Get on the Bus!

After proposing a slight increase in education funding back in the winter, Gov. Corbett is now fishing in his own budget to cut over $1.3 billion. Guess where those cuts could come from? Education again, of course.

The state has been short on revenue for the past six months and now legislators are scrambling to put together a final budget by the end of this month, saying “all options are on the table.” While acknowledging that, “There is very broad support for increased education spending,” Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware), maintains “it is hard to get to increased education spending when you have a gap to fill.” [Post-Gazette, 6-2-14] Of course, the Republicans who control both the House and Senate refuse to discuss the corporate tax giveaways that have tripled over the past decade (with the blessing of both parties), creating a large portion of that gap.

Meanwhile, school districts across the state continue to cut into the educational bone. Just this week we learned that Pittsburgh plans to slash more world languages, with schools across the city eliminating language offerings entirely or seriously reducing courses. [Post-Gazette, 6-1-14] These kinds of cuts take our city and state in exactly the wrong direction. Is it any wonder that the Washington Post just listed Gov. Corbett as the nation’s #1 least likely incumbent to remain in office? In a new poll, Corbett is already trailing the Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf by 20 points. [Philly.com, 6-2-14]

Voters may take out their ire on the sitting Governor in the fall elections. But in the meantime, there’s a looming state budget crisis and you would expect our legislators to be hard at work finding a way to pay for our public schools. You would be wrong. Instead, on Monday, the House of Representatives approved a new bill (172-24!) telling schools that they can post the national motto, “In God We Trust,” in the hallways. [Post-Gazette, 6-3-14] Perhaps they meant this ironically, to let students know that they ought to place their trust somewhere else, since they can no longer have faith in the legislature to provide the most basic resources for their education. [For more on this ridiculous bill and our local legislator who sponsored it, see “Trick or Treat.”]

Clearly it’s time for us to go tell our elected representatives that students are more important than mottos. Yinzercation is sponsoring a bus trip to Harrisburg on Wednesday, June 18th. Please “Get on the Bus” for education justice with us! It will be a great day and we’ll take care of all the planning, you just need to show up. Children are welcome, though be aware that it’s a long day (we will leave early and return in the evening). Pittsburgh parent Sara Goodkind is organizing the day, and our state-wide partner, Education Voters PA, is kindly providing the bus for us. Please click here to sign up, and we will send you the details.

Grab a friend and make it a day. We are going to have fun. And we’re going to hold our legislators accountable for adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for our public schools.

It’s Call Your Legislator Day

Today’s the day! We are joining Education Voters PA for a state-wide call-your-legislator day. Over the past three years, our children have suffered enough: they’ve lost thousands of their teachers, art, music, tutoring, library, nurses, counselors, athletics, and so much more. When will it end? Our legislators are debating the state budget right now and things will really heat up over the next few weeks.

Unfortunately, the news out of Harrisburg is not good. Back in February, Gov. Corbett proposed a state budget that would flat fund basic K-12 education, but included some small increases for special education and early childhood education. He also proposed creating a new block grant program, which would come with many strings attached. [See “More Bad than Good”] To pay for it, Corbett’s proposal relies on inflated expectations of leftover year-end revenues that could be carried forward into the next fiscal year. [See “Paying for It”] However, that appears highly unlikely given the latest state revenue projections.

Last Thursday, the state’s Independent Fiscal Office calculated that Pennsylvania would be short $1 billion in revenue needed to fund Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget. Now the governor is looking for ways to cut $800 million from his plan. Will it come out of education? (Or human services? Or any of the other critical things we need?) At the same time Corbett looks to make more cuts, “corporate tax collections have dropped by $292 million compared to last year” because of the numerous tax giveaways our legislators have enacted in recent years. [PA Budget and Policy Center, 5-2-14]

Now is the time to speak up and tell our legislators that, as Education Voters says, “Pennsylvania’s children cannot afford another year of inadequate state funding and political posturing.” Why make phone calls? Just 10 calls in one day can get a legislator to pay attention to an issue: joining together with thousands of other parents, students, teachers, and community members across Pennsylvania on a single day means we can amplify our voices. Please take just a few minutes and make three phone calls:

  1. Call your State Senator. [click here to find the number]
  2. Call your State Representative. [click here to find the number]
  3. Call Gov. Corbett’s office at (717) 787-2500.

For the past three years, we have been demanding adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding for our public schools. Want some tips on what else you might say? Here is what Education Voters suggests we all ask our legislators:

  • Make the proposed increase of $230 million a permanent source of funding in the Basic Education Fund (BEF). This increase should NOT be distributed to school districts in block grants that have many strings attached and can be eliminated in future budgets.
  • Allocate state funding using a fair, transparent, and accurate funding formula. This formula should take political deal making out of the budget process and be based on current data and the real costs of educating students with different needs.
  • Keep the proposed increase for special education of $20 million in the budget. After six years of flat funding for special education, we applaud the decision to finally increase the funding.
  • Restore charter school reimbursement payments to local school districts. Public schools lost hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding when Governor Corbett eliminated this line item in 2011. The legislature made changes to the public education system by adding charter schools, and then put in place the charter reimbursement line to help address the additional costs communities were facing.  Cutting this funding hurt both community school district students and charter school students and compounded an already difficult situation. These funds should be restored until a formula is adopted.
  • Ensure that any savings from the elimination of the charter school pension double-dip payments stay in the education budget and be returned to local school districts. These savings should not go into the general fund where legislators can spend them as they please.

These phone calls work! If you want some more inspiration, check out this fun one minute video of Pittsburgh Public School parents making phone calls in 2012, the year we saved $100 million from being cut from the early childhood budget:

Rolling in Dough, or Debt?

To hear Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of education, Carolyn Dumaresq, tell it, our school districts are rolling in dough. In an op-ed piece this week she said the proposed “2014-15 budget dedicates a record $12.01 billion for Pennsylvania’s early, basic and postsecondary education system.” [Indiana Gazette, 3-23-14] I like how you can roll three program areas together and get one giant-big-huge sounding number. Oh my gosh! Twelve billion!

Politicians apparently like to roll things together. It reminds me of when Gov. Corbett rolled a bunch of line items together in the K-12 “basic education” budget a couple years ago and then went around claiming he had “increased” K-12 funding, while overall he had slashed it by close to $1 billion. [See “The Truth About the Numbers”] Oh wait a minute. The administration is still making these outlandish claims. In her piece, Dr. Dumaresq repeated Gov. Corbett’s old story, saying, “Since taking office, Corbett has increased support of public schools by $1.55 billion.”

Why there you go. All along we thought he had decreased funding, but he has really increased it. Schools are literally rolling in extra dough. Hiring back thousands of laid-off teachers, restoring program cuts, re-opening those early childhood education classrooms – wait, what? They aren’t? Did anyone in the Governor’s office talk to the Allentown School District, which just announced yesterday that it will lay off another 100 teachers and educational staff? [Morning Call, 3-26-14] If only Allentown realized how much cash Gov. Corbett has been giving them. Maybe the check got lost in the mail.

Never mind. Dr. Dumaresq assures us that “Through targeted initiatives, the governor has … infused stronger educational resources into classrooms.” I’m glad those resources are strong, because now that we’ve laid off 20,000 teachers in Pennsylvania in the past three years, they are going to need muscles to do all the heavy lifting of educating 35 kids in a classroom. Seriously, “stronger educational resources”? Do we even know what this means?

That sounds similar to the next assertion that Gov. Corbett has “focused financial resources into initiatives that support all students.” When the governor eliminated our state’s fair funding formula he pretty much assured that financial resources were not going to equitably support all students.

After that op-ed, a sobering dose of reality might be in order. University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg delivered just that in a speech Monday, warning that students are now burdened with “crushing personal debts” as they try to pay for higher education while the state and federal government continue to slash support. [Post-Gazette, 3-24-14] In fact, Pennsylvania cut $67 million from Pitt’s budget three years ago, and then locked those cuts in for the past two years, meaning the University “now receives the same amount of state funding it received in 1995. If adjusted for inflation… state aid has fallen to its lowest level since the university became state-related in the 1960s.”

Yep. Pennsylvania public higher ed is definitely rolling in that state dough. Not. Indeed, Chancellor Nordenberg told the audience that “all but 10 states have begun to reinvest in higher education as the recession’s financial effects have eased; Pennsylvania is one of the 10 that has not.” Rather than rolling in dough, too many public education programs – from early childhood through higher ed – are rolling in debt.

The spot of good news in that area this week came from Pittsburgh Public Schools, which announced that it ended 2013 with an operating surplus of $20.8 million. That came mostly from unexpected increases in collections of earned income and real estate transfer taxes that may or may not continue. In other words, that bump may not be sustainable. And even with the welcome news from 2013, “the district is forecasting a $14.5 million deficit this calendar year, leading the district to run out of money in 2017 when the projected deficit is $59.8 million.” [Post-Gazette, 3-26-14]

So our fiscal crisis has been pushed back another year. But here in Pittsburgh, and around the state, we are still talking about mountains of debt, not dough.

Tweet!

It’s spring and the birds are tweeting. And so are education advocates! Do you tweet? I mean in the sense of using Twitter, not singing with sparrows. I found myself dragged rather reluctantly into the Twitterverse just over a year ago. As a historian fond of words, nuance, and careful argument, I find it incredibly difficult to say anything in 140 characters or less. But I’ve had some great teachers (thank you Pam and Sheila!) and have learned to appreciate Twitter’s grassroots power.

Here are just two examples of ways that Twitter can connect and amplify our voices at the state and federal level. If you tweet, please consider taking part!

Twitter Chat on PA Education Funding
Next Tuesday, March 25th at 8PM there will be a “live chat” on Twitter with school leaders from throughout the state. You are invited to join the conversation using the hashtag #PAEdFunding: you can just lurk and learn, or you are welcome to participate and share your thoughts on public education funding. The four hosts are:

  • @PASASupts – Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators
  • @PSBA – Pennsylvania School Boards Association
  • @PASBO_org – Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials
  • @PARSS2go – Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools

Here’s some good information about twitter chats from the PA School Board Association:

If you’ve never tweeted before, join us. It’s a simple, free and fast-paced way to communicate and share information. Here are directions and a few tips:

How to Get Started: Log-on to www.twitter.com, sign-up, create your profile, find people and organizations you are interested in following and start tweeting out messages in 140 characters or less.

What is a Twitter Chat? Twitter chats happen when a group of people all tweet about the same topic using a specific tag (#), called a hashtag, which allows it to be followed like a transcript on Twitter. The chats are at a specific time, once, and often repeated weekly or bi-weekly at announced times.

Follow the Conversation or Check Back Later: To follow a Twitter chat live or to read the conversation later, log-on to Twitter, click on the #Discover link, then search for #PAEdFunding. By searching for or clicking the hashtag on a tweet, you can see all of the recent tweets on that topic. Then, read, reply and post your own thoughts and messages.

It’s That Easy to Join the Conversation: Tell your friends and colleagues, anyone who wants to learn more about education or wants to join the movement to establish a fair and predictable way of distributing state education dollars to ensure equity and adequate support for all schools regardless of where students live. Join us!

Twitter Storm for a Federal Hearing
The national Network for Public Education (NPE) is calling for congressional hearings into the overuse and misuse of high-stakes testing. Their resolution, passed following the first national conference two weeks ago, has been picking up steam. [For more on that conference, see “We are Many.”] I am pasting the full text of that resolution below, so you have a chance to read the eleven very thoughtful questions that NPE is asking our federal legislators to investigate. But first we need to urge them to hold a hearing.

NPE.thunderclap

Tomorrow, Wednesday, March 19th, from 8-10PM, NPE is hosting a “twitter storm.” The idea is to get lots of people tweeting about the same thing at the same time to amplify the message. Learn more about the twitter storm here. You can also use a new tool called, Thunderclap, which calls itself a “crowdspeaking platform that helps people be heard by saying something together. It allows a single message to be mass-shared, flash mob-style, so it rises above the noise of your social networks.” I can report that it only takes a few seconds to sign up to participate in the NPE Thunderclap, which will automatically send a tweet out for you at the same moment as other participants.

Try it tomorrow and let us know how you weather the storm. It must be the promise of spring temperatures because I feel like chirping, I mean, tweeting!

Resolution from the Network for Public Education, March 2, 2014:
We are writing to request that the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee hold hearings to investigate the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized testing in the nation’s K-12 public schools.

Starting with No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001, which mandated standardized testing of every student in grades three through eight, many states have since rolled out testing in additional grades. This emphasis on testing has increased under policies of the Obama administration, such as Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers, that tie test scores to teacher and principal evaluations and school “turnarounds” and closures. There is a danger that tests now seem to have become the purpose of education, rather than a measure of education.

The tests were initiated to measure whether schools were delivering an education of high quality to every child. It makes sense to determine whether all students are achieving at a minimum level of proficiency in English and math, and standardized tests can help discern whether they are.

Our concern is that high-stakes testing in public schools has led to multiple unintended consequences that warrant federal scrutiny, including the following questions, among others.

Do the tests promote skills our children and our economy need? The most popular form of tests today are multiple-choice because they are easy and cheap to grade. But many educators and parents worry that teaching children how to take these tests doesn’t teach them how to think. The new standardized exams from the multi-state testing consortia do not appear to be significantly better, and will likely be scored by computers, which cannot gauge higher order thinking.. The challenges of the future and our nation’s economic success require the ability to solve and identify new problems, think creatively, and work collaboratively with others.

What is the purpose of these tests? Assessments should be used as diagnostic tools, to help teachers figure out where students are in their learning. But in most states, teachers are forbidden to see the actual test questions or provide feedback to students. Teachers do not see how their students answered specific test items and learn nothing about how their students are doing, other than a single score, which may arrive long after the student has left their classrooms. Thus, the tests have no diagnostic value for teachers or students, who do not have the opportunity to review and learn the material they got wrong.

How good are the tests? Problems with the actual content of tests have been extensively documented. There are numerous instances of flawed questions and design, including no right answer, more than one right answer, wording that is unclear or misleading, reading passages or problems that are developmentally inappropriate or contain product placements, test questions on material never taught, and items that border on bizarre, such as a famous example that asked students to read a passage about a race between a pineapple and a hare. Tests are not scientific instruments like barometers; they are commercial products that are subject to multiple errors.

Are tests being given to children who are too young? In many states, high-stakes standardized tests are required for even the youngest school children. In Chicago, for instance, Kindergarten students face four standardized tests two or three times a year and can spend up to a third of their time taking tests. Children of this age typically do not know how to read or even hold a pencil or use a keyboard. Subjecting 5-year-olds to a timed test is not only hopeless from a practical standpoint, but subject children to undue stress.

Are tests culturally biased? Every standardized test in the world is an accurate reflection of socioeconomic advantage and disadvantage. Thus, students from racial and ethnic-minorities, students with disabilities, and students of lower socioeconomic status tend to have lower scores than their more advantaged peers. Further, test results are often used as rationales for closing schools that serve low-income communities of color.

Are tests harmful to students with disabilities? Over the past few years, there have been numerous instances in which children with significant health situations, even undergoing life-saving procedures, were pressured to complete required tests – even from their hospital beds. Children with severe brain disorders have been compelled to take a state test. Recently in Florida, an eleven-your-old boy who was dying in hospice was expected to take a test. Such behavior defies common sense and common decency.

How has the frequency and quantity of testing increased? Testing is taking significant time away from instructional learning time. In Chicago, elementary school students take the REACH, the TRC, the MAP, the EXPLORE, the ISAT, and DIBELS every year. In North Carolina, third-grade students are tested in reading 36 times throughout the year – in addition to other standardized tests. Middle schools students in Pennsylvania may take over 20 standardized tests in a single school year. High school students in Florida can have their instruction disrupted 65 times out of 180 school days by testing. In New York, the time taken by state exams has increased by 128%. When so much time is devoted to testing instead of teaching, students have less time to learn.

Does testing harm teaching? Now that test scores are linked to principal and teacher evaluations in many states, teachers engage in more test prep because they are pressured and afraid, not because they think the assessments are educationally sound. Principals are nervous about their school’s scores. Many educators have admitted they are fearful of taking students on field trips, engaging them in independent projects, or spending time on untested subjects like science or history, art or music because it might take time away from test prep. As a result, the curriculum has narrowed and students have lost their opportunity for a well-rounded education.

How much money does it cost? It is difficult to calculate the entire costs of standardized testing – including the many classroom hours spent on test prep. But it is well known that nearly every state is spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to develop more high-stakes tests for students, and requiring local districts to spend hundreds of millions more to get their students ready to take them. In addition to the cost of the tests and the interim tests, there are added costs of new curriculum, textbooks, hardware, software, and bandwidth that new tests require. There are also opportunity costs when money allocated for testing supersedes other education expenditures, such as libraries, art and music programs, social workers and guidance counselors, and extra-curricular activities.

Are there conflicts of interest in testing policies? In many states, a company that has a multi-million dollar contract to create tests for the state is also the same company that profits from producing curriculum and test prep materials. In some states, a single testing company has been able to win a contract worth many millions of dollars by lobbying and engaging in backdoor influencing of public officials. In other states, school districts buy textbooks from the same company that makes the tests so their students have an advantage on the tests.

Was it legal for the U.S. Department of Education to fund two testing consortia for the Common Core State Standards? According to federal law and regulations, the U.S. Department of education is not allowed to supervise, direct, or control curriculum or instruction. Yet the funding of testing consortia directly intervenes in the curriculum or instruction of almost every public school in the nation, as the tests will determine what is taught and how it is taught.

We believe that every child in the United States deserves a sound education. Every child deserves a full curriculum in a school with adequate resources. We are deeply concerned that the current overemphasis on standardized testing is harming children, public schools, and our nation’s economic and civic future. It’s our conclusion that the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized tests may now warrant federal intervention. We urge you to pursue the questions we have raised.

Where’s the Money?

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

Possible State Revenue Sources

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

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

Paying for It

In our analysis earlier this week, we concluded that Governor Corbett’s proposed education budget is “More BAD than GOOD.” But the way he intends to pay for it is just plain WRONG.

First, the governor depends on an overly rosy picture to balance his spreadsheet. He is counting on having $216 million left over at the end of this fiscal year in June to carry forward, yet state revenue collections are already $41 million below where they were projected to be as of January. [Unless otherwise noted, all numbers from PA Budget and Policy Center, “Proposed Budget Overview,” 2-4-14] What’s more, “The governor’s budget relies on more than $1 billion in one-time revenue sources that will not be available for future budgets.” [Sharon Ward, PBPC Commentary, 2-5-14]

Pennsylvania students deserve adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding for their schools. That means tricks like inflating year-end projected balances or finding one-time sources of funding won’t cut it.

I’m also dismayed to see that the governor’s budget depends on $75 million from new land leases for gas drilling in our state parks and forests. We’ve had a moratorium on leases since 2008, and for good reason. Our children’s future depends on a decent education and clean water, air, and soil. But even if you think fracking is a good idea, we can probably agree that we ought to impose a severance tax on Marcellus shale: most states with major mineral resources like ours have a severance tax, not just a mere impact fee. Doing so could yield $334 million per year. [Post-Gazette analysis, 12-27-13] Not imposing this severance tax is essentially a gift to oil and gas corporations, who are some of Governor Corbett’s largest campaign donors. [FollowTheMoney.org]

And that leads us to the biggest problem with how Gov. Corbett intends to pay for his proposed budget. For the past three years, “attempting to improve growth, [he] made a bet that a billion dollars in new corporate tax cuts would fuel economic recovery, but that bet has been lost.” Instead, job growth in Pennsylvania is behind all but two other states in the nation and our unemployment rate is above the national average. Meanwhile, “corporate profits continue to rise, but those profitable corporations are paying less in taxes, if anything at all.” [Sharon Ward, PBPC Commentary, 2-5-14]

This proposed budget continues to give away millions to corporations that ought to be on the table and available for public goods and services. The PBPC reports that, “Total corporate tax collections are predicted to decline for a second straight year, with continued annual declined expected through 2017-18.” [PBPC “Proposed Budget Overview,” 2-4-14] This includes the continued phase-out of the capital stock and franchise tax, which Gov. Corbett is handing to corporations as a bonus. If our legislators would freeze this one tax at its 2012 level, the state could raise around $390 million. [PBPC, “Budget Analysis,” 5-29-13]

Over the past ten years, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, the legislature has created a whole raft of new corporate tax breaks. Incredibly, at the same time our students are going without the most basic educational needs, “The annual cost of these [tax breaks] has already grown by 300% between 2003-04 and 2012-13, from $850 million to $3.0 billion, and is expected to reach $3.9 billion by 2018-19.” [PBPC, “Corporate Tax Cuts Help Put State in the Red,” 12-13-13]

This is unconscionable. Corporations need to pay their fair share. Because when it comes to our state budget, if corporations aren’t helping to pay for it, our children wind up paying the price.

More Bad than Good

Governor Corbett doesn’t want to hear what the public thinks about his proposed budget. He leaked details to the press Monday in advance of his Tuesday announcement “under the condition of a late-night embargo, precluding the gauging of reaction before publication.” [Post-Gazette, 2-4-14] So we’ll keep our analysis nice and simple for him:

  • More $ for special ed = GOOD
  • More scholarships for higher ed = GOOD
  • More $ for early childhood = GOOD
  • Flat funding for K-12 basic ed = VERY BAD
  • More $ for richer schools = BAD
  • Flat funding for higher ed = BAD
  • Making schools compete for $ = BAD
  • Grant $ only for training but not teachers = BAD

Now, for those who would like a few more details, let’s start with the positive. Governor Corbett proposed a $20 million increase to special education funding. That’s welcome news since the state’s own Special Education Funding Commission recently found that special education funding has not increased since 2008-09, effectively pushing rising costs onto local school districts. [Pennsylvania Special Education Funding Commission Report, December 2013] This has been especially problematic for districts like Pittsburgh that have substantially larger proportions of students with special education needs (18.1% of Pittsburgh students receive special education services, while the state average for all schools is 14.5%). Legislators need to continue the positive momentum on special education funding while also re-instating a fair funding formula to distribute that money.

Governor Corbett also proposed an additional $10 million for early childhood education and a $25 million college scholarship program. There’s probably no better investment we can make than in quality early childhood programs. However, while the college scholarship program will help low-income and middle-class families, it does nothing to address the historic de-funding of higher public education. Over the past four years, Gov. Corbett has cut public college and university funding by an astonishing 20% (forcing institutions to push costs onto students through rising tuition bills) and he proposes locking in those cuts again this year. Pennsylvania students now rank as the third-most indebted in the nation. [Project on Student Debt]

Perhaps the worst news in the budget is the Governor’s plan to flat-fund the K-12 “basic education” line. This line provides the bulk of education funds to our public schools and flat funding essentially means another budget cut, as districts grapple with ever rising costs. Our kids have already lost just about everything that isn’t nailed down. What else would he like them to give up?

The Governor is clearly banking on the $340 million he has proposed adding as a “Ready to Learn Block Grant” to dampen criticism of his education funding policies this election year. Unfortunately, this money comes with strings attached, with a narrow focus on math and reading readiness, curriculum, and teacher training. [PA Dept. of Education release, 2-4-14] While these are valuable, schools can’t use this money for the very things our students need most: hiring back their teachers, reducing class sizes, restoring their tutoring programs, or replacing lost art and music classes.

But here’s his worst idea of all: some of that money will be distributed as competitive grants, including $10 million for a competitive Hybrid Learning program that would award funding to 100 schools, and $1 million for a new competitive Governor’s Expanding Excellence Program (GEEP), open to schools with SPP scores 90 and above. Making schools compete for money creates winners and losers, not equal opportunity for all. These programs are not about getting our neediest students the resources they deserve, and they overwhelmingly favor wealthy districts.

Last week when Governor Corbett let the news slip about his GEEP plan, we talked about this misguided strategy to give more money to exactly the wrong schools. [“GEEPers, More Money for the Rich”] In a new analysis of GEEP, Research for Action found that only 428 schools (out of 3,004 in Pennsylvania) would be eligible to participate in the program based on their SPP scores. It also found that “Statewide, no school with a poverty rate above 65 percent is eligible.” [RFA Policy Note, 2-4-14] As you will recall, SPP scores are almost entirely based on high-stakes-test scores, which track very closely to family income. Research for Action has produced a terrific new scatter plot that beautifully demonstrates the correlation between SPP scores and poverty. Stick with me, and we’ll explain this:

PAschoolsSPPscorePoverty

On this graph, every school is represented by a triangle. Those that are GEEP eligible, with SPP scores over 90 (on or above the red line), are shown in blue. The vertical axis shows the school’s SPP score (those range from 11.4 to 101.4, possible due to the awarding of “bonus” points). The horizontal axis shows the percentage of students at that school living in poverty. Now see that black line tracing the declining SPP scores for schools with a higher proportion of economically disadvantaged students? That’s a pretty stark illustration of the way that, for all its bells and whistles, the School Performance Profile system continues to grade schools – and reward them – on the basis of wealth.

On the whole then, Governor Corbett’s budget proposal contained more BAD than GOOD. But it was just the opening salvo. We now have several months of negotiation before the legislature will pass the final state budget in June. We need to tell our legislators LESS BAD would be GOOD for Pennsylvania students.

GEEPers, More Money for the Rich

You’re not going to believe this. But in his budget proposal next week, Governor Corbett is apparently planning to increase funding for public schools by – wait for it – giving wealthy districts more money. OK, it’s not as simple as that. But in effect, this is exactly what he is proposing.

As we learned two weeks ago, the Governor has been talking about finding $100-$200 million more to put into public education. [“New Year Cheer”] That would be great, though sources close to Corbett say “a decent chunk of that funding will be the state’s share of the pension payments for school employees.” They also report, “One thing is certain, little-to-none will be in the form of an increase of the state budget’s basic education line item.” [Capitolwire, 1-29-14 (paywall), see summary on Keystone State Education Coalition, 1-30-14] In other words, that money is not going to help our public schools hire back teachers or restore any of the programs our students have lost.

Instead, at an event on Tuesday Gov. Corbett let it slip that he would create a new competitive grant program called “The Governor’s Expanding Excellence Program.” (GEEP?) You know, because we don’t have enough excellence. So those schools that are already excellent, can compete for money to spread their excellence. Geepers, nothing spreads excellence like making schools compete for money. Why, this is right out of the (failed) federal policy playbook: turning funding for schools into a competition, with winners and losers. Race to the Top, anyone?

So how do we know if a school is excellent? Why they scored 90 or above on the state’s new School Performance Profile (SPP), of course. That would be the new SPP system that is 90% determined by student test scores. (See why I dubbed it Stupid Public Policy in “From AYP to SPP” – and while you’re there, check out our “Eight Reasons Why Scoring Schools Doesn’t Work.”) Never mind that these scoring systems don’t work. We just care that a school scored over 90, which makes it excellent, see?

Too bad that what standardized test scores, such as those used to calculate SPP, are really good at measuring is not excellence, but family income. I’ve shown you this graph of last year’s SAT scores before, but check it out again – this is a great visualization of the correlation between test scores and income:

So there’s no surprise that in Allegheny County, those schools scoring over 90 cluster in the wealthier suburbs. I said cluster – there are exceptions – but the over-90-SPP districts are no surprise: Fox Chapel, Upper St. Clair, Mt. Lebanon. [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] Not a single Pittsburgh Public School is on that list. Nope, no excellence happening in the city apparently. (Tell that to my kids and the other families at some of our district’s outstanding public schools, but I digress …).

Now here’s the really neat part of Governor Corbett’s plan. After excellent schools compete for and win GEEP money, they are supposed to “analyze and share best practices that have proven to raise student achievement” and then they “will be responsible for supporting schools across the state that strive to replicate these strategies and techniques.” [Keystone State Education Coalition, 1-30-14] Are you kidding me? Does the governor think that struggling school districts simply don’t know about best practices for raising student achievement – like smaller class sizes, extra support staff, and rich arts programs?

Don’t get me wrong, I adore the education my alma mater, Upper St. Clair, provides to its students and would love to see its programs replicated here in the city (you might recall me gushing in an earlier post about the gorgeous library resource-room staffed every period of the day with a teacher from every subject to give students any extra help they need). But is USC going to donate its GEEP money to paying down the crushing debt service that is preventing Pittsburgh Public Schools from implementing such a program? Pittsburgh knows full well that two of the most thoroughly researched and evidence-based programs proven to raise student achievement are investment in early childhood education and smaller class sizes. Guess what it has been forced to do because of state budget cuts – close six entire early childhood classrooms and increase class sizes.

The fact is, the Upper St. Clairs of the world don’t have magic silver bullets that create excellence. They have great teachers, strong leaders, communities that support their schools, amazing facilities, and perhaps most importantly, families with adequate resources to support student learning. I’m all for sharing good ideas, but wouldn’t it be more expedient to actually award GEEP money to the neediest districts? What if it wasn’t a competition at all? What if the neediest districts – the least “excellent” – received the extra help they need?

Geepers creepers. How about if we just adequately and equitably fund all public schools and stop playing games with the budget?

New Year Cheer

It may be mid-January, but we have at least four more reasons to keep the New Year party going this week.

First, Governor Corbett is apparently getting ready to propose an increase to state funding for public education. Sources close to his office say that the new budget, which will be announced on February 4th, will include $100 to $200 million more this year. [Philly.com, 1-16-14] That’s a good step in the right direction. But we’re still down $700 million in the annual budget from 2010-2011, with the cumulative loss for our schools now topping $2.4 billion. Any restoration of funds will be a win for our education justice movement, reflecting the enormous effort of grassroots advocates to keep the plight of public schools on the political agenda.

The governor is reportedly hoping to find at least some of the proposed money in pension reform, which is also desperately needed. Legislators on both sides of the aisle have been putting off that uncomfortable task for far too long. [See “Pension History 101”] However, reform needs to respect the educators who work with our children – which is clearly not the aim of those on the far right trying to make teachers and their unions public enemy #1. For example, last spring Senator Pat Toomey and the Commonwealth Foundation launched “Project Goliath” to “slay Pennsylvania’s Big Labor” – starting with teachers and their pensions. [The Nation, 4-23-13]

Fortunately, staff members familiar with the budget plan report, “It is unlikely that Corbett will link the funding increase for public schools to another policy item” that does not have widespread support. [Philly.com, 1-16-14] He tried that last year with the privatization of liquor stores. [See “Kids or Booze”]

In addition to a possible budget increase, public school advocates have reason to cheer a House bill that passed this week. After contentious debate on the house floor, legislators overwhelmingly approved HB 1738, which would create a commission to recommend a fair funding formula for the state. [Pennlive, 1-15-14] As you will recall, we already had such a formula, put in place by the legislature after its own 2006 costing-out study documented vast inequities in school funding across the state. But Governor Corbett eliminated that formula when he cut the budget. [“A Shameful Betrayal”] While any new spending formula would only apply to increases in the state budget, the House vote is also a step in the right direction.

A third reason to keep celebrating: in a ruling filed this morning, Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley struck down the state’s new Voter ID law. Judge McGinley said the law poses “a substantial threat” to hundreds of thousands of qualified voters, explaining, “Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal.” [Daily Kos, 1-17-14] Not only did that law fail to address any actual problem in the state, while interfering with a fundamental right, it was estimated to cost taxpayers $11 million to fully implement. [“There Goes $11 Million for Our Schools”] Rather than challenging this ruling, let’s hope Governor Corbett reallocates that money to public education.

Last but not least, three cheers for the hundreds of parents, students, teachers, and community members who gathered early this morning outside a Philadelphia high school where the governor was scheduled to make an appearance. It would have been his very first visit to a Philadelphia school since his budget slashing had such devastating effects in that district, and folks were none too pleased to have Gov. Corbett there to take credit for Central High School’s high rankings on the state’s new school performance profile system. But Gov. Corbett decided at the last minute to dodge the kids carrying signs, ditch the auditorium full of people waiting to hear him speak, and fled downtown to the Chamber of Commerce for a private press conference. [City Paper, 1-17-14]

As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend, now would be a good time to remember his words:

“…we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” [1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail]

Let’s hear it for our grassroots movement and education justice advocates everywhere. It is a new year and we have reasons to cheer!

Who’s Crazy?

There were at least 117 people standing on a downtown street corner yesterday in the freezing cold to tell Governor Corbett what his budget cuts have done to our schools. Parents, students, teachers, and community members stood shoulder to shoulder, huddled against the wind, while speaker after speaker rattled off the devastation we’ve witnessed over the past two years right here in Pittsburgh. The gutting of art, music, library, tutoring, and other education programs. Increased class sizes. Cuts to sports, activities, transportation, field trips, textbooks and supplies. School closures. Hundreds of furloughed teachers.

Yet the Governor’s office says we must be seeing things, since it claims to have increased state support for public schools by $1.17 billion. [Post-Gazette, 12-10-13] So are we crazy?

After two years of devastating cuts, this year’s budget did increase the “basic education” funding line (one of many education funding categories) by 2%. But overall funding for public schools remains far below where it was a few years ago. Compared to the 2010-11 budget – the year before Gov. Corbett’s historic attack on our schools – this year’s budget is still short over $681 million. [See “Budget Failure” for details.]

In fact, Pittsburgh students are missing $26.8 million from their annual budget, which accounts for well over half (58%) of the district’s predicted budget shortfall. And it’s exactly that budget gap that is driving the district’s plan to close yet more schools, increase class sizes again, and eliminate more classes and programs. [PPS Whole Child report, 12-4-13] Make no mistake, Governor Corbett’s cuts are hurting Pittsburgh students, their families, and their communities.

So it was especially disappointing yesterday when the Governor’s Pittsburgh office locked its doors and refused to allow a delegation inside. We were planning to deliver the postcards filled out by parents, students, and teachers earlier this year at our Rally for Public Education. What contempt for democracy. This is not the first time: remember last year when his office refused to allow school children to come in with their hand-drawn cards and letters? That was the same day he shut down his phone lines after getting calls from public education advocates. [See “The Governor Must Listen”]

And now the administration is calling us names. In response to yesterday’s rally, which was one of over 60 simultaneous demonstrations in cities across the country coordinated by a growing grassroots education justice movement, Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, lamented, “Unfortunately, the AFT [the American Federation of Teachers], as well as other traditional public education establishment organizations, continues to misinform the public about the governor’s record of education funding in Pennsylvania.” [Post-Gazette, 12-10-13]

The use of the words “traditional” and “establishment” are clearly meant as an insult, to suggest that Pittsburgh’s religious leaders, parents, and students are somehow aligned with the teacher’s union in defending a broken status quo. Yet it is traditional to want great public schools for all our children. Why doesn’t the Governor? And the group standing on the freezing street corner yesterday was loudly rejecting the status quo – instead calling for the very things research shows will improve education for all students: smaller class sizes, a nurse in every school every day, arts education and more.

So who’s crazy? Certainly those of us standing outside on a December afternoon wondered if we might be a little nuts. But crazy is slashing $2.4 billion from public education while repeatedly claiming to have done the opposite. Crazy is calling parents, students, and teachers the “establishment” and accusing them of lying to the public. Crazy is locking the doors and refusing to allow kids to talk about what is happening to their public schools.

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