From Bad to Worst

From bad to worse to – what’s worse than worse? A new report released this week shows that “the financial condition of school districts across the Commonwealth continues to deteriorate.” The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) surveyed the state’s 500 school districts and got some chilling results. [PASA-PASBO Budget Report, 6-5-14] With 56% of districts responding, the researchers found that:

  • 90% of school districts have cut staff, and more than 40% of districts have already, or plan to, cut more of our children’s teachers. Look at Wilkinsburg right here next to Pittsburgh: they just announced that students will lose 18 more teachers. That’s 14% of the faculty, and comes on top of the 10 teachers and three other staff members they lost last year. [Post-Gazette, 6-5-14]
  • 64% of districts have increased class size since Gov. Corbett’s historic budget cuts in 2010-11, with the elementary grades hit the hardest. (This is especially awful since it’s the earliest grades where research shows small class sizes really make a strong difference for students, especially our most disadvantaged students.)
  • Over half the districts will eliminate or reduce academic programs next year. The most frequently cited cuts will come from field trips (51% schools will eliminate); summer school (37%); world languages (34%); music and theater (31%); and physical education (24%).
  • Students will lose extra-curricular and athletic programs, or have to pay a fee, in over a third of the districts.
  • The vast majority of school districts report that their costs are going up because of un-funded state mandates (such as the administration of high-stakes testing).
  • In nearly every part of the state, districts are relying on local revenues (property taxes) to pay for a growing majority of school budgets. Over 75% of school districts will increase property taxes next year (that’s more than any in the past five years).

These conditions aren’t just “worse” for our children, they are quickly becoming some of the worst in the nation. Pennsylvania ranks as one of the worst in terms of the proportion of school funding provided at the state level, pushing responsibility down on local taxes, and worsening inequality. And this isn’t just at the preK-12 level: 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). Pennsylvania college students now rank as the third-most indebted in the nation. [Project on Student Debt]

Are we really trying to be the worst in the country when it comes to educating our children? What if we tried to be one of the best, instead?

The Pennsylvania budget must be passed by the end of this month, so now is the time to tell our legislators our students deserve the best, not the worst. Please come to Harrisburg with us on June 18th! We’ve got a bus and made all the arrangements, all you have to do is get on. Please sign up here and we’ll send you all the details.

HarrisburgTripFlyer6-14

Thankful Top Ten

A lot of my Facebook friends are posting a message every day this month detailing the things for which they are grateful. It occurred to me how easy it would be for me to fill a month’s worth of posts just noting the many things I am thankful for in our public schools.

But I’ve been distracted from writing those posts since we’ve had such a busy month: with actions ranging from the PIIN Town Hall meeting to greeting Gov. Corbett on his campaign launch to hosting a forum for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia students [“A Week of Action,” “Calling All Students”]; battling the terrible charter reform bill barreling our way [“Killer Weeds”]; raising important questions about a potential contract with Teach for America [“Six Questions for Teach for America,” “Too Few Answers”]; and drafting an education platform with our grassroots colleagues around the state for the Democratic candidates for governor [“What They Should be Saying”]. I’m worn out and ready to eat pie!

But I’m still feeling the spirit, so here just in time for Thanksgiving, I offer my top ten education justice gratitude list. I am thankful for:

  1. Students who are speaking up about their education and their schools. I love the new Student Bill of Rights [Pittsburgh Courier, 11-22-13] and am grateful to the many students who have testified recently before City Council and the school board.
  2. Teachers and staff who work with our children every day and volunteer countless hours after school and on the weekends. I wrote about “Teacher Heroes” after the Sandy Hook tragedy last year, which has been back in the news this week, and I wish I could send that piece as a thank you note to every one of our teachers.
  3. Our democratically elected school board, which is accountable to the public and has been working in recent years – with urging from A+ Schools, local foundations and others – to make itself more transparent and open. I am grateful we don’t have mayoral-control in Pittsburgh.
  4. Mayor-elect Bill Peduto who believes that the strength of our city is tied to the strength of our public schools. I am grateful that he has appointed a cabinet level education officer and for his commitment to collaborating with the district and community partners to find more holistic, sustainable solutions.
  5. Pittsburgh City Council for recognizing that closing schools harms communities, and ultimately our entire city, and for calling for a moratorium on school closures.  [See “A Moratorium Makes Sense”]
  6. Grassroots colleagues around the state who are working to knit our sometimes-disparate battles into an authentic, inclusive, and strong education justice movement.
  7. Thoughtful critics who disagree with me, who have taken the time to sit down over coffee and talk, and who engage in productive public dialogue. I am grateful for civil discourse.
  8. Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, an unprecedented coalition of parents, students, teachers, community members, faith leaders, local unions, and social justice activists. The work of collaboration is messy and hard, but I am grateful for the power of commitment and strength in working together.
  9. The thousands of people who are getting involved in education justice: just this past week, over 1,300 people signed our petition asking the school board to delay its vote on the contract with Teach for America, closing Woolslair elementary, and selling our property to a charter organization until the public has more information and the four new board members can participate in those decisions.
  10. Parent activists like these who packed the Pittsburgh school board public hearing last night:

PamPresentsPetition11-25-13

  • Pam Harbin (above) presented the school board with the GPS petition containing 1,341 signatures and hundreds of supporting letters.
  • Kathy Newman opposed a contract with Teach for America saying, “I offer my services as a CMU professor-free of charge-to help recruit qualified STEM teachers to teach in our schools.”
  • Michele Boyle asked the board to “stop foreclosing on our student’s second homes. Stop closing schools!”

What are you thankful for in our education justice movement?

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

What Pittsburghers are Really Saying about Class Size

This week we are looking at the results of the community survey our grassroots movement helped to create. We had nearly 1,000 people respond, mostly in person, with volunteers going door-to-door throughout the city to find out what Pittsburghers have to say about public education. For more on our survey design, how it differs from what the district and its consultants have been doing, and why it matters, check out:

Today, let’s look at what our community says about class size – a significant issue, since any plan to close schools is fundamentally about increasing class sizes in the district. The following is an excerpt from the full report, Creating a District of Last Resort.

Class Size Increases

At private schools and charter schools, and within many public school districts, small class sizes are a source of pride—a selling point to attract parents and students. Perversely, public schools in low-income urban communities with small—or even medium— class sizes are now being labeled as “underutilized” and, in many cases, are being closed because of it.

For example, in Pittsburgh, the average student-teacher ratio in private schools is 10 to 1, and in charter schools it is 12 to 1. [see note, *1] Yet during the Envisioning process, PPS has reported that it is making a deliberate effort to dramatically increase class sizes, through school closings and other means. In fact, its targets are 25 students per class in K-5 and K-8 schools, 28 per class in middle schools, and 30 per class in high schools and 6-12 schools. In other words, PPS’s goal is to have two to three times as many students per teacher as in other local schools. [see note, *2]

PPStargetClassSizeClassSizeComparison

The Pittsburgh residents we surveyed believed, by an overwhelming majority, that class size increases would be harmful. We asked what effect larger classes would have on the overall quality of education, and 92 percent said that it would be worse or much worse. Indeed, 32 respondents said education quality would worsen, for every 1 who said it would improve.

SurveyClassSize

 

Notes:
*1. National Center for Education Statistics, 2012-13 Private Schools in Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2012-13 Enrollment by LEA and 2012-13 Professional Personnel Summary.

*2. Also of concern is the district’s building utilization analysis. Currently, when the district deems a building to be “underutilized,” it is counting all music, art and other special classrooms as empty. According to this PPS target for school utilization, all music, art and other special classrooms would have to be converted into regular classrooms, leaving no room for these activities.

What Pittsburghers are Really Saying about School Funding

Yesterday I shared with you what Pittsburghers are really saying about school closures. (If you haven’t already, please take a minute to check out this piece explaining why we must listen to the collective wisdom, knowledge, and experience of ordinary Pittsburghers.) Today we look at budget cuts in the context of the district’s looming $46 million budget gap. Once again, the community has a lot to say that we absolutely must listen to, if we’re going to get our priorities straight and make great public schools for all of our children.

For instance, did you know that this year Pittsburgh Public Schools will spend 9% less on classroom teachers than it did two years ago, while spending 9% more on school police? Of course school safety is important, but teachers are the people who work with our kids and help them learn. And PPS will spend more on school police than it will on counselors, social workers, school nurses, and librarians. [PPS 2013 Final Budget, p. 25] Is this what we want? The PPS administration should be having a deep conversation with the people of Pittsburgh about budget priorities.

In our community survey, we asked 920 people (mostly in person, with volunteers going door-to-door all over the city) about the effect of budget cuts on their public schools. Here’s what Pittsburghers are saying about school funding. [The following is excerpted from GPS Community Report, 10-13: Creating a District of Last Resort]

Budget Cuts

In recent years, PPS has made dramatic cuts to its staff, reducing the number of teachers by 17 percent, the number of librarians by 45 percent, the number of paraprofessionals and support staff by 35 percent, and the number of guidance counselors and psychological personnel by 20 percent.

StaffReductions

Just within the last year, students have felt the effects of significant staff reductions and cuts to programs such as art, music, library services and tutoring services. We asked our survey respondents about the effects of these recent changes, and their responses were striking. They present a clear picture of a district that is rapidly alienating far too many of its students, families and educators, and can ill-afford any additional budget cuts.

BudgetCutComments

The Misguided and Misleading Envisioning Process

Why would PPS make a series of education reforms that are overwhelmingly opposed by the community? One cause is the district’s budget challenges.

To be sure, Gov. Corbett’s decisions to drastically cut funding from PPS and other public school districts around the state have been devastating. Even worse, he did it while expanding funding for corporate tax breaks, allocating funds to build new prisons, and at- tempting to further privatize education in Pennsylvania by, for example, providing tax breaks benefitting private schools and attempting to implement school vouchers. [See “A Vampiric Budget”] Additionally, the state has eliminated reimbursements to districts for charter school tuition; school improvement grants; and state-funded science, tutoring and high school reform programs. [Keystone State Education Coalition, 5-13] The state has also refused to help districts deal with legally mandated increases to pension contributions. As a result, PPS has certainly taken a financial hit that must be addressed. However, the district is operating as if there is only one option for addressing their financial challenges—namely, by immediately implementing severe budget cuts—and that is disingenuous.

… In fact, when we asked survey respondents whether they would support a small local tax levy or savings from other units of government to avoid additional cuts to classroom education, they said by more than a 5-1 margin that they would support it (with 24 percent being undecided).

TaxIncreaseYes

Nevertheless, PPS is proposing additional radical budget cuts that will severely compromise the educational opportunities of our youth. Their solution is to “eat away” at the gap between PPS per-student funding and those of other districts. [Envisioning presentation, 5-13, pp. 18-19]

While most communities would be proud of having well-funded schools, PPS is using its relatively high per-pupil spending as a justification for the cuts. Yet given the extreme needs of our youth (including a greater proportion of students living in extreme poverty, special needs students, English language learners and homeless students), PPS should have higher per-student funding than most districts. Anything else would be profoundly inequitable. …

What Pittsburghers are Really Saying about School Closures

It seems like everyone is talking about the Pittsburgh Public School district’s plan to close more schools. City Council. The Post-Gazette editorial board. The region’s leaders. But what about ordinary Pittsburghers? Where are their voices? What do they have to say?

It turns out, local people have a lot to say. But you have to ask them. And if you really want to learn something, you have to listen.

Now to be fair, the PPS administration has made some attempts to engage the public in its “Envisioning” strategic planning process, which we now know will include a list of proposed school closures. The district had a few parents meet one-on-one with their consultants and there was a handful of parents (and one student that I met) on the Envisioning advisory board. The district also held a few open houses for the public to see presentations on the Envisioning process; conducted an on-line survey (largely focused on “school choice”); and deployed a new on-line tool to solicit feedback.

But these measures can hardly be considered adequate community engagement. Particularly when we are talking about something as drastic as closing schools and potentially causing real harm to more Pittsburgh communities. Most of these attempts to engage the public required access to the internet, were limited to just a few people, or used various exercises and meeting formats (such as tightly scoped break-out sessions) to limit authentic, “messy” dialogue.

Unfortunately, the two outside consulting companies hired by the district for $2.4 million to advise the Envisioning process – Bellwether and FSG – don’t seem to care much about what our community actually thinks. In fact, in their winning proposal to the district, they explained they will “conduct … community engagement events as necessary to solicit input into and ensure a full understanding of, and enhanced buy-in to key reform initiatives….” [Bellwether and FSG proposal, p. 13] So is engaging the community about getting their input, or about making sure people understand the reforms the district is promoting and increasing their buy-in?

Those are completely different goals. One assumes that people have something important to offer the process, and the other assumes that people are ill-informed, need to be tutored into a proper understanding of reforms, and brought around to the district’s way of thinking. Bellwether and FSG make it clear which side they stand on: a few pages later in their proposal, they explain that they will look for best practices from around the country on “Changing … community attitudes” so PPS will learn “how reform-minded urban districts have driven change in … community attitudes, values, and buy-in.” [Bellwether and FSG proposal, p. 17]

Think about the arrogance of that statement. This is not about listening to what the community thinks, or learning from the collective wisdom and experience of the people of Pittsburgh. Instead, Bellwether and FSG want to shape our attitudes and values for us. It’s one thing to talk about getting community buy-in for a strategic plan – that’s important – but we don’t need others to change our attitudes and tell us what to think, thank you very much.

By contrast, this summer our new Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh coalition developed a community survey to start to find out what local people really think. This was truly a grassroots effort. (I can vouch for this: I spent many hours working on this survey – and so did a lot of other people.) Volunteers went door-to-door in neighborhoods all over the city, including some of those most affected by past school closures. We surveyed almost 1,000 people (920 to be exact, and mostly in person), making sure we were listening to those in some of our poorest neighborhoods, and our communities of color.

This involved a whole lot of standing on porches and in living rooms and sitting at kitchen tables and having long, honest, conversations about our schools. No one paid us a dime. And we heard from those whose voices rarely make it to the district’s ears. We talked to parents, students, teachers, and community members. Over 62% of our respondents were African American.

SurveyRespondents

Now, if you want to hear what the community really has to say, you need to read the report based on the results of this survey. (I’ll spare you the details on how many more hours went into this document, but perhaps Bellwether and FSG would like to split some of their portion of that $2.4 million with us volunteers?) This week I will be sharing highlights of the community report with you, starting with what people said about school closings in Pittsburgh. [GPS report: Creating a District of Last Resort]

School Closings

Given PPS’s extensive prior history of closing schools, we asked survey respondents for their own experiences with the closings’ effects. We found that the overwhelming experience of Pittsburgh residents with school closings has been negative (see graphic below). For every person who said that closing schools had improved education quality, more than 7 said it had worsened quality. The results were similar on how the school closings affected a range of other factors. Nearly 13 respondents said neighborhood stability got worse, for every 1 respondent who said it got better. Respondents also said the following factors got worse: student health and safety (7 to 1); family and community connections to schools (8 to 1); commuting time to school (8 to 1); peer relationships (8 to 1); and the educational opportunities for students of color (6 to 1), low-income students (7 to 1), English language learners (6 to 1) and students with disabilities (5 to 1). Across all categories, the vast majority of respondents had negative experiences with previous school closings in PPS.

EffectsOfClosings

To better understand these experiences, we asked respondents to share what effects they had seen or experienced personally. Their responses, a sampling of which are presented below, should be a must-read for any policymaker contemplating closing a school. In the aggregate, they present a comprehensive and insightful portrait of the many devastating effects school closings often produce, including the harm they cause to students, families, teachers, education quality, safety, neighborhood stability, equity, and the overall well-being of the school district and the city.

We also asked respondents for their views on PPS possibly closing additional schools. Nearly 9 out of 10 people either disapproved or strongly disapproved of that approach.

DisapproveClosings

ClosingComments

Movements Work

In celebration of Labor Day today, it’s a good time to remember that movements work. They’re messy, fractured, and can take an awfully long time, but they work. What we call the labor movement of 19th and 20th centuries was actually scores of different movements, with different leaders, different goals, many painful losses, and some incredibly important wins: child labor laws, the weekend, minimum wage, healthcare, retirement, and major improvements in occupational safety, to name just a few.

But how do we know if our education justice movement is working? Here’s a great clue from a Pennsylvania poll released this past week: respondents listed “education and school funding” as one of the two most important issues facing the state today. Of those surveyed, 23% said it was their top priority, just behind “jobs” and “the economy” (which combined, totaled 28%). [Franklin & Marshall Poll, 8-28-13]

These pollsters have been asking this same question for years, and the proportion of Pennsylvanians naming education as the state’s most significant problem has increased dramatically. Back in 2005, only 6% of those surveyed were worried enough about our schools to list it first. Last year at this time, it was 13%. Now nearly a quarter of respondents rank education as the single most pressing issue in the commonwealth.

You can be sure this has everything to do with our work together to keep public education in the public eye. With our grassroots colleagues around the state, we have organized countless rallies, demonstrations, parades, and press conferences. We’ve written op-eds, letters to the editor, and blogs. Parents have opted their kids out of high-stakes-testing, and students have walked out of class, taken to YouTube, and created flash mobs. Make no mistake – this is a movement.

We have strength when we work together. Consider this: despite all of the resources at his disposal, Gov. Corbett’s priorities don’t seem to resonate with voters. Only 5% of respondents listed the privatization of state liquor stores as their top priority, and the Governor’s plan to privatize the lottery did not even register in the poll. On the other hand, pollster G. Terry Madonna explains, “On the big things that voters care about, education, every day you read a story about cutbacks … Not just in Philly. All over the state.” [Philly.com, 8-29-13]

Asked to give Gov. Corbett a grade for his performance on several key issues in the state, respondents were the most critical by far of the governor’s handling of education. Only 11% gave him an A or B for “improving public education,” while an overwhelming 56% gave him a D or F. In fact, 31% – almost a third of those surveyed – gave Gov. Corbett a failing grade on education, a far larger proportion than failed him on any other issue.

Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 8.06.05 AM
[Image sourse: Franklin & Marshall Poll, 8-28-13]

The fact that voters feel so strongly negative about Gov. Corbett’s performance on one of their top concerns in the state is no doubt responsible for his abysmal approval rating. Indeed, Gov. Corbett’s approval rating is now at its lowest point ever, with only 17% of registered Pennsylvania voters ranking him as “excellent” or “good.” Sixty-two percent believe the state is “off on the wrong track,” and only one in five people thinks he deserves re-election. Even registered Republicans are unhappy with him: only 38% would vote for him again. [Franklin & Marshall Poll, 8-28-13] The Pennsylvania political site PoliticsPa concluded, “the key takeaway from this poll: Corbett is on electoral life support.” [PoliticsPA, 8-29-13]

Another key takeaway is this: you can’t cut $1billion from public schools and expect to get away with it when there is an education justice movement fighting for Pennsylvania’s students.