What They Should be Saying

It’s a lot of chilly heads as eight Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania governor have already tossed their hats in the ring. All eight are eager to take on Governor Corbett, whose latest approval rating is so far in the tank that only 20% of registered voters think he deserves re-election. With 61% of those surveyed a few weeks ago saying the state is “on the wrong track,” even Republicans are calling for Corbett to step aside (44% think he should let someone else run). [Franklin & Marshall poll, 10-31-13]

Not surprisingly, that same poll found, “Nearly one in four (22%) registered voters believes unemployment and the economy is the state’s most important problem, followed closely by schools and school funding (21%).” With education consistently rated as Pennsylvania’s #2 concern, right behind jobs and the economy, candidates for the state’s highest office need to be talking about what they will do for our public schools. A few have started, but the conversation needs to get much louder and deeper.

To give them a boost, the education grassroots community has developed this handy guide. Here’s the list of Democratic candidates for Governor and what they should be saying about public education:

John Hanger, former Secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection
Jo Ellen Litz, County Commissioner of Lebanon County
Rob McCord, Pennsylvania Treasurer
Kathleen McGinty, former Secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection
Max Myers, businessman and former pastor
Ed Pawlowski, Mayor of Allentown
Allyson Schwartz, U.S. Representative
Thomas W. Wolf, businessman and former Secretary of the PA Department of Revenue

What Democratic Candidates for PA Governor Should be Saying about Public Education

Public Education Funding

  • I believe that public education is a public good. Public education is an investment that we as taxpayers make together to benefit students, parents, and communities. Public schools play a vital role in building strong communities throughout the Commonwealth.
  • Adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding of public education will be a top priority of my administration.
  • I will reverse the more than $1 billion in state funding cuts to public K-12 schools and public higher education.
  • I will enact a fair, accurate and transparent formula to allocate state tax dollars to school districts. This formula will take into account the actual number of students living in poverty, students learning English, and students with a disability. It will also take into account the fact that some school districts lack the overall economic ability to raise adequate revenue to fund their schools. State dollars will be allocated based on those differences.
  • I will close tax loopholes that harm our public schools, such as the “89-11” real estate transfer mechanism that diverts desperately needed funds from school districts.

Keeping public education public

  • I oppose vouchers.
  • I oppose parent trigger laws and other efforts to privatize public education.
  • I oppose any expansion of Pennsylvania’s current controversial education tax credit programs (Education Income Tax Credit-EITC and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit-OSTC) and will work with PDE to address serious deficiencies within the programs to bring them more in line with norms in other states.
  • I oppose school closures on the basis of test scores and mass school closings, which have been shown to be enormously disruptive to students’ academic and personal lives. School closings should be approached with prudence and with the end result being an improved academic and quality of life and public options for children.

Charter school reform

  • I recognize that the current way that PA pays for charter and cyber charter schools is structurally flawed, fiscally unsustainable, and weakens traditional public schools. The current law mandates that taxpayers fund two separate and duplicative systems of public education by taking money from one group of children (in traditional public schools) and giving it to another (children in charters).
  • I will work with the legislature to craft a sustainable charter school funding formula that will create efficiencies for taxpayers, relieve the overwhelming financial burden on our school districts, and help strengthen Pennsylvania’s entire system of public education.
  • I believe charter school payment rates are not accurately calculated.  I will work to reform the charter school funding formula for special education so that charter school payments are capped at the actual costs of providing children with services. I will also work with the legislature to revise the funding formula for cyber charters to account for the fact that they do not operate a full brick and mortar school building.
  • I will work with the legislature to pass a charter reform bill that holds all charter and cyber charter schools accountable to the public, ensures transparency in their finances and operations, and holds them subject to Pennsylvania’s existing Right to Know laws.
  • I support the authority of local school districts to authorize charter schools in their own communities. I will not support a law that allows an outside entity to authorize a charter school in a community nor will I support a state-wide authorizer.

Early Childhood Education

  • I will work for good prenatal care for every pregnant woman in Pennsylvania, because the risk of learning disabilities and other challenges to learning begin in the womb.
  • I will increase supplemental funding to Head Start so thousands of low-income children on waiting lists will have the opportunity to receive a high-quality early childhood education that will prepare them to enter kindergarten ready to learn.
  • I will enact mandatory kindergarten that is responsibly funded throughout the state.

Teaching and Learning

  • I value experienced, professional teachers and reject rhetoric that disparages teachers and the craft of teaching.
  • I believe that every public school should offer a full, rich curriculum with the arts, science, history, literature, world languages, and physical education. I will work with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to make sure that our policies, including testing requirements, support this.
  • I support smaller class sizes, especially for low-income, high-poverty districts with high needs.
  • I oppose the expansion of costly high stakes testing in Pennsylvania and in particular the current Keystone exams. I will call for a full review of the impact of Keystone exams on disaggregated student populations within each school district in order to determine whether these exams best serve the needs of students and families as well as improve accountability measures within school districts.
  • I support efforts to build healthy school climates such as evidence-based restorative justice programs and de-criminalizing minor offenses that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.
  • I recognize that poverty and racial segregation are serious social problems and that we must address these root causes that affect the academic performance of far too many of our children.
  • I will seek capital investments in school facilities to improve and modernize Pennsylvania’s school buildings.

Helen Gym, Parents United for Public Education, Philadelphia
Rebecca Poyourow, Ph.D., Parents United for Public Education, Philadelphia
Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D., Yinzercation, Pittsburgh
Susan Spicka, Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley, Shippensburg

Budget Failure

It’s signed, sealed, and delivered – but it’s nothing to write home about. The Pennsylvania legislature has passed a state budget for 2013-14 and Gov. Corbett signed it late last night. I have to agree with Monroeville Rep. Joe Markosek, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, who said, “the one word description for this budget is ‘failure.’ … Failure to the people of Pennsylvania.” [Post-Gazette, 7-1-13] In terms of public education, here’s why.

The new 2013-14 budget increases the basic education funding line by 2% to $5.526 billion, 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 gutting of our schools – this budget is still short over $681 million. The governor and his allies continue to argue that these were not actually cuts and that he simply did not replace federal stimulus dollars, but this new budget does not even come up to the level of state support schools received in 2008-09, before the state accepted that stimulus help. [PA Budget and Policy Center, 2013-14 Classroom Funding Changes]

Gov. Corbett also eliminated our state’s fair funding formula, which the legislature had just started to use before he was elected to distribute education dollars more equitably and transparently. By taking Pennsylvania back to the old formula, the governor has ensured that our poorest students – who are often our students of color – continue to get the least. For example, with that small increase to basic education funding in 2013-14, wealthy districts such as Fox Chapel and Upper St. Clair will see much larger increases to their budgets (3% and 4% respectively). Yet a struggling district such as Wilkinsburg will only get a 1% increase. Duquesne, which is on the verge of complete collapse, will get only a .7% increase. Pittsburgh will also get less than a single percentage point increase, at only .8%. [Calculations based on Senate Appropriations Committee report.]

And here’s what else this education budget fails to do [data from PA Budget and Policy Center analysis]:

  • Accountability Block Grants (which fund pre-K, Kindergarten, and tutoring programs) are flat funded at $100 million, far less than half what they were in 2008-09.
  • Special education remains flat funded (and has been for years), continuing to cause enormous problems for school districts and students.
  • Career and technical education is also flat funded.
  • After slashing 19% from public colleges and universities in 2011-12, and locking in those cuts last year, the state system of higher education will once again be flat funded. Three of the four state-related institutions, including the University of Pittsburgh, will receive tiny increases, totaling .8%.
  • The PHEAA program that provides financial assistance to Pennsylvania college students is also flat funded.

I am pleased that there were some small increases over last year for Pre-K Counts, Head Start, and adult literacy. But these really cannot be considered gains when overall, as this budget takes effect today, our kids are now missing a cumulative $2.3 BILLION for their schools. And this budget woefully fails to address the crisis in Philadelphia. In fact, any money that is being discussed to help students in our sister-city comes with strings attached – mostly demanding yet more concessions from teachers. [Philly.com, 7-1-13] This comes as no surprise after we learned about the corporate-style-reformers who have been urging Gov. Corbett to bash teachers for political gain. [See “GERM Infection“]

At the same time, our legislature is increasing funding for criminal prosecution and prisons. The Attorney General’s Office will get a whopping 11.7% increase and funding for state correctional institutions will go up 4%. That’s double the increase that our schools received. And the Executive Offices will also be making out in the new fiscal year, with a 10.2% increase. As we keep saying, budgets are about priorities, and the priorities of Governor Corbett and this Republican-controlled state legislature are very clear: corporations before kids. The senior VP of Penn Strategies, a Harrisburg lobby group, boasted yesterday that his firm succeeded in keeping the sales tax exemption in place for those buying private airplanes. [PennLive, 6-30-13; for more on this tax break, see “Can They Fly Our Kids to School?”]

Who’s lobbying for our children? Shouldn’t that be the job of our public servants – you know, those representatives in Harrisburg now handing our public dollars to private corporations? This budget fails our kids and fails to protect our common good.

It was a Moving Day

This is a guest blog by Kathy Newman, who helped lead the Yinzercation charge to Harrisburg on Tuesday.

What do you do when you realize that thousands of teachers and staffers in the City of Brotherly Love are going to lose their jobs, and that come this fall Philadelphia school children won’t have administrative assistants, music, art, sports, library and basic supplies? What do you do to support the people who are now on their eleventh day of a hunger strike to protest this calamity? What do you do when you are MOVED to act?

You get on the bus to join the Philadelphia activists for a massive rally in Harrisburg! Our day started out with the unfurling of the new Yinzercation banner and some matching Yinzercation t-shirts at the PFT headquarters on the Southside. Seven boisterous Yinzercators boarded the bus with more than 150 boisterous members of our new coalition, Great Public Schools, which includes Yinzercation, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT), PA Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), One Pittsburgh, SEIU, and Action United.

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After we arrived in Harrisburg we found hundreds of teachers and school workers who had come to protest the destruction of their school district on the Capitol steps. They wore signs that said, “I’m a teacher and I buy my own paper,” “Education should not be for sale,” and, “There is nothing left to cut.” They had also prepared thousands of signs that showed the “faces of the layoffs,” the names, faces and school affiliations of each of the nearly 4,000 teachers and staffers who are about to be unemployed.

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During the rally we listened to speakers from Philadelphia, like PA State Senator Vincent Hughes (who had seen our banner and gave a shout out to the “Yinzers” in the crowd), and even our own Pittsburgh area Representative Ed Gainey, who spoke powerfully about the education budget disaster in Philadelphia and across the state. We also checked in briefly with our wonderful representative Dan Frankel and his staff. Frankel is one of the great public education champions in Harrisburg—just yesterday he drew attention to education cuts on his facebook page and reiterated his support for revenue raising solutions such as “a reasonable Marcellus Shale drilling tax, closing the corporate tax Delaware Loophole and freezing a corporate tax rather than letting another scheduled big-business tax cut take effect.”

During the rally we were also incredibly moved by the testimony of the Philly school workers and parents who are on their 11th day of a hunger strike to restore the cuts to the Philly school budget. (You can follow their journey on Twitter at #Phillyfast.)

After the rally we spread out around the Capitol Dome and made a human chain around the Capitol—a feat based in sheer numbers no other recent activist group has been able to do. We were MOVED to make our voices heard in Harrisburg!

Believe it or not, yesterday was a “moving day” for Governor Tom Corbett. After the Great Public Schools coalition added our voices to the chorus at the Capitol building, we navigated our busses a few blocks away to the front the Governor’s official state residence. We brought with us the People’s Moving Company, a few activists dressed in moving jumpsuits, some bull horns and our naturally boisterous voices. We chanted “One term Tom,” and “Hit the road, Tom,” and “What do we do when education is under attack? Stand up fight back!”

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We headed back to Pittsburgh as real-life storm clouds gathered above us in the sky. We were tired, hot and hungry, but re-energized, too, by the passion and the fighting spirit we saw in our Philadelphia brothers and sisters. Their fight is our fight. Our fight is their fight.

At the end of the day were moved by each other, but as the song proclaims, we SHALL NOT be moved by the forces that want to privatize, monetize, standardize and downsize public education. Public education is a public good. Call your legislator before June 30th and remind him/her to restore Philadelphia’s education budget and put $270 million back into the budget for all of the Commonwealth’s beautiful, brilliant school children.

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Where’s the $$$?

As expected, the Pennsylvania House passed a budget yesterday that does next to nothing to help our public schools. The debate now moves to the Senate, but if the strict party-line vote in the House was any indication, Republicans in Harrisburg are sticking to their mantra that the state is broke and can’t afford to adequately fund education. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai from here in Allegheny County claims that this proposed budget “lives within our means, just like families and businesses across the state.” [Penn Live, 6-12-13]

But when Rep. Turzai or Gov. Corbett and others say we have to “live within our means,” what they really mean is that our schools must continue to cut into the bone – ditching art, music, library, tutoring, Kindergarten, books, supplies, field trips, athletics, and thousands of teachers – while families struggle to make up the difference. That’s not living within our means, that’s just mean.

This is about budget priorities. There is money, but it’s not going to public education (or our other public goods). We could fully fund the vibrant, rich curricula and the educational programs our children deserve right now if our legislators wanted to. Here is our updated list of revenue ideas:

  • Close the Delaware Loophole: It costs our state $500 million in missed tax revenue every year and more than 20 other states have already closed this loophole.
  • Impose a severance tax on Marcellus shale: Most states with major mineral resources like ours have a severance tax and not having one has cost Pennsylvania over $314 million since October 2009 alone.
  • Get rid of the new bonus depreciation rule: The state itself estimated that more than half of last year’s budget gap was due to a huge shortfall in corporate tax revenues – to the tune of $260 million. (See “We Have a Priority Problem.”)
  • Keep the capital stock and franchise tax: Gov. Corbett wants to eliminate these as a gift to corporations and plans to eliminate them by next year. But if lawmakers freeze the tax at 2012 levels, the state could raise around $390 million.
  • Eliminate sales tax exemptions: Helicopters and gold bullion top the list of hard-to-swallow exemptions. And what about smokeless tobacco? (See “Can They Fly Our Kids to School?”)
  • Rescind the new Voter ID bill: It solves no actual problem in the state, is facing expensive legal challenge, and will cost taxpayers an estimated $11 million to implement. (See “There Goes $11-million for Our Schools.”)
  • 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. (See “One Million Per Day.”)
  • Shut down the EITC programs: These two voucher-like giveaway programs now funnel $150 million (double the amount from last year) in public money to private and religious schools with no accountability for expenditures or student outcomes. [See “EITC: No Credit to PA” and “2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?”]
  • Stop handing money to international giants. The new sweetheart deal with international giant Dutch Royal Shell will cost taxpayers $1.675 billion. (See “Can Shell Education Our Kids?”
  • Close other tax loopholes. The “89-11” real estate transfer scheme has cost Pittsburgh schools millions of dollars. (See details at “Corporate Grinches“)
  • Insist on PILOT payments from large non-profits such as UPMC. They would be supporting Pittsburgh schools to the tune of $8.5 million if they did this. (See “UPMC’s Fair Share“)
  • Hold corporations to their word. Rivers Casino is trying to wriggle out of paying $1million a year to Pittsburgh schools after promising to be a good neighbor when we gave them perks for setting up shop in our city. (See “Rivers Casino’s Fair Share“)

Taking it to Harrisburg

What are you doing on Tuesday, June 25th? Our new coalition – called Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh – is partnering with other groups around the state for a large rally in Harrisburg. (Philadelphia is planning to send ten bus loads of people!) This will be right at the time the legislature is negotiating the final state budget and we need to be there to tell them to put students, schools, and communities first.

This week Republicans in the House refused to allow budget proposals from Democrats to come to a vote, effectively keeping the old Republican budget plan on the table. As you will recall, that plan puts $100 million back in the public education budget, but gets us nowhere near the almost $2 billion our students have lost these past two years. (See “Budget Talk.”)

The Post-Gazette reports that the Democrats “would have increased spending $378 million over the Republican budget, mostly on K-12 education but also on colleges and universities and on various human service programs.” Rep. Joe Markosek of Monroeville, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, called the House Republican plan “a budget of missed opportunities” and said it “just continues the misery for a lot of people in this commonwealth.” [Post-Gazette, 6-11-13] This is the absolute truth.

We’ve got to get on the bus and go to Harrisburg to tell our legislators what two years of draconian cuts have done to our schools. It doesn’t have to be this way. They could vote right now to freeze the phase-out of the capital stock and franchise tax. The state has been rolling back this corporate tax and plans to completely eliminate it by next year. But if lawmakers freeze the tax at 2012 levels, the state could raise around $390 million. [PBPC, 5-29-13] That’s enough to pay for the Democrat’s budget plan – and then some.

State budgets are about priorities. And this budget hurts kids. We have no choice – we have to fight back. Please consider getting on the bus on June 25th! Our coalition partners have paid for the trip, and will even provide snacks. It will be fun. All you have to do is show up: busses leave at 7:30AM from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers parking lot on the South Side (10 S. 19th St.) and will return that evening.

To hold your spot, please call the PFT at 412-431-5900 and put your name on the list. Tell them you are a Yinzercator and you’re ready to take it to Harrisburg.

GPS Rally Flyer

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.

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[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.

Bleeding Out

School districts across Pennsylvania are on life support. After massive defunding of public education by the state the past two years, schools have made so many cuts there is almost nothing left to remove. A new study out this week reveals just how big this gaping wound is where strong public schools ought to be.

The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) surveyed all 500 school districts in May, and received responses from 187 (for a response rate of 37%). The results are sobering (all data from PASBO/PASA School Finance Report, June 2013):

  • 75% of districts will continue to make cuts to educational programs this year – more than in either of the past two years.
  • 47% of school districts expect to increase class size in 2013-14. That’s on top of larger class sizes imposed by 51% of districts last year, and 70% of districts the year before.
  • 37% plan to reduce courses such as world languages, art, music, physical education and even some in math, science, English and social studies. Elective courses were already reduced by 43% of schools in 2012-13 and 44% of schools the year before that.
  • 23% will delay the purchase of textbooks (following 40 and 41% of districts that delayed such purchases in the previous two years).
  • 22% of districts will reduce or eliminate tutoring program for struggling students (on top of the 32 and 35% of districts that did this the past two years).
  • 13% more districts will eliminate summer school (following 21% and 19% that cut these programs in the past two years).
  • 31% will further reduce or eliminate student field trips (in addition to 43 and 55% in each of the past two years).
  • 22% will reduce or eliminate extra-curriculars, including sports or will establish/increase fees for participation. That’s on top of the 30 and 33% of districts that have already done so in the past two years.
  • 8% of districts will close school buildings this year. (7% closed buildings in 2012-13 and 10% in 2011-12).
  • 64% will continue to decrease staff, with over 20% planning furloughs.

Despite these severe cuts, more than 70% of school districts are dipping into their fund balances to try to pay for basic educational programming. While the calculator-wielding business professionals at PASBO and PASA consider a one-time dip into these rainy-day funds acceptable, they call the current rate of depletion “alarming” and explain that, “sustained use of fund balance in this manner is fiscally devastating.” Those are strong words from accountants.

In laymen’s terms, our public schools are bleeding out. Governor Corbett needs to stop making ridiculous claims that he has increased education funding. Our schools can’t take any more lies or cuts. It’s time to put our resources back into public education, for the sake of our schools, our communities, and our kids.

Buzzing with Action

It’s June and Pennsylvania is starting to sound like a beehive on a sunny day, buzzing with public education activism.

In Philadelphia, grassroots public school advocates are pushing to restore a local, democratically elected school board after the state-imposed commission currently running the district passed a draconian budget, wiping out public education as we know it. The plan cuts 3,000 more employees (including teachers); completely eliminates counselors, librarians, and secretaries; provides only one nurse for every 1,500 students; and gets rid of athletics, music, and art. [Philly.com, 6-4-13] As Philly parents have pointed out, this is a plan to warehouse students, rather than educate them. [Philly.com, 6-2-13]

Meanwhile, in Allentown yesterday, public school advocates delivered a petition with hundreds of parent signatures protesting state budget cuts. Because of Governor Corbett’s massive de-funding of Pennsylvania’s public schools, Allentown has just proposed a plan to cut over 150 employees – nearly all teachers, and most of those in art, library, and physical education. As protestors marched past the Lehigh County Prison, one mother pointed at the building and observed that when students lose arts and extracurricular activities, “They wind up there.” [Lehigh Valley Live, 6-3-13]

Tonight in Shippensburg, our sister grassroots group Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley is hosting a rally to protest state budget cuts. The group will also be highlighting current budget priorities that drain resources away from public schools. All of the area’s state representatives were invited but are refusing to attend – a sign of just how out-of-touch many of our legislators are with their constituents. As Susan Spicka explains, “Our legislators … can choose to cut corporate taxes more or to fund public education. We need them to make funding public education their top priority.” [The Sentinel, 6-4-13]

And today in Harrisburg, a coalition of groups called on legislators to pass a responsible budget. Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner stressed, “Budgets are about priorities, and it is time for Harrisburg to put its priorities into what counts: schools, roads, safe and healthy communities.” Wager also said, “While I certainly recognize the need for balancing budgets, budgets should not be balanced on the backs of our students, working families and the elderly.” [Better Choices for Pennsylvania, 6-4-13]

Are the cuts to the state education budget and our schools making you feel like stinging someone? Here’s what you can do to get busy as a bee:

  1. The Better Choices for PA coalition is asking for people across the state to flood the offices of the General Assembly today with calls demanding investment in our public goods. Find more information about this call-in-day here, along with a sample script you can read on the phone and an email form you can use to email your legislators afterwards.
  2. If you miss your chance to call today, Education Voters PA has set its next state-wide call-your-legislator day for next Monday, June 10th. Plan now to take a few minutes on that day to call your state representative, senator, and the governor’s office to let them know we must put $270 million back in this year’s budget – and each of the next two years – to replace the public funds cut to our schools.
  3. In local action news, Pittsburgh Public Schools is asking for your input as it develops its strategic plan to deal with both financial and academic challenges. The plan is likely to include proposed school closings, along with increased class sizes and other measures.  We’ve learned that there will be no report from the district’s consultants – the administration is working right right now to develop recommendations. If you want your voice heard, now is the time to speak up! Take the survey today – it closes on Friday, June 7th.
  4. Finally, mark you calendars now for Tuesday, June 25th! Yinzercation is part of a new coalition called GPS (Great Public Schools) Pittsburgh, which is sponsoring a bus trip to Harrisburg during the final week of budget negotiations. We will meet with our fellow grassroots advocates from all over the state – Philadelphia alone is planning to send 10 buses! – as we rally on the Capitol steps. We particularly want to encourage students to go, so please think about your own high school aged kids or student groups you work with and help us plan this action. Keep your eye out for more information on this exciting new coalition as well as the bus trip.

There’s nothing like an angry hive of parents, students, teachers, and community members fighting together for public education. These bees are ready to swarm. Join the action and buzz away!

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.

Two Steps Forward, One Back

This is how you make progress. One step at a time. Last week, we saw two steps forward, and one giant step back for public education. The good news first:

On Thursday, Governor Corbett signed a much-needed new law that will help to fix the state’s special education funding formula. Sponsored by Republicans Rep. Bernie O’Neill and Sen. Pat Browne with strong bi-partisan support in both the House and Senate, House Bill 2 creates a new commission that will develop a formula taking into account actual numbers of special education students and their needs. Rhonda Brownstein, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, called the legislation “historic.” [Education Law Center, 4-26-13]

The Education Policy and Leadership Center explains, “The current formula assumes that the average daily enrollment of each district includes 16% of students with special needs.  A new formula will aim to reflect actual costs incurred by districts and distribute the money accordingly.” The new commission will also make sure that school districts don’t over-identify the number of eligible students, and will take into account geographic variations in costs. The commission must make its report by September, and any formula they develop will not go into effect unless the General Assembly acts on it – and even then, the formula will only apply to the distribution of any increased funding. [EPLC, 4-26-13]

In another step forward, the House Education Committee last week held a public hearing on bullying and suicide prevention. [EPLC, 4-26-13] This is a significant issue that needs to be addressed as part of a larger conversation about school climate issues, with a particular focus on equity.

But just as we saw these forward steps, the House took a giant step back, approving a suite of corporate tax cuts proposed by Governor Corbett. Once in place, the tax breaks will cost us taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars – that’s hundreds of millions in lost revenue for the state and money that won’t be available to fund our public goods, including schools. While these tax cuts are defended by the Governor as necessary for creating future revenues, according to the EPLC some estimate “that there will only be $1 dollar of new revenue generated for every $7 of tax cuts for some businesses.” [EPLC, 4-26-13]

Speaking of revenue, the state took in slightly less than they projected in March, but the Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign tells us that overall, “for the year total revenues remain slightly ahead of what was projected for the first nine months.” We haven’t heard much from legislators about the budget because, “Most lawmakers are anxiously awaiting the end-of-April report before deciding to move forward with legislative budget proposals.” [PA School Funding Campaign, 4-22-13]

The school funding campaign – a coalition of 30 education groups – will be holding a press conference in the capitol rotunda tomorrow morning at 10AM, telling legislators and Governor Corbett that they need to prioritize funding for public education. The proposed plan addresses the nearly $1billion cut in 2011 (and locked in again in 2012), by restoring $270 million each of the next three years. Now that would be a huge step forward.