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

Budget Talk

As we get closer to the end-of-June deadline, our legislators are finally talking about the state budget. Yesterday, the Republicans in the PA House proposed their own budget in response to Governor Corbett’s plan, announced in February. [See “Budget with a But”] Their version adds $10 million more for education, bringing the total increase to $100 million. [PA House GOP Proposed 2013-14 Budget] After two devastating years of cuts, any increase is good – but $100 million doesn’t get us close to the nearly $2 billion our kids have lost.

Perhaps most telling, the Republican plan counts on $85 million in “savings” from all the teachers who lost their jobs last year (since the state now won’t have to pay their portion of Social Security and pensions). However, rather than putting those “savings” fully back into education, the House GOP shifts $75 million over to other line items. Yet overall, this Republican budget spends $100 million less than even Gov. Corbett proposed, so there are plenty of cuts all around – including $32 million less for the Department of Public Welfare and a $3 million cut to child care services for the working poor. Meanwhile, the legislature would receive a $4 million increase for itself under this plan. [Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center analysis, 5-29-13]

The House GOP budget also fails to grapple with desperately needed pension reform. Gov. Corbett proposed some pension changes earlier this year, but this plan does not include any savings from those proposed changes. It also fails to take advantage of savings that Pennsylvania would see under the Affordable Care Act. By refusing to expand our Medicaid program using available federal aid, Gov. Corbett and the Republican-controlled legislature are refusing crucial funds that could free up other dollars to help school districts crippled by their own budget cuts. Is it any surprise that Corbett’s disapproval rating just ranked him as the 5th worst Governor in the nation? [FiveThirtyEight at the NYT, 5-28-13]

At least his crazy plan to tie school funding to liquor privatization seems to be off the table for now. [See “Kids or Booze”] And the PA Budget and Policy Center reports that, “some lawmakers—and even the Corbett administration—are considering a delay in the phaseout of the capital stock and franchise tax.” The state has been rolling back this corporate tax, which is scheduled to be completely eliminated by next year. But if lawmakers freeze the tax at 2012 levels, the state could raise around $390 million to offset additional budget cuts. [PBPC, 5-29-13] This one is a no brainer. Pennsylvania taxpayers simply can’t afford all these corporate giveaways, which have tripled in just the past ten years: the legislature is now handing out well over $3 BILLION of our dollars to their corporate friends every year. [PBPC, 3-12-13]

While putting some money back into the “basic education subsidy” (one line item in the state education budget out of many), the proposed House Republican budget also leaves out many things. Our friend Larry Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition reminds us that in fiscal year 2008-09, well before any federal stimulus money was applied to the state budget, “there were several line items in addition to the basic education subsidy that no longer exist or are significantly reduced.” [KSEC, 5-30-13] These include:

  • High School Reform, $10.7 million eliminated
  • Accountability Block Grant, $171.4 million reduction
  • Tutoring, $65.1 million eliminated
  • Dual Enrollment, $10.0 million eliminated
  • Science: It’s Elementary, $13.6 million eliminated
  • School Improvement Grants, $22.8 million eliminated
  • Charter School Reimbursement, $226.9 million eliminated

That’s a total of $520.5 million eliminated to these programs alone. [See data comparison from Philadelphia Senator Vincent Hughes]

While House Republicans released their budget yesterday, House Democrats held a public hearing on education over on the other side of the state. Parents were invited to speak, along with our colleagues at the PA Budget and Policy Center and the Education Law Center. But I was disappointed to see that the corporate-reform group, Students First, was also given time on the agenda.

That is the organization founded by former D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee, most well known for firing people live on film, mass closings of schools, and a high-stakes-testing cheating scandal that appears to have unfolded with her knowledge. Despite that scandal, and confirmed cheating by adults in 37 other states, Rhee and her Students First continue to promote high-stakes-testing as the solution to our education woes. [See “A Plague of Cheating”] Students First PA promotes a school letter grading system based on the results of those tests, along with parent trigger laws – also known as parent “tricker” laws, which trick parents into thinking they have control over their schools, when in reality they are handing control over to privately managed companies. [See “Won’t Be Silent”]

Fortunately, our friend Colleen Kennedy, a public education advocate in Upper Darby and founder of the grassroots group, Save Upper Darby Arts, was at the hearing and reports, “Overall it was a productive meeting, and I think that most of the legislators are not falling for the corporate Students First approach.” Let’s hope she is right.

Speaking of Upper Darby, another group of parents in that district (which is right outside of Philadelphia), created a helpful petition on special education funding aimed at our state legislature during this budget negotiation season. This is a particularly detailed petition laying out the problems with the current way the state funds special education, negatively impacting all of our schools. I encourage you to read it and sign.

It’s time to get our legislators talking about what our kids really need in the next state budget: adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for their public schools. Get to work and fix special ed funding. Fix the charter funding formula. Fix the state funding formula. Get serious about pension reform. Accept available federal dollars to provide expanded healthcare coverage in Pennsylvania and free up funding for our schools. And stop giving away billions of our taxpayer dollars to corporations. You’ve got four weeks until the state budget is due. Go.

Students and Sequestration

When students speak, we need to listen. And when students advocate for their own public education, their voices speak truth to power. Yesterday, two Pittsburgh students made themselves heard loud and clear with eloquent letters to the editor about the impact of budget cuts on our schools. (See full text at the bottom of this post.)

Both students were speaking specifically about the looming federal tax and spending cuts that will come with sequestration. That’s the “fiscal cliff” that we’ve been hearing so much about – which, according to economists is actually the wrong metaphor, since it is more of a slope – that will trigger automatic, across the board budget cuts to departments including education, unless Congress gets its act in gear and makes a deal. Those cuts would be felt starting next fall, for the 2013-14 academic year, and would hit programs such as Title I and Head Start, which provide support for low income students.

The Pittsburgh Public School District alone estimates that it will lose $3.5 million next year if sequestration takes effect. That’s an 8.2% decrease in funding that it simply cannot afford, and would take a huge bite out of direct support for equity programs. [Post-Gazette, 11-20-12] I applaud the Pittsburgh Public School Board, which took a stand a few weeks ago and passed a resolution opposing sequestration. This Board has not been terribly vocal on many policy issues affecting public education, and this could signal a welcome change as we all stand together for our schools.

Federal funds account for only about ten cents out of each dollar for most school districts. But as with most budget cuts, some of the poorest districts will be hit the hardest. (To view the impact of sequestration on your school district, see this data which I have pulled from an analysis performed by the American Association of School Administrators: Impact of Sequestration on PA School Districts.) And while both of the students writing letters yesterday to the Post-Gazette are rightfully worried about the potential loss of federal dollars, they also expressed a real understanding of what is happening to our public schools.

Angelina Winbush, a senior from Bloomfield, tutors students in a Pittsburgh Public School that lacks enough textbooks for children to take home to study. “Inadequate funding for education is not only causing a textbook shortage,” she said, “it is causing art programs to vanish, teachers to be laid off, schools to close and students to drop out.” Winbush argues, “Education is not a gift — it is an investment in our nation’s future.”

Lamar Shields, a Pittsburgh Public School graduate from Homewood, now attends Community College of Allegheny County and hopes to transfer to the University of Pittsburgh to study child psychology. He writes, “Our schools need enough support to keep class sizes small and higher education needs to be affordable.” He worries that additional budget cuts “may cause teacher layoffs, and consequently larger classes, leading to less attention and support for students.” Both of these students argue that it’s time to allow the Bush era tax cuts for the top 2% of earners in this country to expire.

Wise words from two young people. Our legislators had better be listening.

——————

Invest in education, not in top earners

In response to “Little Movement Is Made on Fiscal Cliff Budget Talks” (Dec. 7), instead of extending the Bush tax cuts for the highest-earning 2 percent, we can better serve our nation by investing in education.

As an active volunteer within the Somali refugee community in Pittsburgh, I have spent much time helping Somali students with their homework. One of my regular students whom I tutor is a 10th grader studying at her neighborhood Pittsburgh public high school, working toward her dream of becoming teacher. She is incredibly studious and takes academics seriously.

I was surprised to learn during a tutoring session that her school has an insufficient number of books and thus does not allow students to take textbooks home. Inadequate funding for education is not only causing a textbook shortage, it is causing art programs to vanish, teachers to be laid off, schools to close and students to drop out.

Education is not a gift — it is an investment in our nation’s future. But as long as only our suburban and private schools can afford new books, science equipment and educational innovations, our country is at risk of being left in the dust by countries that have fully recognized the role of public and nationally subsidized education in creating a strong economy. We must fight to end the Bush administration tax cuts for the top 2 percent so that a good education is not a privilege but an opportunity for all.

ANGELINA WINBUSH
Bloomfield
The writer is a high school senior.

Help the students

I am a recent graduate of Pittsburgh Public Schools and a student at Community College of Allegheny County, and I am extremely concerned about the potential cuts to education. Our schools need enough support to keep class sizes small and higher education needs to be affordable.

When I was in elementary and high school, there was at least a handful of kids in most classes who would act up and distract other kids in the class. Kids act out when they’re confused or behind. Sometimes I was one of those kids. I didn’t learn everything I was supposed to learn.

I’ve been a student at CCAC for three years, and I have overcome tremendous obstacles to make it this far. I am finally really learning how to study effectively. My vision is to transfer to the University of Pittsburgh and become a child psychologist.

I want to help children where I went wrong, but there are potential federal cuts to education that would compromise my dream of students being well-supported and able to afford higher education. These cuts may cause teacher layoffs, and consequently larger classes, leading to less attention and support for students. Such cuts would also slash certain programs that make college financially feasible for some students.

Instead of cutting education or any of the programs that strengthen our communities, like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other human services, we should allow the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent of earners to expire.

LAMAR SHIELDS
Homestead