Pittsburgh is Lucky

School board elections used to be a rather sleepy affair. A few local people would pay attention and the average candidate expected to spend a few thousand dollars to run a campaign. But now some of the wealthiest people on the planet are running around pouring money into elections in cities where they don’t even live, trying to stack school boards with corporate-reform-minded majorities.

We saw this in Los Angeles earlier this year, where the mayor of 3,000-miles-away New York, Michael Bloomberg, spent $1 million to promote corporate reform candidates. He was joined by Michelle Rhee and members of the Walton family (of the Wal-Mart fortune), who have been pumping their wealth into state and local elections. [See “School Boards Matter”] Now we are watching the vultures circle Denver. A school board member in the Mile-High-City just announced she won’t be seeking re-election and familiar players are swooping in to protect the corporate-reform agenda they’ve got under way there.

Dr. Kenneth Wong, chair of education policy at Brown University, explained to the Denver Post that these “national groups have homed in on a small number of public-school systems with split school boards,” such as Denver. He said, “It’s an investment on their part to protect their previous investment.” Meanwhile, the executive VP of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a bastion of corporate-reform, acknowledged freely that they view Denver as one of their “bright spots” because the city’s “policies on merit pay and charter schools have thrived.” [Denver Post, 4-17-13] Never mind that merit pay doesn’t work and charter schools have not solved the problems facing public education. [On charter performance, see “Talking Turkey About Charters”; on merit pay, see Albert Shanker Institute, 1-12-12; Washington Post, 10-6-12; VOX economic research, 9-26-11]

Once again, we here in Pittsburgh are lucky. We’re lucky we aren’t Denver. Or L.A. We’re lucky our school board has not bought into privatization schemes. And while 5/9 of our school board slots are up for election this May (with only one incumbent running unopposed, meaning we will have four new people joining the board), the deep-pocketed corporate reformers have so far stayed away from the Steel City. Find something wood to knock on right now.

These elections matter a great deal. If you live in the city, please make sure you know your school board district and learn about the candidates. Yinzercation is co-sponsoring a city wide candidate forum on May 8th, hosted by A+ Schools and the League of Women Voters, from 6-8PM in the Hillman Auditorium, Kaufmann Center (1835 Centre Ave. / 15219).

We’re also lucky here in Pittsburgh that our mayoral candidates are talking about education. The two front-runners, Bill Peduto and Jack Wagner, appeared at a real-estate developers breakfast together yesterday (candidates Jake Wheatley showed up at the end and A.J. Richardson never appeared) and then spent the day getting specific about their education agendas. [Post-Gazette, 4-18-13]

I appreciate that as former state auditor general Jack Wagner looked into school finance issues (his office issued the report revealing that Pennsylvania taxpayers are over-paying cyber charter schools by $1 million per day). But his statements on education here in Pittsburgh feel out of touch: speaking through a spokesman, Wagner’s campaign said it would “concentrate on expanding student programs — with a special emphasis on math and science programs.” Has Mr. Wagner been paying attention to what is happening in Pittsburgh schools? Math and science programs are lovely – but we are missing hundreds of teachers, art and music classes, full-time librarians, nurses, counselors, and much more.

Mr. Wagner has not been at a single education event I have attended in the past year and a half. If he had been there, he would know what Pittsburgh families are talking about and what the real needs are in our schools. His campaign told the Post-Gazette he is interested in “after-school activities, internships and summer employment” for our students. [Post-Gazette, 4-18-13] All noble things, but here in the grassroots we’ve been talking about priority issues such as:

  • A rich, engaging, and culturally relevant curriculum for every student with full art, music, library, science, history, and world language programs in addition to reading and math.
  • Safe, orderly, respectful and nurturing learning environments.
  • Appropriate facilities and adequate books and materials in every school.
  • Smaller class sizes.

This is just a partial list from our shared “Vision for Great Public Schools” – a document we created after many grassroots conversations, rallies, and meetings – and a list so powerful, that resonated so widely, that it was picked up and shared nationally by education historian and advocate Diane Ravitch

Bill Peduto has been at every one of those town-hall meetings, rallies, small group conversations, and education press conferences. He shivered in the cold with over 250 people in a February snowstorm last year as we protested state budget cuts. He was at the Rally for Public Education this February in the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater as we talked about the disproportionate impact of those cuts on our poorest students and communities of color. I have seen him at PIIN community meetings and A+School gatherings. We were tweeting together from the press conference last week at which all of the school board candidates signed the Equity and Excellence pledge. Those were school board candidates and had nothing to do with the mayor’s race, but Bill Peduto was there.

Where was Jack Wagner when Rev. David Thornton of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church delivered the “State of Public Education” in Pittsburgh with such passion the crowd was on its feet cheering? Bill Peduto was there – and listening. And he heard Vanessa German’s heart-wrenching spoken word piece that reminds us all of what is really at stake in our fight for public education.

That’s why I was thrilled to see Mr. Peduto’s announcement yesterday that he wants to focus on early childhood education. [Post-Gazette, 4-18-13] If we could only do one thing on our list, many education researchers and advocates agree it should be to invest in quality early childhood education programs. Bill Peduto has proposed offering free, universal high-quality early childhood education to every child in Pittsburgh. Right now Mr. Peduto tells us that less than half of all the city’s pre-school age kids are in any kind of program – and too few of those children are in programs rated highly by Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS certification. Quality early childhood education pays off big dividends – for the child, families, and our society. Various studies have shown that every dollar spent now on programs like the one proposed by Bill Peduto save up to $17 later on. Mr. Peduto has some other innovative ideas that he has been releasing every day this week in a series of education policy papers. I encourage you to check them out.

And I really encourage you to vote on May 21st! This is the primary, but given the politics in Pittsburgh, this is where both our school board and mayoral races will essentially be decided. The last day to register to vote is Monday (by 5PM on April 22nd). Independent voters can participate by registering temporarily as a Democrat. Download a registration form here. Or find a list of registration locations here.

We’re lucky here in Pittsburgh, indeed. Lucky to have some great candidates to vote for!

How Low Can He Go?

Just how low will our Governor go? Gov. Corbett’s approval ratings are in the tank, the lowest they’ve ever been. And he seems to be trying very hard not to talk about cuts to the state’s education budget, which he will formally propose next week. Yet he appears prepared to hold students hostage in negotiations over the looming pension crisis.

In a new poll, Gov. Corbett’s approval rating sank two more points since November, hitting an all time low of just 36%. Only 31% of the women surveyed approve of the job he is doing. And he actually polled the worst right here in his home county, where only 27% of Allegheny County residents approve of his performance. Do you think it has something to do with those massive state budget cuts to education and social services? Or his refusal to provide leadership on our crumbling infrastructure and transit needs? This administration seems to be deaf to the massive damage it has caused in our communities, so it’s not surprising that the poll found, “There is no strong base of support for Gov. Corbett among any income or age group or in any region of the state.” [Post-Gazette, 1-30-13]

Yet Gov. Corbett continues to talk about his crippling budgets as “tough choices,” repeating again on Tuesday, “the people elected me to make the tough choices.” [Post-Gazette, 1-30-13] The fact is, Corbett has indeed made choices – at the expense of our children. He and the legislature chose to cut nearly $1billion from our schools, then hard wired those cuts into the state budget at the same time they invented new ways to funnel public taxpayer dollars to private schools and corporations. They increased the EITC tax credit program to $100 million and created another $50 million “voucher in disguise” program siphoning off resources from public education. [See “2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?”] They’ve refused to reform the charter funding formula, which is costing us nearly $1 million every single day. [See “One Million Per Day”.]

At the same time, Gov. Corbett and his allies continue to give away millions on top of millions of our dollars to corporations. Last summer when the legislature refused to halt the ongoing phase-out of the capital stock and franchise tax, it cost us taxpayers another $275 million over two years. Corbett’s proposed cracker plant in Beaver County will give away $1.7 billion to the mega-global corporation Dutch Royal Shell over the next 25 years: that’s $67 million per year in “tough choices” for our kids and their schools. [See “Can Shell Educate Our Kids?”]

We have to understand that budgets are about priorities. And Gov. Corbett has made his very clear. Yet, some of his GOP colleagues are starting to express some concerns of their own. Yesterday, both Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati and House Speaker Sam Smith (both Republicans from Jefferson County) spoke out about Gov. Corbett’s apparent attempts to change pension benefits for public employees and to tie school funding to proposed savings in state retirement contributions. This essentially sets up a false choice between kids and teachers, and Gov. Corbett appears ready to pit one against the other instead of finding real bipartisan solutions to this crucial issue.

In good news, Rep. Scarnati told reporters that any further cuts to public education would be “a very sensitive issue” and that “I don’t see the likelihood of this body going along very well in reducing funding for public schools.” [Post-Gazette, 1-30-13] We’ll take that as another sign of just how effective our state-wide grassroots movement for public education has been this past year.

Unfortunately, “no further cuts” really means a third year of damage from the devastating $1 billion thrashing our schools took – and are still taking. The bottom line is that those cuts have compounded each year as our school districts have spent down their reserves trying to make up the difference. At this rate, for instance, Pittsburgh projects it will be broke by the year after next. School districts here in Southwest PA have cut essential educational programs to the bone, completely amputating others, to try to stop the bleeding. But the pain has not gone away and our kids are the ones who are hurting.

It’s time to tell our elected officials that they must make adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for our public schools a priority. The current situation is not acceptable. And we refuse to have our kids offered up as a sacrifice in a pension “solution” that offers a false choice between schools and teachers. How low will Gov. Corbett go?

Public Education as Social Justice

Many of us here in the grassroots talk about our movement for public education as a civil rights issue. But what does that mean? In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose life and legacy we celebrate today, it seems appropriate to consider how our fight for public schools is a fight for economic and social justice.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to see the ways in which budget cuts and corporate-style-reforms have actually hurt our poorest students, who are often students of color. Pennsylvania has been under-funding and inequitably funding schools for decades. The legislature’s own “Costing-Out Study” back in 2006 estimated Pennsylvania was short-changing kids by $4 billion and established a six-year plan to phase in more appropriate state funding. But Governor Corbett’s historic 2011 budget cuts of nearly $1 billion scrapped the plan, disproportionately affecting our poorest children by re-setting state funding calculations to the previous, inequitable formula. [See “A Shameful Betrayal.”]

Pennsylvania also relies heavily on local property taxes to pay for schools: it falls in the bottom ten of all fifty states in the nation in the proportion of education funding provided at the state level, pushing responsibility instead down on local school districts. This exacerbates inequalities, as wealthier communities are able to afford adequately funded schools and poor communities struggle. Urban areas with high proportions of un-taxable non-profit and government owned property (such as Harrisburg) have been especially hard pressed to find the resources they need for schools. As a result, some poor districts actually wind up taxing their residents at an even higher rate than wealthier areas. Deindustrialization, which has hit Pennsylvania’s rust belt towns particularly hard, has drained population from many urban centers, increasing the burden on remaining residents to pay for infrastructure such as schools (just look at what is happening in Duquesne). And white flight to suburban areas has hardened residential racial segregation.

Funding inequalities, then, have reinforced both the effects of poverty and trenchant racial disparities, contributing to a persistent racial achievement gap. Let’s remember that 26% of all children aged birth to age five are now living in poverty. That’s over a quarter of our kids. And the connection between poverty and education is crucial: we know that middle class students in the U.S. attending well-resourced public schools actually rank at the top of tests with our international peers. [For more, see “Poverty and Public Education”]

We also know that corporate-style-reform measures – “school choice,” high-stakes-testing and accountability, privatization, and school closure – have affected our poorest students the most. School-choice models such as charter and cyber charter schools, vouchers, and business scholarship tax credit programs drain resources from public schools while educating only a tiny fraction of students. Most children remain in their local public schools with fewer resources. And those schools are often labeled as “failures” using the results of high-stakes-tests and punished with further cuts and even closure, causing immense disruption to communities.

These corporate-style-reforms have also created perverse incentives for local decision makers. Teachers have to “teach to the test;” districts have jettisoned music, art, languages, and history to focus on just those things that will be tested (reading and math); principals are forced to choose staffing a first grade classroom over a school library. Looking at education as an economic and social justice issue requires us to think about more than just budgets: it’s about students having books on their library shelves and a full-time librarian so they can use them. It’s about access to music and art and teachers freed from the chains of high-stakes-testing so they can teach, human being to human being.

This weekend the Post-Gazette reported some extremely important findings from the “Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey,” conducted by the organization PittsburghTODAY, under the auspices of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research. [Post-Gazette, 1-20-13] Among other things, this survey looked at education in the greater Pittsburgh region – what we call Yinzer Nation – and found some important differences along racial lines (which in our area has tended to be reduced to a line between black and white).

First some good news: the researchers found that residents in our area, regardless of race, think highly of their local schools. At least 8 out of 10 survey respondents rated the quality of education as “good,” “very good,” or “excellent.” Significantly, the report notes that “only 3% of residents overall who had children in school felt the quality of education was poor.” [Unless otherwise noted, all data from The Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey, July 2012.] That means that those who are actually using the school system and are most familiar with it feel overwhelmingly confident in it. That’s in stark contrast to the narrative of “failing public schools” which we constantly hear from the corporate-reformers. What’s more, compared to a 2003 study, Allegheny County residents report an increased level of satisfaction with their schools: from just over 65% rating their schools as “excellent” or “very good” in the survey ten years ago, to nearly 70% giving their children’s education that rating now.

However, African Americans were twice as likely as those of other races to rate their children’s education as only “fair” or “poor.” Similarly, more than two-thirds (67%) of African Americans say school funding is “generally inadequate” or “completely inadequate.” That rate is also twice as high as non-African Americans. And perhaps most stunningly, “only 14.9% of African Americans considered their schools to be very safe, while 51.4% of residents of other races characterized their schools as such,” and were also “much more likely than other races to describe their schools as somewhat or very unsafe.” These are significant differences that reflect real disparities that we must remember as we think about public education as a social justice issue.

The survey found other results important to our grassroots movement. First, it appears that folks are becoming increasingly concerned about school funding. In Allegheny County alone, the proportion of residents scoring school funding as “generally inadequate” or “completely inadequate” rose from 26% in 2003 to 35% in this latest survey, with the rate of those who considered funding to be completely inadequate more than doubling. And while about half of all residents in Southwest Pennsylvania would like to see greater spending on schools, about 89% of African Americans support spending more on public education. [Post-Gazette, 1-20-13]

Finally, as we think about the collateral damage being done to our schools in the name of corporate-style-reforms, let’s focus on the fact that 68% of those surveyed say that arts education in schools is “very important” or “extremely important.” Fewer than 4% said it was “not important” at all. The report noted that, “Support for teaching the arts in school was the greatest in the City of Pittsburgh, where nearly 74% of residents consider it a very important or extremely important endeavor.” Overall in the region, 82% of African Americans rated arts in the school as “very important” or “extremely” important versus 67% of non-African Americans, perhaps reflecting the reality of where budget cuts have hit the hardest.

These numbers ought to fuel the fires of our movement and propel us to strive for greater inclusiveness in our grassroots efforts. As Dr. King said in his famous letter from a Birmingham jail in 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Voting for Public Education

This is it. We’re down to the wire – elections are tomorrow and while education has been a back-burner issue this campaign season, suddenly it seems that everyone wants to talk about it. So with the polls opening in the morning, Yinzercation has done some digging and put together the following voting information for Southwest Pennsylvanians who care about where our candidates stand when it comes to our public schools.

President of the United States
OK. We know President Obama has angered lots of us with his Race to the Top program, hiring Arne Duncan to be Education Secretary, and his repetition of the failing-public-schools mantra. However, he has made some progress in higher education and early childhood education: Obama has capped repayment of federal students loans at 10% of income and doubled funding for college Pell Grants. And he has added another 64,000 children to Head Start and Early Head Start programs. That’s an important step in the right direction.

What President Obama has never done is to propose scrapping public education altogether, as Ann Romney suggested we ought to do. In an interview last week with Good Housekeeping, Ann responded to a question about what campaign issue is closest to her heart, saying, “I have seen what happens to people’s lives if they don’t get a proper education. And we know the answers to that. The charter schools have provided the answers. The teachers’ unions are preventing those things from happening, from bringing real change to our educational system. We need to throw out the system.” [Good Housekeeping, Oct. 2012] This is the thing closest to her heart? Throwing out our entire system of public education?

Charter schools have not provided the answers: here in Pennsylvania, the best charter schools are performing on par with traditional public schools, and most are performing well below. (See “Dueling Rallies.”) However, charter schools are definitely big business and proving to be fabulous investment opportunities for those looking to make a profit. (See “Charters are Cash Cows.”) We ought to be very, very scared about what a Romney win would mean for students in this country.

Ironically, in a piece in the Huffington Post yesterday, Romney accused Obama of taking orders from teachers unions – the very groups fighting school privatization efforts – demonstrating just how out of touch Romney is on this issue. But he amply demonstrated his support for privatization, saying, “I will give parents the information they need to know if their school is failing, and the choice they need to pick the school where their child can succeed.” [Huffington Post, 11-4-12] In his only major education speech back in May, Romney vowed to “push for school vouchers, deregulating and expanding charter and online schools and a lighter federal hand in education.” [Huffington Post, 5-23-12]

President Obama opposes vouchers. He needs to go back to school on a lot of education policy issues, but we have never heard him talking about ditching public education altogether.

State Races
Confused about who is running in your area and where they stand on education issues? Three different state education groups have issued endorsements: Education Voters PA; the state-level teacher’s union Pennsylvania State Education Association’s Political Action Committee for Education (PSEA PACE); and the higher-ed union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF). We have gathered their endorsements here in one convenient guide for the ten counties of Yinzer Nation. (For more endorsements outside of Southwest PA, see the Education Voters PA guide, and the Keystone Progress progressive voter’s guide.) Please note that we are only reporting these endorsements and have not vetted each candidate.

United States Senate
Bob Casey, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE

Attorney General
Kathleen Kane, (D) Endorsed by: APSCUF

Auditor General
Eugene DePasquale, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

Treasurer
Rob McCord, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

ALLEGHENY COUNTY

US Congress:
CD 14
Mike Doyle, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE

State Senate
District 37
Matt Smith, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF, Education Voters PA
** as a state Representative, Matt Smith has met with Yinzercation parents and been very good on public education issues

District 43
Jay Costa, Jr., (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 45
James Bewster, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 47
Kimberly Villella, (D) Endorsed by: Education Voters PA

State House
District 16
Robert Matzie, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 19
Jake Wheatley, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 20
Adam Ravenstahl, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE

District 21
Dom Costa, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE

District 22
Erin Molchany, (D) Endorsed by: Education Voters of PA,

District 23
Dan Frankel, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF
** Representative Frankel has met with Yinzercation parents numerous times and has been consistently good on public education issues.

District 25
Joe Markosek, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 27
Daniel Deasy, Jr., (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE

District 32
Anthony DeLuca, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 33
Frank Dermody, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 34
Paul Costa, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 35
Marc Gergely, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 36
Harry Readshaw, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 38
Bill Kortz, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 39
Dave Levdansky, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF, Education Voters PA

District 42
Matt Smith, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF, Education Voters PA
** as a state Representative, Matt Smith has met with Yinzercation parents and been very good on public education issues

District 44
Mark Scappe, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE

District 45
Nick Kotik, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 46
Jesse White, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

ARMSTRONG COUNTY

State Senate
District 41
Don White, (R) Endorsed by: APSCUF

State House
District 55
Joe Petrarca, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 63
Donna Oberlander, (R) Endorsed by: APSCUF

BEAVER COUNTY

State Senate
District 47
Kimberly Villella, (D) Endorsed by: Education Voters PA

State House
District 9
Chris Sainato, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 10
Jarrett Gibbons, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 14
Jim Marshall, (R) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE

District 16
Robert Matzie, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 46
Jesse White, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

BUTLER COUNTY

State Senate
District 41
Don White, (R) Endorsed by: APSCUF

State House
District 10
Jarrett Gibbons, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

FAYETTE COUNTY

State House
District 49
Peter Daley, II, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 51
Tim Mahoney, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 52
Deborah Kula, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 58
Ted Harhai, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

GREENE COUNTY

no endorsements

INDIANA COUNTY

State Senate
District 41
Don White, (R) Endorsed by: APSCUF

State House
District 62
Dave Reed, (R) Endorsed by: APSCUF

LAWRENCE COUNTY

State Senate
District 47
Kimberly Villella, (D) Endorsed by: Education Voters PA

State House
District 9
Chris Sainato, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 10
Jarrett Gibbons, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

WASHINGTON COUNTY

State Senate
District 37
Matt Smith, (D) Endorsed by: APSCUF, Education Voters PA
** as a state Representative, Matt Smith has met with Yinzercation parents and been very good on public education issues

State House
District 39
Dave Levdansky, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF, Education Voters PA,

District 46
Jesse White, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 48
Brandon Neuman, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 49
Peter Daley, II, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

WESTMORELAND COUNTY

State Senate
District 41
Don White, (R) Endorsed by: APSCUF

District 45
James Bewster, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

State House
District 25
Joe Markosek, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 52
Deborah Kula, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 55
Joe Petrarca, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 56
Raymond Geissler, (D) Endorsed by: APSCUF

District 58
Ted Harhai, (D) Endorsed by: PSEA PACE, APSCUF

District 59
Harriet Ellenberger, (D) Endorsed by: APSCUF

Cuts Have Consequences

This should come as no surprise. When you cut close to a billion dollars from public education, there are going to be consequences. Just so we’re all clear on exactly why we’re in this fight for our schools, let’s take a closer look at what has happened to them this year.

Last week the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) released the findings from a survey of the state’s 500 school districts. [PASBO/PASA survey, 10-1-12] The results are not pretty. With a 53% response rate, the survey clearly shows that our schools are struggling to deal with massive budget cuts by increasing class size, cutting programs, and eliminating teaching staff. Here are the highlights:

  • 51% increased class size. This is on top of larger class sizes imposed by 70% of school districts in 2011-12.
  • 43% cut electives such as foreign languages, arts, music, physical education and even some courses in math, science, English and the social studies. Elective courses were already reduced in the prior school year by 44% of school districts in 2011-12.
  • 40% delayed textbook purchases. This is on top of the 41% who did so last year.
  • 32% reduced or eliminated tutoring or other programs for struggling students. 35% of districts statewide said they had already decreased tutoring/additional instruction time in 2011-12.
  • 21% eliminated summer school programs. (Summer school allows students to make up the necessary credits to allow them stay on grade level and to graduate on time.)
  • 4% reduced or eliminated early childhood education (pre-kindergarten). This is in addition to the 6% of school districts that reduced or eliminated pre-K in 2011- 12.
  • 2% reduced or eliminated full-day kindergarten. That’s on top of the 5% who cut full-day kindergarten in 2011-12.
  • 43% reduced or eliminated student field trips.
  • 30% cut extra-curricular activities, including establishing or increasing fees for participation in activities.
  • 20% delayed their planned building or school renovation projects.
  • 30% furloughed teachers and staff, with teachers making up almost half (47%) of the cuts.
  • If extrapolated to the state as a whole, respondents have eliminated or left vacant nearly 4,200 positions. PASBO-PASA had estimated in August 2011 that school districts eliminated or left vacant 14,590 positions in school year 2011-12: that’s 18,790 lost educator jobs in two years.

Jay Himes, who has been executive director of PASBO for 17 years, said “I can’t think of anything even close” to the education cuts we’ve seen these past two years. And Jim Buckheit, executive director of PASA, commented, “It’s important to note the cumulative impact of these reductions.” [Post-Gazette, 10-2-12]

Indeed. Just looking at those numbers above makes it hard to stomach the response from our very own state Education Department. Spokesman Tim Eller looked at the survey and had the nerve to claim that funding is not hurting schools, saying, “This is the typical rhetoric that these organizations have been spewing for more than a year and quite frankly, they continue to misinform the public.” [The Morning Call, 10-2-12] These organizations? Spewing? We’re talking about those crazy school business officials who probably get together at their meetings to discuss how to save money when ordering pencils. These are not extremists with a political agenda. The radicals in this story are those currently inhabiting the Governor’s mansion and the Education Department appointees who claim that sharing this survey data is somehow misinforming the public.

Even more outrageous, Spokesman Eller went on, “All fingers should point to the Obama administration and how its one-time stimulus program created the funding cliff that Gov. Corbett, as well as school districts across the state, faced during his first year in office.” [The Morning Call, 10-2-12] Here we go again. We’re back to this sorry strategy: blame it on the stimulus. Talk about spewing rhetoric in a deliberate attempt to misinform the public.

Governor Corbett and his Education Department appointees have been using the federal stimulus program as a convenient cover story for the past year as they have actually made deeper cuts to public education. They claim that the state is simply reverting to 2009 education funding levels. (See why this is actually “A Shameful Betrayal” of Pennsylvania’s commitment to equity through a bi-partisan plan that was years in the making and well underway before Gov. Corbett’s draconian cuts gutted the effort.) The fact is, this governor actually spent $372 million less last year on public preK-12 education than the state spent before it started using federal stimulus money. (See our full analysis in “The Numbers Game.”)

These radicals are slashing public funding for one of our most cherished public goods: our children’s future. Just look at the increased class sizes; the cuts to arts, languages, and even core subjects; the loss of tutoring; and the number of school districts that have resorted to eliminating early childhood education and Kindergarten. And you tell us schools are not hurting because of funding cuts? Look at that survey data again. These are the real consequences of unprecedented cuts to public education.

What the Polls Say

Two polls out in the past week show some surprising findings for public education with important implications for our grassroots movement here in Pennsylvania.

First, Americans are now clearly saying that the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act has made education worse, not better. [Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, 8-20-12] Overall, 29% of those polled said that the decade old law signed by President Bush has negatively impacted our schools, compared to 16% who thought it has improved them. But among those surveyed who said they are “very familiar” with the law, 48% said NCLB has made things worse, versus only 28% who said education is better.

No Child Left Behind has arguably been a policy fiasco. It massively expanded the federal government’s role in setting local school policy and established a national narrative of “failing public schools.” By focusing narrowly on student achievement – measured only by highly problematic standardized test scores – the law has created a highly punitive system, devalued teachers and educational professionals, villainized teachers’ unions, introduced a lucrative private system of “educational consultants” and businesses, promoted corporate-style reform anathema to the public good, and undermined the public’s faith in their schools.

What’s really interesting is how similar the responses to this recent poll were across political and class lines, and between those with and without a current K-12 child in the household. The bulk of respondents in every demographic felt that NCLB had “not made much difference.” However, with only one exception, those who feel the law has damaged education outnumber – sometimes by as much as two to one – those who feel the law has improved things. That means that Republicans, Democrats, independents, and a large swath of folks across class lines agree on public education policy. Despite a massive effort by the extreme right to polarize the issue, Americans remain largely on the same page when it comes to their schools.

The one exception was among those earning less than $30,000 who split about evenly between those saying things are worse or better under NCLB. This group has the lowest proportion (21%) of people who feel the law has been a problem, and the largest proportion (22%) who feel it has helped. This finding has important class – and probably racial – significance and reminds us that, despite its obvious flaws, NCLB has focused national attention on the most struggling students who are often poor and minorities.

Because NCLB has set the national dialogue over much of public education policy for the past decade, it is encouraging that there is generally such widespread agreement as to its results. And even more encouraging that a great many agree that it is time to dismantle the NCLB boondoggle. In fact, “[t]he results from this survey are in line with a January Gallup poll, which found that Americans tended to favor either eliminating the law or keeping it with heavy revisions. Just 21 percent of those surveyed said the law should be kept in its original form.” [Huffington Post, 8-21-12]

The PDK/Gallup poll also revealed that 48% of those surveyed gave the local schools in their communities an A or B rating – the highest in twenty years. Yet when asked about the general state of American education, only 18% gave public schools the same high grades, while 30% gave them a D or F. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls this “the real accomplishment of corporate reformers” who have been driving “an unprecedented, well-funded campaign to demonize public schools and their teachers over at least the past two year, and by some reckoning, even longer.” [Diane Ravitch, 8-22-12]

For Americans exposed to that constant drumbeat of failing-public-schools, it’s remarkable that any still show support for public education. Yet when asked about the school their oldest child attends, over three quarters – 77% – of respondents gave their school an A or B (and only 6% gave it a D or F). Again, this is the highest rating in twenty years. Ravitch points out that this question “elicit[ed] the views of informed consumers, the people who refer to a real school, not the hypothetical school system that is lambasted every other day in the national press.” [See Diane Ravitch’s excellent full analysis of the poll.]

So when you ask parents about the real schools in their own communities where their actual children go, they are overwhelmingly positive. Similarly, 71% said they have trust and confidence in their teachers, regardless of the incessant bashing they are subjected to in the national media. And perhaps the biggest news for our movement: by far the largest problem facing our schools identified by survey respondents is lack of financial support. Overall 35% identified this option, and among those parents with children in public schools, 43% chose this as the number one problem in education, far outweighing other issues (such as discipline, etc.).

Given this last statistic, it should come as no surprise that another poll last week found Governor Corbett’s approval rating continues to sink. [Franklin & Marshall poll, 8-16-12] Forty-two percent of respondents were unhappy with the governor’s performance, up three points from the last poll in June, while less than a third rated him favorably, remaining steady at 32 percent. What’s more, when asked to rank the most important problems facing Pennsylvania today, people listed education at number three, right behind “unemployment” and “government or politicians,” and right before “the economy,” and “taxes.”

In its analysis of the poll, PoliticsPa concluded “negative feelings toward the government or conceived poor handling of education (particularly with continued ire over college tuition increases and slashed spending for public schools) are likely to account for Corbett’s poor polling.” [PoliticsPA 8-16-12] Indeed. This poll also demonstrates how much Pennsylvanians care about their public schools and just how effective our grassroots movement has been in keeping the spotlight on funding for public education.

We would not see education on the number three spot of Pennsylvania’s concerns if we had not raised our collective voices. And our grassroots movement dovetails others across the country, pushing back against the narrative of failing schools, and helping people to see that our number one concern really is adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for our public schools. Our part in this local and national conversation is working, and we must keep it up!

In the Tank

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

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

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

[Source: Pittsburgh City Paper]

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

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

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