t the state be rescuing students from these low-achieving charter schools?

The fact that the state just approved four new cyber charters suggests that this isn’t really about saving students from failing schools at all. Indeed, under the new EITC scholarship program, students need never have actually attended a failing school in order to take public money to a private institution. The law is written so that students only have to live in the attendance area for a school on the low-achieving list – they may never have even set foot in the building!

And Governor Corbett and his allies in the legislature have made sure that no one can look too closely at the results of the new EITC program. The scholarship organizations have no auditing requirements and almost no reporting requirements (despite the fact that they can take 20% of donations for their own administration), and there is no way for the public to learn if the scholarships actually help students in any way. “In fact,” the Pennsylvania School Board Association explains, “the EITC law prohibits state administrators from requesting any information related to academic achievement, making it impossible to measure the effectiveness of the program.” [PSBA 7-27-12] So students could be attending failing private schools with these scholarships – but since private schools do not have to administer the PSSAs, we would never know.

And then there’s the pesky problem that EITC diverts our public funds meant for public education – where those resources could actually address student achievement issues. But with draconian state budget cuts, school districts have been forced to cut even basic tutoring programs while continuing to be on the hook for students who leave. For example, there is no limit to how far away an EITC student can go with their publicly-subsidized “scholarship,” and the student’s home school district is legally obligated to provide transportation for up to ten miles. It’s no wonder local school districts are not buying into this program. Even those that did not appear on the state’s list – and could volunteer to receive students from “low achieving” schools – have shown little interest (only two have signed up in the whole state so far, and none in Southwest PA).

Interviewed by the Tribune-Review, Wilkinsburg School District Superintendent Archie Perrin “said the tax credit program is yet another means of siphoning needed resources from districts — particularly those with high percentages of students from low-income households — which already contend with declining state revenue.” [Tribune-Review, 7-27-12] And West Mifflin Area Superintendent Daniel Castagna explained that his district would not participate in EITC because “it’s a blatant attempt to privatize public education.” He and 23 other Allegheny County school superintendents had a conference call last week, and the majority concluded “that the opportunity scholarships would not help public school districts.” [Post-Gazette, 8-18-12]

The EITC program is clearly not about what is best for students. It is about giving corporations huge tax breaks while sending public dollars to private and religious schools, doing an end-run around our own state constitution and draining our public schools of desperately needed resources. It’s about labeling schools as failing and then using the rhetoric of failure to legitimatize the privatization of public education. Now that’s an epic failure.

A Vampiric Budget

Debated deep in the chambers of the Capitol Building, and signed by Governor Corbett into law near midnight on June 30th, the 2012-2013 Pennsylvania state budget has emerged into the sunlight over the past six weeks where the details sparkle. And not in a good way.

The implications of this budget – plus the Governor’s associated educational “reform” policies introduced this summer – are now quite clear. They threaten to continue sucking the lifeblood out of public schools. Yet there’s good news for our movement too: turns out our grassroots were planted in a patch of strong garlic and we’ve held some of the worst policies at bay. Here’s where we stand:

Flat funding = less funding. The new budget “level funds” K-12 education, essentially providing the same funding as last year’s budget. Our statewide outrage over Gov. Corbett’s proposed cuts to early childhood and Kindergarten preserved the $100 million block grant program. This is a major victory, but the flat funding effectively locks in the devastating $1 billion cuts the legislature made in 2011. And due to natural inflation, flat funding really means less funding, since school district costs for everything from electricity to toilet paper continue to go up.

16 districts get a little help. The legislature approved an additional $40 million to help 16 school districts in financial distress. The irony here, of course, is that many of those districts reached “distressed” status precisely because of state budget cuts. In Southwest Pennsylvania, the following three school districts will receive a total of $1.25 million in aid: Steel Valley ($559,026) and Sto-Rox ($440,974) in Allegheny County, and Jeannette City ($250,000) in Westmoreland County. I won’t sneeze at $1.25 million for those struggling schools, but to put it in perspective: the Governor and his allies in the legislature have slashed $172 million from school districts in this part of the state. So we’re still about $170.75 million short.

Cruel cuts elsewhere. Governor Corbett wanted to slash human services by 20%, but got away with 10% cuts to mental health, help for the homeless, and programs for people with intellectual disabilities. And he did nothing for public transit. These programs affect many families, their students, and ultimately our schools.

Corporations get more. What’s worse, these cuts come at the same time that the Governor and his allies continue to give away our public funds – our commonwealth – to private corporations. As expected, the legislature 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]

EITC gives away even more. The worst news by far is the “voucher in disguise” package that passed with this budget. Governor Corbett has succeeded in expanding the horribly misnamed “Educational Improvement Tax Credit” program, benefiting businesses that make donations to organizations that, in turn, make scholarships for students attending private schools. The giveaway funnels $100 million (up from $75 million) in public money to private and religious schools. And it creates a new $50 million program for students living in the attendance boundaries of “low-achieving schools,” as defined by the state. [See “2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?”] Even more depressing, the state has made sure there is scant public accountability for these giveaway programs with a 2005 law preventing the collection of any meaningful data on expenditures or student outcomes. And we’ve just learned that state Representative Jim Christiana, the Republican from Beaver who introduced the new EITC program, has received $170,000 from “school choice” super-PACs. [BeaverCountian.com, 7-30-12] We’ll be hearing a lot more about the influence of big money on our educational policies this fall for sure.

Charter schools expand. In another victory for our grassroots movement, we prevented Governor Corbett from pushing through his “state authorizer,” which would have wrested control from local school districts and allowed the state alone to authorize the formation of new charter schools. For now. The Governor has made it clear that this is a top priority for him this fall, so we can be sure to see it again. [Philly.com, 7-4-12] Corbett said he will also try again for legislation stripping the ability of local people to prevent the conversion of public schools into charter schools. [Delco Times, 7-1-12] And despite massive evidence that cyber-charter schools in particular are sucking up far more public dollars than it actually costs them to educate students, the legislature put off addressing the seriously flawed funding formula. [See “Trouble Seeing the Money” and “One Million Per Day” for details.] Yet within days of passing the budget, the state approved four new cyber charter schools, all with offices in Philadelphia, bringing the total number in Pennsylvania to sixteen. [Post-Gazette, 7-9-12]

Lax charter school regulations.  Meanwhile, the FBI has been busy investigating the Beaver County based PA Cyber School the past few weeks, as we’ve learned about millions in public dollars flowing to a network of businesses run by colleagues of the school’s founder, Nick Trombetta. [Post-Gazette, 7-15-12] To its credit, the state did tighten up charter school ethics rules, so that board members and employees are now covered by state Ethics Laws, and the charters will be required to make their annual audits public. [PBPC Education Policy Changes] But it also exempted charter school teachers from new mandates that will require various measurements of student achievement to be taken into consideration when evaluating teacher effectiveness. [Post-Gazette, 7-5-12] And the current Charter School Appeals Board is being replaced with an administrative staff that will oversee charter schools; this means that charter schools denied a charter by local school districts can now appeal to the administration and, if successful, remain under the oversight of this state entity.

In addition, the House passed, but the Senate rejected, an amendment that would have excluded companies doing business with charter schools from our Right-To-Know laws. [Philly.com, 7-5-12] Lawrence Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition explains, “That means that taxpayers would not have the right to see the budgets, check registers, payroll records or other financial records for facilities that they are paying for. [We] would not have the right to know the salaries of teachers, administrators, superintendents, or, for that matter, CEOs paid by a management company.  In contrast, these are all things that traditional school districts are required to provide by law.” [“Shameless…” 7-6-12] These are clearly efforts to do an end-run around real public accountability.

We have our work cut out for us. But we’ve built an incredible grassroots movement here in Pennsylvania dedicated to great public schools for all students, with adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding. We will keep fighting the demons of school privatization. Now if we could just enlist a few friendly werewolves…

The Commonwealth

We are the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Stop and think about that phrase, the official title of our state. We are a commonwealth, that’s common + wealth. It’s an old English term from the 15th century meaning a body politic (or a political community) organized for the “public welfare” and the “general good.” [Online Etymology Dictionary]

We are one of only four states in the U.S. that calls itself a commonwealth (Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Virginia are the other three.) Not only is the word in the title of our state, it’s in our constitution. In fact, the notion is at the core of Pennsylvania’s original constitution, which was written in a convention in Philadelphia from July through September of 1776 presided over by Benjamin Franklin himself.

The very first section of that original constitution is a “Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth or State of Pennsylvania” and closely resembles the Bill of Rights. Number five on the list: “That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or soft of men, who are a part only of that community.” [PA Constitution, 9-28-1776]

Government is for the common benefit. We hold wealth in common, to serve the public good. These are powerful old ideas that derive from colonial common law and helped shape the new nation. Look at how Massachusetts puts it in their constitution: “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.” [Preamble, MA Constitution]

Our legislators need to think about the meaning behind the very name of our state, as they race to ink a final budget in the next three days. Republicans revealed the details of the budget yesterday with mixed news for education. [Post-Gazette, 6-27-12] On the positive side, it is all but certain now that Governor Corbett will not get his way with his proposal to eliminate $100 million from the block grant program that many schools use to fund Kindergarten and early childhood education. That is a $100 million victory for our grassroots movement and you can be sure we would not have achieved it without the enormous statewide effort of ordinary folks like us who stood up for public education.

Our countless letters to the editor, op ed pieces, phone calls, rallies, vigils, advocacy events for children, meetings with legislators, bus trips to Harrisburg, research, writing, and consistent dialogue in social media kept this issue front and center when the administration wanted desperately to make it go away. We pierced Govenor Corbett’s claims about his education budget, we skewered his metaphors, and revealed the big money interests behind his attempts to privatize our schools. And we caught national attention: people from coast to coast were horrified to learn about the operatic tragedy of arts education unfolding in Pennsylvania; our articles were published in the Huffington Post among others; we were invited to the White House.

Yet we know that this new budget provides only level funding for public K-12 education. Last year’s massive cuts are carried forward and will continue to deeply impact our schools. And we know that Governor Corbett will continue to play games with rhetoric, claiming that he has increased funding for schools when he has merely moved line items around. For example, the Post-Gazette is reporting today, “The basic state subsidy for public schools would be set at $5.4 billion, an increase of $49 million over the current year.” [Post-Gazette, 6-27-12]

There is no actual increase for public education overall. In fact, we are almost sure to see the expansion of corporate tax credit programs this week, which will effectively divert hundreds of millions of public revenue dollars to private and parochial schools that could be used for our public schools. (See “2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?” for the latest details.) You will hear Rep. Christiana and others claim that their massive corporate giveaway doesn’t take money away from public education.

But if we remember that we are the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, we can see the absurdity of that statement. Our public revenue, our wealth, is for the common good; it is to be held in common, for the benefit of us all. Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues inked those powerful words 236 years ago and they are every bit as meaningful today.

—————

Yinzercation is going on vacation. Your faithful blogger will return, but for now, I leave you with these words: Public education is a public good.

That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or soft of men, who are a part only of that community, And that the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish government in such manner as shall be by that community judged most conducive to the public weal. [PA Constitution, 1776]

2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?

HB 2468 has lots of cheerleaders. That’s the current House Bill under consideration that would expand Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, and add a new scholarship program, diverting $200 MILLION in public money to private and parochial schools. (See “One Million Per Day” for the details.)

The voucher-in-disguise bill was introduced by Rep. Jim Christiana, a Republican who hails from Monaca in Beaver County – site of the proposed Shell cracker plant. Just a few weeks before he brought the bill forward, Rep. Christiana received a nice fat check for $25,000 from the “Fighting Chance PA” PAC. That was the single largest contribution from this new political action committee (or PAC) that has already “doled out $225,000 to pro-voucher state lawmakers and other political committees in Harrisburg.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-26-12]

Fighting Chance PA PAC shares a name with a campaign launched by the “Pennsylvania Catholic Coalition” this spring, an effort associated with the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which has been lobbying hard for voucher legislation to fund its struggling schools. The new PAC has been entirely financed by three wealthy Philadelphia hedge-fund founders and their “Students First PA” PAC. That name should ring a bell: they are the group funneling gobs of out-of-state money from the likes of mega-billionaire Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children into Pennsylvania politics to support school privatization efforts. (Please re-read “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money” for details of the money trail.)

Rep. Christiana received well over a third (38%) of his campaign contributions so far this year from three pro-voucher groups: $25,000 from the new Fighting Chance PA PAC; $25,000 from the Students First PAC; and $2,500 from Wal-Mart’s school-choice PAC. Christiana apparently “laughed” when a reporter asked if these donations influenced his new tax-credit bill. “I’ve been a strong supporter of parental choice since my first election in 2008,” he said, claiming that voucher groups are merely trying to counteract “the status quo” advocated by teachers’ unions. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-26-12

Ah, yes. By all means, let’s blame teachers’ unions for the massive defunding of our public schools. And while we’re at it, why don’t we blame them for creating the insidious national narrative that our public schools are failing in the first place.

What HB 2468 is really about is giving away mountains of public, taxpayer money to private corporations. A new analysis of the proposed bill, released yesterday by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, found that, “Individual taxpayers are footing the bill for $9 out of every $10 of corporate contributions for private and parochial school scholarships” made through the current EITC program. [PBPC, Analysis of HB 2468, 6-25-12]

What’s worse, companies get a “triple dip” tax reduction, since they can take both state and federal tax deductions for their “charitable” contributions, on top of the state tax credit. That means that a corporation donating at the current annual cap of $300,000 will pay only $20 a year out of pocket. Twenty bucks! And don’t forget, that buys them huge PR in the community. (For example, see how Exxon has done this in “EITC: No Credit to PA.”)

[Source: Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center]

Even more astonishing, a company that contributes to pre-K scholarships, which has an even larger tax credit, can actually receive tax benefits largerthan the total value of the “contribution.” Yes, you read that right. The EITC program can literally net companies income – a reverse flow of public dollars to private corporations. That’s adding insult to injury, as public schools are reeling from massive budget cuts and these tax credit programs channel desperately needed revenue away from our public goods.

You can bet Exxon and many other corporations are waving their pom-poms and chanting, “2-4-6-8, Who do we appreciate?” when they think about HB 2468. Maybe we need to send some real cheerleaders from Pennsylvania’s public schools to Harrisburg where they can explain to legislators the value of public education. They could end with a better chant: “2-4-6-8, Public schools are really great!”

The Other C Word

Choice. They stole our word. Not so long ago, “choice” belonged to progressives who had successfully attached its meaning to women’s reproductive rights. It had become shorthand for an entire, complex movement (though often stood in for the single hot-button issue of abortion). But the agents of school-privatization have co-opted the term. “School choice” now means sending public taxpayer dollars to private and parochial schools benefiting a select few at the expense, and to the detriment, of the great many.

Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch wrote yesterday about the problem of looking at education as a consumer choice rather than a public good. “The more that people begin to see education as a consumer choice, the more they will be unwilling to pay for other people’s children. And if they have no children in school, then they have no reason to underwrite other people’s private choices.” [“How Choice May Kill Public Education,” 6-24-12]

Public education is a social compact (remember this from high school social studies class?): we collectively agree to educate all children in our community, because we all benefit from an educated populace. “But once the concept of private choice becomes dominant,” Ravitch warns, “then the sense of communal responsibility is dissolved. Each of us is then given permission to think of what is best for me, not what is best for we.”

We are a nation of consumers, trained from an early age to look at everything as a consumer choice. And we like the idea of choice: what’s more American than a grocery store aisle with 112 kinds of cereal to choose from? In fact, the concept of choice is almost a pathological fixation in our culture. If we can choose something, then we will like it; if we have a choice, then all is well.

Take healthcare as an example, where the far right has been launching a successful attack on affordable medical care for all, with scary stories about people losing their “choice of doctors” or “choice of plans.” When it comes right down to it, what people want is not necessarily a choice of plans or doctors, but a good doctor in their community that they can afford to see.

The problem of “choice” is related to “The Competition Fallacy” we outlined last week. (That article, by the way, has received some national attention and will be republished by Alternet.org.) Those who would like to privatize our public goods use the framework of choice and competition, but these are the wrong guiding principles. Nobel Prize winning Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman addressed just this issue over the weekend in a piece about the similar effort to privatize our prison system. He asserted, “you really need to see it in the broader context of a nationwide drive on the part of America’s right to privatize government functions.” [New York Times, 6-21-12]

Krugman went on to explain why this is happening with prisons, but he could just as easily been talking about education: “You might be tempted to say that it reflects conservative belief in the magic of the marketplace, in the superiority of free-market competition over government planning. And that’s certainly the way right-wing politicians like to frame the issue. But if you think about it even for a minute, you realize that the one thing the companies that make up the prison-industrial complex … are definitely not doing is competing in a free market. They are, instead, living off government contracts. There isn’t any market here, and there is, therefore, no reason to expect any magical gains in efficiency.”

And yet, Pennsylvania legislators are voting today on a massive expansion of a plan to send even more public money to private institutions. As we reported on Friday, this latest voucher-in-disguise effort will expand the current Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which currently diverts $75 million in revenue from corporations that we could otherwise be using for our public schools. (See “One Million Per Day.”) Yesterday Republican leaders announced they would almost certainly add another $25 million to this program, while creating a similar tax credit program that will cost another $50 million. [PennLive, 6-24-12]

The good news is that the House is not going along with Governor Corbett’s proposal to cut another $100 million in block grants to public schools for early childhood education. This is money that Pennsylvania schools could not afford to lose on top of last year’s massive cuts. However, the preservation of these funds comes with strings attached – and we’ll see those strings today as legislators vote to further expand voucher programs.

We will undoubtedly hear how tax breaks for corporations and the funneling of public money to private and parochial schools is wonderful, and how these programs create “choice” and “competition.” Just remember that other C word. No not that one. Remember “community.” As Diane Ravitch said, we have a communal responsibility to public education. Once we start seeing it as a consumer choice, we will lose the essence of our public schools: that they belong to all of us, and that we share the obligation to support them.

We Have $200 Million?

Problem solved! Apparently, Rep. Jim Christiana, a Republican from our neck of the woods over in Beaver County, believes we have an extra $200 million lying around for schools. That’s perfect, since the Post-Gazette is reporting today that the governor’s office and Republican leaders in the Senate and House have negotiated their different budgets down to just about that figure: “the two sides appear to be about $233 million apart in how much money they believe the state should have left over at the end of next fiscal year.” [Post-Gazette, 6-12-12]

Ah, but wait – Rep. Christiana wants to give those public tax-dollars to private schools under a new scheme that he may introduce today in the House. Seriously? We can’t find enough money for the block grant program that lets school districts all across Pennsylvania fund Kindergarten, but he wants to talk about taking more money out of our state coffers for private and parochial schools?

We already have this ill-advised program in place with the poorly named Educational Improvement Tax Credit, or EITC. (See why we say “EITC: No Credit to PA” when we let $75 million walk out the front door every year.) Now Rep. Christiana and his colleagues propose adding a similar program, so that we give away an additional $100 million next year, rising to $200 million by its third year. [You can read the full text of his co-sponsorship memo at the Morning Call, 6-11-12.]

If we have $200 million available to hand out to businesses, why aren’t we spending that money up front on critical educational needs, rather than cutting Kindergarten, librarians, and tutoring? Pennsylvania school districts were forced to lay off over 14,000 teachers last year with many more furloughs coming this year. [“No More Teachers, No More Books”] These aren’t just good jobs – these are the people in the classrooms with our children every day, shaping our very future.

Kudos to House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, a representative from northern Allegheny County, whose office warned “the details of this latest try for a voucher program must be reviewed carefully.” He summed it up nicely: “The core problem in Pennsylvania schools is inadequate funding made worse by Gov. Corbett’s historic and tragic education cuts. No taxpayer-funded voucher experiment will help that, even one like this that’s limited to only a few schools. It will just make things worse for the great majority of students who get no help.” [Morning Call, 6-11-12]

We can’t allow the Governor and his allies to continue labeling our entire public education system as a failure, and then decimate it by cutting over $1 BILLION in funding to make sure that it really does fail so we can take our public dollars and send them to private institutions. Make no mistake, this is exactly the strategy now in play. As we reported last week, the ultra-conservative Koch brother funded superPAC FreedomWorks has rolled back into Pennsylvania using the language of “failure” in nasty radio ads aimed at pressuring the governor to get a voucher bill passed in the next three weeks. (See “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”)

That superPAC has two out-of-state lobbyists, Ana Puig and Anastasia Przbylski, sitting in Harrisburg right now turning up the heat on our legislators. About Rep. Christiana’s proposed voucher bill, Puig said, “It’s a start. We have to do something before this [budget] cycle is over to give opportunities to kids in the failing schools.” She made it clear that they are looking to expand vouchers well beyond these EITC type programs, and said, “We have a small window of opportunity.” [Morning Call, 6-11-12]

That might be the best news we get: these billionaire backers of school privatization see the next couple of weeks as their window of opportunity to ram more vouchers through the Pennsylvania legislature. We need to keep that window shut tight. Take a minute to call Rep. Christiana’s office and tell him that we need public funding for public schools:
(724) 728-7655 or (717) 260-6144
And if you know anyone in his district, please ask them to do the same. Christiana represents the following areas of Beaver County, which has lost over $13.5 MILLION in education cuts to its schools these past two years:
Beaver
Brighton Township
Center Township
Greene Township
Georgetown
Hookstown
Hopewell Township
Independence Township
Monaca
Patterson Heights
Patterson Township
Potter Township
Raccoon Township
Vanport Township
Shippingport
South Heights

If Rep. Christiana really thinks Pennsylvania taxpayers can afford an extra $200 million for this plan, let’s insist that we use those public dollars to address the real funding crisis in our schools caused by Governor Corbett’s historic education cuts. Then we can open real windows of opportunity for all our children.

Butterflies and Stinkbugs

It’s been a beautiful June week and the insects, both good and bad, are out in full force. For our Friday news wrap-up, we present some virtual awards complete with small flying critters.

Butterflies to Yinzer Nation residents Amanda Godley and Betsy Magley: nominated by Education Voters PA as citizen advocates for education, they were recognized last night by the Keystone Research Center / Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center at their annual awards dinner in Philadelphia.

Stinkbugs to the Gateway school board, which voted last week against a resolution that would have asked the state for adequate funding for public education, despite its own financial crisis. Six of the nine board members said that local municipalities should tax residents for schools instead – the least equitable or efficient means of funding schools. (See “A Shameful Betrayal.”) Yet the district is furloughing 27 teachers, increasing class sizes up to 30, and eliminating K-8 field trips, activity buses, band uniforms, the Latin program, middle school athletics, and the high school math lab and writing center. [Post-Gazette, 6-7-12] We sentence the school board to a remedial history class for summer school to learn lessons from Pennsylvania’s own sorry history.

Butterflies to the parents, children, teachers, and administrators in the Highlands school district who held a candlelight vigil for public education last week, inspiring Pittsburgh families to plan a similar event. School board President Debbie Beale criticized the drastic cuts in state funding, quoting Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “The fierce urgency of now.” State Representative Frank Dermody, a Democrat from Oakmont, supported the vigil, calling Gov. Corbett’s budget an “attack on public education.” [Post-Gazette, 6-7-12]

Stinkbugs to the House Republican leaders who are wasting valuable time this week advocating for the expansion of tax credits to businesses sending money to private schools when they should be finding real solutions to the state’s education funding crisis. (See “EITC: No Credit to PA.”) Now they are talking about giving away even more of our taxpayer dollars to corporations by increasing the EITC program and adding another, similar, scholarship program. A plague of stinkbugs on the PA House if they let this go forward.

Butterflies to Canon-McMillan (down in Washington County) school board member Joe Zupancic and middle school Principal Greg Taranto for speaking out against taxpayer-funded billboards advertising the PA Cyber Charter School. Current billboards on the turnpike and along I-79 cost thousands of dollars to rent – all money coming from our taxes that no public school district could possibly afford to spend. [Canon-McMillan Patch, 6-6-12]

Stinkbugs to Gov. Corbett and his allies who continue to defend his $1 BILLION cuts to public education while blaming school districts for the crisis. Here’s what is happening in a typical suburban district in our area: Baldwin-Whitehall (in the South Hills) is being forced to raise local taxes for the first time in five years in order to maintain its educational programs. The district is doing reasonably well, but said that state cuts and the unfunded expense of cyber and charter schools, which cost the district $1 million a year, leave them no choice. [Post-Gazette, 6-7-12] May Gov. Corbett open the windows of the governor’s mansion to let all those pesky, infiltrating critters out – deep-pocketed donors looking to privatize education and stinkbugs alike.

Butterflies to the 26 House Republicans and 11 Democrats who have signed on as sponsors of a new bill that will change the charter school funding formula. Introduced by Rep. Mike Fleck, a Republican from Huntington, the legislation will help to fix many of the problems with the way charter schools receive funding from their local public school districts. For instance, school districts would no longer have to include the cost of athletics and charter school tuition payments when calculating their average per-pupil costs – a figure then used to determine their payments to charter schools. [Post-Gazette, 6-5-12]