Hurting the Poor

I don’t know how Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, can keep a straight face when he talks to reporters. Again and again he declares that Governor Corbett “has increased state funding for public schools by $1.5 billion” over the past four years. [Post-Gazette, 8-28-14]

Anyone with half a brain or with a school age child can tell you that’s a load of hogwash. Sometimes having school age children makes us parents operate with only half a brain, but we can still tell you that Pennsylvania kids are sitting in larger classes, with fewer of their teachers, and missing critical books, supplies, academic courses, and programs.

Of course, what Mr. Eller means is that Gov. Corbett collapsed a bunch of line items into the Basic Education Funding portion of the budget, so that he could say that this single line item increased. Meanwhile, he decimated overall state funding for public schools. Gov. Corbett also likes to tout the additional dollars he put into pension payments (as required by state law) when he calculates that $1.5 billion figure, but will not account for the fact that he slashed charter school tuition reimbursements for districts, Accountability Block Grants, School Improvement Grants, or other programs such as the Education Assistance and High School Reform programs.

As the following graph clearly illustrates, even allowing for increased state contributions to pension payments, our schools are still not receiving the level of preK-12 funding that they were back in 2008-09! (In this chart the federal stimulus dollars are in yellow and pension dollars in light blue: check out the dark blue columns to see how our schools have been set back more than six years in budget cuts.)

PAbudget_w_pensions

But this is more than a rhetorical debate over which line items to count. Four years into this mess it is now clear that these historic budget cuts have hurt our poorest students the most. A new report out this week analyzes state funding per child and finds that budget cuts to the most impoverished school districts were more than three times as large on average as those made to the wealthiest districts. What’s more, using the state’s own data, the report demonstrates that class sizes increased more in high poverty districts and that reading and math scores declined the most for students living in poverty. [Budget cuts, student poverty, and test scores: Examining the evidence, PSEA August 2014] Look at the disparity in chart form:

Graph-AverageFundingChangePerStudent201011-201415

[Source: PSEA, 8-25-14]

What does that look like here in Southwest Pennsylvania? Just look at the following table of the ten biggest losers in Allegheny County on a per-student basis. Pittsburgh tops the list of districts most harmed by budget cuts with an average per-child loss of $1,038, followed by a parade of high-poverty school districts. It’s worth noting the story of race here, too, as these districts have a large proportion of students of color. Compare these numbers to Fox Chapel, which has “only” lost $36 per student (no students should be losing money for their education), or Mt. Lebanon ($9), or my alma mater, Upper St. Clair, which has actually gained $4 on a per-student basis.

MostHarmedDistricts

 LeastHarmedDistricts

Perhaps Gov. Corbett should spend more time explaining why his policies are hurting poor kids than trying to convince us that he has increased spending on public education. We parents just aren’t that gullible.

More or Less

Three thousand, eight hundred. That’s how many teachers and school staff the students in Philadelphia are losing. You read that right: 3,800 – almost 20% of the city’s entire education workforce – received pink slips last week. Philadelphia public schools will no longer have any secretaries to answer the phones, counselors to help students, assistant principals, or cafeteria monitors. There will be no more teachers for music, art, or library. No books, supplies, after school activities, clubs, or field trips. [The Notebook, 6-7-13]

One Philadelphia teacher wrote to education historian Diane Ravitch this weekend to say, “Most of my co-workers laid off were history teachers – an untested subject in PA.” She went on, “What is happening in Philadelphia is a complete travesty and a failure of democracy … If I return to the classroom in the fall, the ‘education’ I will be able to give my students will not look anything like what I was taught education should be.” [DianeRavitch, 6-9-13] Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the cuts will leave only “something called a school.” [The Notebook, 6-7-13]

So why should we care over here in Southwest PA? For one thing, the travesty described by these Philadelphia educators is just the tip of the public-education-crisis iceberg. What’s happening in the city of brotherly love is happening all over Pennsylvania (and in fact, all over the country) with the systematic de-funding of our schools, the re-routing of public resources to private hands, and the re-writing of state education policies to benefit the few at the expense of the many.

Look at Duquesne school district, which is circling the drain and may not even be a school district after next year. Look at Wilkinsburg, which is on the state’s new “financial watch list” and is just inches from a state takeover. The Post-Gazette reports today that residents there think “the district has already fallen off the cliff”. One person told a reporter, “Honestly, it’s too far gone. … At this point, it needs to be totally dismantled.”  [Post-Gazette, 6-10-13] That’s the tragic sound of the public giving up on public education. Worse, it means people have given up on public school students.

This battle we are fighting for our schools is a battle for education justice. This past weekend, Yinzercator Kathy Newman and I presented at the Labor and Working Class History Association conference in New York City, along with our colleague Rebecca Poyourow from Philadelphia. We talked about the political, social, and economic context of public education today and our grassroots movement – and Rebecca spoke movingly about what is happening in our sister city.

In another session, teachers from New York and Chicago talked about the successful 2012 Chicago teachers strike, which was really a strike to save public schools for public school students. Peter Brogan, a Ph.D. student in geography and one of the panelists at that session, described the way that school closings reproduce poverty in particular neighborhoods and treat students as “surplus humanity.” What an apt phrase. When we give up on public schools in places like Wilkinsburg or Philadelphia, we condemn tens of thousands of children to living as surplus humanity. And we know that this “surplus” is mostly black and brown. In other words, education justice is also about racial justice.

I was struck by this photo taken at a recent rally in Philadelphia of a young African-American student holding a sign that reads, “Why take MORE when we already have LESS?” Indeed.

Philly_src-protest-5-30-13
[Photo: Amy Yeboah, The Notebook, 5-30-13]

Think about this student. Think about Duquesne and Wilkinsburg. Think about Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and the devastating cuts to our educational programs. It’s time to get MORE for these students who have LESS.

Education Voters PA is urging everyone to call the State Senate today, explaining, “Over the past two years, the Senate has played a critical role in getting money back into the budget for public education. …Right now the Senate is where key decisions will get made to move things in the right direction.” Click here to get your Senator’s information and then call today and tell them to:

  • Fight for $270 million in funding to be restored. If they can cut almost $1 billion in one year, then restoring a third of that shouldn’t be impossible. In addition, they should help identify resources for Special Education – which has been flat funded for 5 years – and they should fix the charter pension double dip.
  • Adopt provisions to improve the funding allocation formula to make it fairer and to get to adequate funding levels for all students.
  • Ask them NOT give away hundreds of millions this year by eliminating the state corporate assets tax (the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax). Tell them to delay this phase out so we can so we can invest in children instead of providing another corporate tax break.

That would do it, more or less.

Taking the Public out of Public Education

Talk about putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis just picked Joe Watkins to be the Chief Recovery Officer (CRO) for the struggling school district in Chester Uplands. Under new laws passed with the budget this summer, the state can now appoint a CRO to develop a “financial recovery plan” for districts like Chester Upland over in Eastern PA and Duquesne, right here in the heart of Yinzer Nation.

The CRO has enormous power to close schools and convert them to charters, to cancel contracts with vendors, and to renegotiate teachers’ contracts. He can even force local school boards to raise property taxes. And if school board members don’t go along with the plan, the state actually now has the ability to prevent individuals from resigning their posts! In an op-ed piece today, state representative Marc Gergely, a local Democrat from White Oak, points out that this is a violation of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and calls it “utterly ridiculous and a dangerous abuse of state power.” (See Gergely’s excellent piece, reprinted below, about why local taxpayers should care.)

Handing Joe Watkins this kind of power was just what Governor Corbett had in mind when he pushed these educational “reform” bills through the state legislature at the last minute back in June. Watkins has been the chairman of the super PAC, Students First PA, backed by the fortunes of mega-billionaire “school choice” activist, Betsy DeVos, and her national organization, the American Federation for Children (AFC). (See “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money” for more on DeVos, the AFC and her Pennsylvania super PAC.) Over the past three years, DeVos and her colleagues, who include the ultra-right-wing Koch brothers, have funneled $2.5 million into Pennsylvania politics through this PAC alone.

Their investment has paid off big time. Governor Corbett appointed Joel Greenberg, an AFC board member and hedge fund trader from Philadelphia, to be on his education transition team. Greenberg is also one of the principle donors to the Students First PA super PAC, which spent this past spring handing out huge contributions to pro-voucher candidates. And now Corbett’s education secretary has tapped the PAC’s chairman to raid, er, watch the henhouse.

Watkins will oversee a school district where almost half the students already attend charter schools. In fact, Chester Uplands is home to the state’s largest charter school, Chester Community Charter, run by Vahan Gureghian’s management company. Remember him? Gureghian is Gov. Corbett’s single largest campaign donor – and another member of his education transition team – who has collected over $60 million in public taxpayer dollars through his charter management company, but has been fighting a right-to-know lawsuit for the past six years to prevent the public from learning his actual salary. Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Gureghian recently purchased two Florida beachfront lots for $28.9 million where they plan to build a 20,000 square foot “French-inspired Monte Carlo estate.” [See “Soaking the Public”.]

Watkins, in his new role as Chester Uplands CRO, will have plenty of opportunity to charterize more of the district’s public schools and there will be little the local school board can do to stop him. State Sen. Daylin Leach, a member of the Senate’s education committee, called Watkins an ideologue and the wrong choice to rebuild a strong public school system, saying, “It would have been hard to come up with a nominee who is more publicly associated with the effort to undermine public education.” [Newsworks.org 8-20-12]

I’ll point out again that not all charter schools are necessarily bad – especially those run by nonprofits, with locally controlled boards accountable to the public, and who hire accredited teachers and pay them fair wages. But student achievement at charter schools has been a mixed bag, despite years of promises that they would revolutionize education. In Chester Upland, some charter schools performed better and some performed worse than their traditional school peers, though Vahan Gureghian’s Chester Community Charter is on the state’s short list under investigation for possible cheating on the PSSAs.

As Lawrence Feinberg, a school board member in Haverford Township in Delaware County, aptly explains: “After 20 years there is no clear evidence demonstrating that charters or vouchers are systematically more effective than traditional public schools in improving student performance for students in high-poverty schools. What is clear is that charters can be extremely lucrative for owners and management companies.” [Keystone State Education Coalition, 8-21-12]

Watkins is now in a powerful position to force public funding into private hands. And other districts across the state – including Duquesne, York, and Harrisburg – will soon be getting their own CROs. Those of us who care about our public schools are going to have to fight hard to keep the public in public education.

———————

Failing grade for Corbett / A new law stomps on the rights of the Duquesne school district and others

State Rep. Marc Gergely, D-White Oak [Post-Gazette Op-Ed, 8-22-12]

The financial crisis in the Duquesne City School District should have been a wake-up call to state government that comprehensive education reform is needed immediately. Instead, Gov. Tom Corbett recently signed a new law written by legislative Republicans that stomps on the local rights of financially distressed school districts, like Duquesne and possibly Clairton and Jeannette in the future.

Property taxpayers in neighboring school districts should be worried, too. You could be on the hook for thousands of dollars for every student transferring into your district.

The bill passed with the state budget, which locked in last year’s unprecedented $1 billion in cuts to public schools and provided $49 million for the state’s 16 distressed school districts. But the extra money came with a huge catch. It’s now much easier for the state to take over a school district.

The bill narrowly passed the House despite strong opposition from some legislators, including me, in communities that will be harmed.

This school year, the state Education Department, will spend $6 million to appoint a chief recovery officer to replace boards of control in Duquesne, Chester-Upland, Harrisburg and York. Eventually the state could take control of up to nine school districts at one time.

Each CRO will have enormous power to develop and implement a financial recovery plan. Regardless of what’s in the best educational interests of students, the CRO can close schools or convert traditional public schools into nonprofit or for-profit charter schools. For Duquesne, that’s a huge obstacle. It’s so underfunded that charter schools avoid coming here. There’s no profit to earn.

However, changes are coming for Duquesne students before a CRO is named. After months of refusing to discuss Duquesne’s future, Education Secretary Ron Tomalis in early July told the West Mifflin Area and East Allegheny school districts to expect seventh and eighth graders from Duquesne.

Taxpayers in those districts will feel it, too. West Mifflin Area says it gets only about $11,000 to educate each Duquesne student, but the real cost is closer to $14,000. West Mifflin Area’s property taxpayers will pick up the difference.

First, property owners had to endure tax hikes because of massive state funding cuts, now they could be paying to educate students from other school districts.

In the name of saving money, a CRO has even more power, such as cancelling agreements with vendors and renegotiating teachers’ contracts. Most striking of all, the law can force a locally elected school board to vote to raise school property taxes. If it refuses, the state will go to court to appoint a receiver who will force through a tax hike.

The CRO even has the authority to prevent a school board member from resigning, which violates the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That’s utterly ridiculous and a dangerous abuse of state power.

Schools like Duquesne are struggling financially because communities lack the tax base to support them. Raising taxes makes the situation worse and delays the inevitable and more difficult decisions for a few more years.

That could eventually force other struggling districts like Clairton and Jeannette to send students to Elizabeth Forward, West Jefferson Hills, Penn-Trafford, Hempfield Area or Norwin.

We must do more than this misguided state takeover plan that’s not in the best interest of any school district. Ultimately, it fails to address the real issues, the true cost of educating diverse student populations and the fact that some communities lack the tax base to support quality schools.

We have an obligation to ensure every child in our community has access to a first-class education. Our decisions will affect each student’s education and ultimately the course of many lives. Instead of punishing communities with limited means by forcing a state takeover, we should work toward a fairer funding formula to allow all schools to be successful, regardless of their ZIP code.

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.

In the Tank

Governor Corbett’s approval rating has tanked, in no small part because of what he is doing to education. A new poll out this week shows him at his lowest rating yet, with only 36% of voters happy with his performance. Meanwhile, over half of those surveyed disapproved of the way Gov. Corbett is handling the state budget. [Quinnipiac poll, 6-12-12]

No small wonder that Mr. Unpopular has garnered national attention for his appalling track record of decimating public education. Last week Alternet.org named Corbett to its list of ten worst governors, saying “His attacks on public education alone make him worthy of our Hall of Shame, but coupled with a massive tax break for Shell Oil–$1.7 billion in subsidies for the oil giant—his comments about taking responsibility for future generations ring awfully hollow.” [Alternet.org, 6-9-12]

Local mom and OnePittsburgh activist Debbie Srogi took Gov. Corbett to task for the same thing in an excellent OpEd piece in today’s Post-Gazette. And Pittsburgh’s City Paper skewered the Governor’s support for Big Oil at the expense of essential public services on its cover this week, playing on the now-famous Time magazine breastfeeding cover. The cartoon, which spread quickly through social media, shows Governor Corbett suckling corporate greed and asks, “Are You Gov Enough?”

[Source: Pittsburgh City Paper]

Even the New York Times wrote a scathing editorial about Corbett’s cuts to public education, pointing to Reading, PA as the poster-child for the consequences of defunding schools. That city, which is considered the nation’s poorest, just laid off 110 teachers and is making drastic cuts to educational programs. The editors criticized Gov. Corbett for failing to replace federal stimulus dollars in the education budget, which the state had committed itself to several years ago, and said, “Instead he further drained his public coffers by cutting business taxes by $250 million this year.” [New York Times, 6-13-12]

But my absolute favorite quote of the week came yesterday at a meeting in Pittsburgh of the Governor’s new Advisory Committee on Postsecondary Education. He set up that group of 31 university administrators, business leaders, and students back in February when he proposed slashing the higher education budget by an unbelievable thirty percent. In a move reminiscent of his attempts to privatize public K-12 education, Corbett and his allies have been trying to funnel state aid to college students (who could attend private universities) rather than fund public universities directly. Even though he leads a private institution, Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon called that plan a “terrible idea” and said it “ignored the idea of education as a public good.” [Post-Gazette, 6-15-12]

Yes, indeed. Thank you President Cohon. Public education is a public good. And Governor Corbett’s approval rating may just stay in the tank until he realizes that.