School Board Town Hall Forum

You believe in good school boards, right? You’re voting in the primary on May 19th, right? With 4 of 9 school board seats on the ballot, Pittsburgh voters will be electing several new faces – and the new board of directors will be making some pretty big decisions. They will choose the next Superintendent. They will approve budgets and potentially make decisions about school closures and new charter school applications. They will set policies that impact school climate, learning conditions, student discipline, restorative justice practices, and high-stakes-testing, among many other things.

So it matters who you elect to the school board! Please come to the Town Hall Forum tomorrow to meet the candidates and ask them your questions. Wednesday, April 29th from 5:30 – 7:30 pm at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Hicks Memorial Chapel (616 N Highland Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15206). Kevin Gavin from 90.5 FM (WESA) will be our moderator. There’s free parking, refreshments, and childcare is available if you RSVP to What more could you ask for?

This is civic engagement 101. Please be there and be a part the decisions that will shape the future of our public schools for years to come.

Education Justice Platform

Our coalition, Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, has just released an important education justice platform. See below for the short version, or click here for the full version. The six organizations of the coalition worked together to develop this platform to help educate and inform school board candidates and other education advocates about the specific issues facing our schools in anticipation of this spring’s primary election – when four of nine school board positions will be on the ballot.

The GPS education justice platform calls on candidates running for school board to commit to the following:

  • full funding for the PPS schools our children deserve
  • charter school accountability
  • sustainable community schools
  • welcoming and inclusive teaching and learning environments
  • support for educators who help our children learn and grow
  • universal early childhood education
  • less testing, more learning
  • transparency, accountability and collaboration

Do you care about these issues? Please come to our GPS Town Hall Forum this Wednesday! April 29th from 5:30 – 7:30 pm at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Hicks Memorial Chapel (616 N Highland Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15206). Kevin Gavin from WESA will be our moderator. This is your chance to ask the school board candidates about where they stand on education justice issues. GPS will then use the education justice platform to score the candidates. Please come, ask questions, and be a part of this incredibly important election for our city.

GPS_Final Platform_page1 GPS_Final Platform_page2

Lynda Wrenn for School Board

Sorry for the long radio silence – I’ve been working to help launch Ms. Lynda Wrenn’s campaign for the Pittsburgh school board. Lynda is a fantastic candidate in District 4 (in the city’s East End), where Mr. Bill Isler has announced he is retiring at the end of this year. I’m excited about her vision for our students and schools. Even if you don’t live in the district, this is a crucial race to get involved in: among other important decisions, the new board will be choosing the next Superintendent! Four of the nine school board director positions are up for election this year, and at least two of those races will be contested with multiple candidates. Hang onto your hats, this primary is going to be a fun ride!

Here’s a great opportunity to meet Lynda and learn more about her campaign:


You can RSVP for the launch party and get more information on the Facebook event page.

So why is Lynda the woman for this very difficult job? She has the vision, values, relevant experience, and temperament we need on the school board. Lynda has been a PPS parent for 15 straight years. She’s been a PTO president, a volunteer tutor, and has served on multiple district committees and task forces. She knows how the district works and how to collaborate with diverse groups of parents, students, teachers, staff, administration, elected officials, and community partners to get the real work of public education done. As she explains:

I’m running for school board because I want every child in the city’s school district to have the opportunity to excel to the best of her or his ability. I believe that investing in our public schools is in the best interest of our children, our neighborhoods and our city. A city is only as good as its school district. Exciting things are ahead for Pittsburgh and I will work hard to make sure that the school district is moving forward and providing the best that it can for the children of our city.

Lynda has a Masters in Teaching from Chatham University and did her student teaching right here in Pittsburgh Public Schools. She has also worked in marketing and advertising as well as in childhood obesity research (which took her into Pittsburgh’s middle schools). And she understands finance: her undergraduate degree is in Economics and she also worked in the office of the Financial Vice President and Treasurer at Radcliffe College (Harvard University) where she was responsible for fiscal reporting.

Many people in District 4 already know Lynda as an extremely engaged community member: she has served as a president of the Point Breeze community organization, and on committees for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Chatham Baroque, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, and the National Council of Jewish Women. She currently serves as an Allegheny County Democratic Committeewoman in the 14th Ward.

I hope you will join Lynda at her launch party and take the opportunity to get to know her – and to get involved in this important campaign for the future of our city.

Diagram of a Victory

And that, my friends, is how you win an election. For three long years we have been fighting the devastation wrought by Gov. Corbett on our public schools. But last night we helped unseat the first incumbent governor in Pennsylvania history, to elect Tom Wolf, who ran on a strong public education platform! In fact, I dare say that we here in the grassroots are largely responsible for this victory.

The political analysts all over the news this morning have missed this point. Although they are quick to highlight that Gov. Corbett’s budget cuts made him deeply unpopular, most have failed to mention the authentic, bottom-up movement that formed around Pennsylvania’s public schools. For instance, Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College explained that, “Governor Corbett’s job performance dropped in his first year and he’s never been able to recover,” as drastic cuts, particularly in education, “simply dogged him throughout his administration.” [Post-Gazette, 11-5-14]

While this is true, what really dogged Corbett was – us! Ordinary parents, students, teachers, and community members refused to let this issue go. We wrote letters to the editor, op-eds, and blog pieces; we staged rallies and demonstrations; we held mock-bake sales; we wrote petitions and got on buses to Harrisburg to deliver thousands of signatures; we hosted public debates, lectures, and national authors. With “dogged” determination, we took every opportunity to counter Corbett’s attempts to minimize the damage he was inflicting on our schools: we took to social media and made on-line comments on news stories at every chance.

Some folks had been doing this work for many years and became advisors and mentors to the more recent groundswell of advocacy, as we joined the long arc of the education justice movement. We connected with others across the state, from Philadelphia, to the Lehigh Valley, State College, Shippensburg, Erie, and beyond. I’m especially grateful to parent leaders such as Helen Gym, Rebecca Poyourow, Susan Spicka, Mark Spengler, and Dana Bacher. One take away message from this election is “don’t mess with Pennsylvania parents – or hurt their kids and schools!”

I also have immense appreciation for the work of state-wide advocates and organizations such as Larry Feinberg and Lynn Foltz at the Keystone State Education Coalition; Susan Gobreski and Education Voters PA; the Education Law Center; the PSEA; and the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

Locally, I especially need to give a huge shout out to the 14 members of the Yinzercation steering committee who have kept this work going day-in and day-out for three straight years, entirely as volunteers: Beth Bosco, Valerie Brown, Matt Chinman, Kipp Dawson, Gabriella Gonzalez, Sara Goodkind, Pam Harbin, Tara McElfresh, Kathy Newman, Wallace Sapp, Cassi Schaffer, Steve Singer, and David Taylor. And there are so many, many others doing this work.

So when reports say that Gov. Corbett “never successfully countered Democratic messaging, specifically around education” – I feel we must point out that this was not merely political party messaging. In fact, we are the ones who created the message, by speaking the truth about what has been happening to our children and their schools. And then we kept that message out there constantly in the public eye. One Republican committee member explained Corbett’s loss saying that Democrats, “hit the ground running with the education thing.” [Post-Gazette, 11-5-14]

But that obscures the real involvement of thousands of ordinary people who became politically activated around this issue, yet were not acting as rank and file members of a political party – or any group, for that matter. There were plenty of Republicans furious about public schools, too. For many people, this was more a social movement – focused on kids, schools, and communities – rather than a political campaign orchestrated by party officials from the top down.

Why is this an important distinction? We just saw an authentic, grassroots movement give voice to real people, about an issue central to our democracy and our state’s future – and we won. We. Won. People matter, our voices matter, and we can make a difference when we work together. Congratulations public school advocates! And thank you!!

Top 10 Education Reasons to Vote Corbett Out

Tomorrow is the day! We have the chance to make history and vote Gov. Corbett out of office. After four long years of hurting our children, Corbett’s time could be up – if enough people show up at the polls. With the race tightening between Tom Wolf and Tom Corbett, we not only need to cast our own votes on Tuesday, we need to make sure everyone we know heads to the polls, too. Here is a list you can share with your friends of the top 10 education reasons Gov. Corbett needs to go:

1.  Slashed almost $1 billion from public education. Gov. Corbett continues to claim that he has increased funding for our schools, which would be funny if it weren’t so painfully untrue. He actually eliminated multiple education line items and collapsed several others into the “basic education” line item, and then boasts that he increased “basic education” funding. He even admitted on record that, “We have reduced education funding if you look at it as a whole.” [See “The Governor’s Bad Week”] He also likes to claim that the cuts were really the result of the expiring federal stimulus program, but Corbett has taken state funding for our schools back to pre-2008 levels, lower than before Pennsylvania even accepted federal stimulus dollars. [See “The Truth About the Numbers”]

2.  Eliminated our modern, fair funding formula. For reasons I still cannot fathom, Gov. Corbett eliminated the state’s equitable funding formula, so that the poorest students and most struggling schools get the least support. [See “Hurting the Poor”] He made Pennsylvania one of only three states in the nation without a modern formula that would take into account things such as the actual number of families living in poverty or the true number of students with special education needs. [See “A Shameful Betrayal”] Instead, we have a system that allows politically connected legislators to hand pick their favorite pet school districts to hand them extra cash. [Newsworks, 7-11-13]

3.  Caused students to lose 27,000 of their teachers and educators. Corbett has tried to downplay this astonishing figure arguing that not all of the jobs lost were teachers – they include guidance counselors, nurses, librarians, and classroom aids (as if students don’t need these professionals in their schools). [PA Fact Finder, 10-1-14] Not only are our children missing thousands of trusted adults in their schools, the cuts have dramatically increased class size. The latest data shows that over 90% of PA school districts have cut staff, and 64% have increased class sizes since Corbett’s historic budget cuts in 2010-11, with the elementary grades hit the hardest. [See “From Bad to Worst”]

4.  Wiped out music, art, library, tutoring, athletics, Kindergarten, and more. Over half of Pennsylvania school districts will eliminate or reduce academic programs this year. Most cuts will come from field trips (51% schools will eliminate); summer school (37%); world languages (34%); music and theater (31%); and physical education (24%). In over a third of districts, students are also losing extra-curricular and athletic programs, or have to pay a fee to participate. And those cuts are on top of massive cuts made the past two years. [See “From Bad to Worst”]

5.  Forced over 75% of PA school districts to raise local property taxes. In nearly every part of the state, districts are relying on local revenue from property taxes to pay for a growing majority of school budgets. Over three-quarters of school districts will increase property taxes this year – more than any in the past five years. [See “From Bad to Worst”] Pennsylvania is now one of the stingiest states in the entire country in terms of the proportion of school funding provided at the state level: we rank #45. [Census Bureau data summarized in PA School Funding Project]

6.  Promoted vouchers and tax credit programs to send public dollars to private and religious schools. While Corbett failed to pass voucher legislation, his #1 education priority, he instead expanded the EITC tax credit programs. Essentially “vouchers lite,” these programs 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 and religious schools instead, with zero accountability to the public. [See “EITC No Credit to PA”; Keystone Research Center, “No Accountability,” 4-7-11]

7.  Cut public higher-education by 20%. Historic, truly enormous cuts to public colleges and universities have forced those institutions to pass along costs to students and their families. For instance, Corbett cut $67 million from the University of Pittsburgh three years ago, and then locked those cuts in for the past two years: Pitt’s state aid is at its lowest level since it affiliated with the state system in the 1960s. [See “Rolling in Dough or Debt”] And Pennsylvania college students are now the 3rd most indebted in the entire nation. [Post-Gazette, 6-1-14]

8.  Tried to eliminate local control and accountability from elected school boards. In the fall of 2012, Corbett attempted to ram through a statewide authorizer bill, which would have permitted only a state commission of political appointees the right to open new charter schools and to supervise them. This end-run around locally elected representatives would have removed fiscal and academic accountability from those tasked with protecting taxpayers and their communities. [See “Real Charter Reform” and “Now That’s More Like It” for details.]

9.  Expanded high-stakes testing. Gov. Corbett has subjected Pennsylvania students to a dramatically increased number of standardized tests – and has jacked up the stakes, as well. For instance, in opposing the new Keystone graduation exams, which will prevent many students from graduating from high school, the NAACP called them a “present day form of Eugenics” and a “human rights violation.” [Public School Shakedown, 2-2-14] The tests are also an unfunded mandate on local school districts that cost millions. For example, 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 $201.1 million contract Pennsylvania made with Data Recognition Corporation to administer high-stakes-tests to our students. [, 12-1-11] And all this testing is not actually helping students learn. [See “High Stakes Testing”]

10.  Practiced cronyism instead of protecting students. Corbett tried to pass a bill exempting charter school operators – his top campaign donors – from Pennsylvania’s Right to Know “sunshine” law. [See “Where are the Real Republicans?” and “Charters are Cash Cows”] Then he appointed his friend Ron Tomalis, who had been the PA Secretary of Education, to a $140,000 ghost position where an investigative report found he did no work. However, in that capacity Tomalis did advise private equity investors in New York City on how to make money by selling products to school districts. [Post-Gazette, 9-14-14]

Who is Voting for Tom Corbett?

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


It’s Education, Stupid

Is it any surprise that Governor Tom Corbett is woefully trailing his opponent, Tom Wolf, in the polls? The latest numbers released last week show Tom W. ahead of Tom C., 49% to 31%. With 60% of registered voters saying that Pennsylvania is “off on the wrong track,” survey respondents continue to name education as their number one concern. [Franklin & Marshall poll, Sept. 2014] In fact, education is now far ahead of “the economy,” which has traditionally been voters’ primary concern (going back to at least 2006 in these polls).

Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign against incumbent President George H.W. Bush featured the famous line, “It’s the economy, stupid.” In Pennsylvania this election cycle, “it’s education, stupid.” (Now, my mother taught me not to call people stupid; so please note, I am not calling you stupid, dear reader, I know you get this point – which is exactly the point!)

In fact, I said this very thing last week when I appeared on “Get to the Point,” a PCNC Friday night talk show. I had the chance to sit across from Bob Bozzuto, the Executive Director of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, and Katie McGinty, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate and now chair of the Fresh Start PA campaign supporting Tom Wolf. And for an hour, I did my best to steer the conversation back to education, education, education.

Jessie Ramey on "Get to the Point" with host Lenny McAllister, Katie McGinty of Fresh Start PA, and Bob Bozzuto, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Republican Party

Jessie Ramey on “Get to the Point” with host Lenny McAllister, Katie McGinty of Fresh Start PA, and Bob Bozzuto, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Republican Party (September 19, 2014)

Yesterday, we took this message directly to Gov. Corbett himself. Or at least we tried. The governor was in Pittsburgh for a rare visit, but not to meet with educators or students or parents. Rather, he was in town to meet with Marcellus shale corporate executives. Yes indeed. He reserves his elbow rubbing for the people who line his campaign coffers with huge donations to make sure he doesn’t tax their industry (which would help pay for our public schools). [Post-Gazette, 9-25-14] OnePittsburgh rolled out the “People’s Red Carpet” welcome outside the convention center to demonstrate who he is walking over.

Just to further prove how out of touch this governor is with Pennsylvania families, on Monday at his first debate with Tom Wolf, Gov. Corbett said that nurses, social workers, librarians, guidance counselors, and paraprofessionals don’t count. He was referring to the 27,000 educators who have lost their jobs since his historic budget cuts in 2011. Specifically, Gov. Corbett stated: “That’s a false number. Those aren’t all teachers. Those are people that worked in the system, that were part of the administrations. They weren’t all teachers.” [CSPAN archive] These were 27,000 adults our children had in their lives every day, working with them in their classrooms, helping them succeed in school, and we’re not supposed to count them as lost educators?

Election day is November 4th and it can’t come soon enough. Between now and then, Pittsburgh’s own folk legend, Anne Feeney, will be traveling around Pennsylvania with her “Crush Corbett Road Show.” Anne asked Yinzercation to create a flyer with information about the governor’s record on education, which she will be distributing on her concert tour. In closing, I leave you here with a copy, as the facts speak for themselves.


Back to School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Debate by the Numbers

Here’s a re-cap of last night’s Education Debate in numbers, news, and photographs. First the numbers:

4 –  Democratic gubernatorial candidates: Rob McCord, Katie McGinty, Allyson Schwartz, and Tom Wolf.

2 –  Co-hosts for the evening: PA Interfaith Impact Network and Yinzercation.

10 –  Community organizations co-sponorsing: Action United, A+ Schools, Black Political Empowerment Project, Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, Greater Park Place Neighborhood Association, League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, YMCA Youth and Government Club at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12.

21 –  Members of the planning team. Thank you to all the volunteers who made the debate possible.

500 –  People in the audience!

17 –  Questions asked by moderator (Lisa Sylvester from WPXI) and our community panel (Rev. Richard Freeman, PIIN President; Cassi Schaffer, Pittsburgh Public School parent and community activist; and Joel Macklin, Pittsburgh Obama junior).

1,000 –  Number of times the candidates pledged to restore the budget cuts and implement a fair funding formula (OK, that was an exaggeration, but it was certainly a main point of agreement among them).

The debate aired live locally on PCNC TV and across the state on PCN TV. We also had broad print, radio, and television followup coverage, including:

If you missed the live broadcast, WPXI TV plans to run a one-hour, edited version of the debate this Sunday, April 13th, at 9AM. Set your DVRs now! Our radio partner, WESA FM, also plans to air a 60 minute edition of the debate tomorrow, Thursday, April 10th, at 10PM.

Here are some photographic highlights, most taken by our volunteer photographer, Jessica Chow (a Chatham University student), with others by Karen Hochberg and Sheila May-Stein:

D.E.B.A.T.E. Today

D- Democracy
E- Education
B- Be there
A- At 6PM
T- To learn
E- Exciting!

That about sums it up. But here are a few more details. You haven’t heard from me in over a week because Yinzercation and the PA Interfaith Impact Network have been super busy organizing the Democratic Candidate Gubernatorial Education Debate. (That spells DCGED and isn’t nearly as exciting as D.E.B.A.T.E.!) Dozens of community volunteers have been hard at work on this event, now all you have to do is show up.

Really. This is important. We want to show these candidates that Southwest Pennsylvania is serious about public education and that it needs to be a top priority in Harrisburg. Over 200 people have already RSVPed on the Facebook event page. Have you? Can you help spread the word?

BE THERE TODAY. Tuesday, April 8th  at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12
515 N. Highland Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15206
(Bus Service: 89 and 71B. Free parking across the street at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.)

Doors open at 6PM with music by the Obama Steel Drum Band. Bring your questions for the candidates! The doors will close promptly at 6:50PM for the live broadcast, which will be moderated by WPXI’s Lisa Sylvester. Please allow time to get through security.

With last week’s horrible Supreme Court decision allowing unfettered campaign donations from the super-rich, it will be getting even harder for ordinary folks to get the attention of candidates and elected representatives. (If you have a few extra million laying around for political contributions, let me know!) We produced this entire event with a budget of $0. Yes, zero. This is as grassroots as it gets. And this is our chance to help these candidates see what real people really care about. So please re-arrange your schedule if you have to. See you tonight!