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.”

International Test Panic

Stay calm and don’t panic. You’re about to start seeing a whole new wave of alarmist rhetoric over the state of U.S public education with the release yesterday of two new international tests. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS, conducted every 5 years) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, conducted every 4 years) both just announced their 2011 results. [TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center]

This is where headlines, such as the one in today’s Post-Gazette, start to scream things like “U.S. Students Still Lag Globally in Math and Science, Tests Show.” Then the hand-wringing commences over the fact that the U.S. ranks behind South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan (in fact, these tests put us 11th in fourth-grade math, 9th in eighth-grade math, 7th in fourth-grade science and 10th in eighth-grade science). [Post-Gazette, 12-12-12] But the headlines and articles inevitably fail to mention several key points.

First, the U.S. has never been at the top of these comparative tests. In fact, in the 1960s when the first international math and science tests were conducted, U.S. students scored at the bottom in nearly every category. Over the past fifty years, U.S. students have actually improved – not declined as so many of the pundits would have you believe. [For an excellent summary and analysis, see Yong Zhao, 12-11-12] Rather than falling behind our international peers, U.S. students have been making slow gains. We may not be where we want to be, but the “falling” metaphor implies the exact opposite direction of where we are headed.

Second, these tests are often comparing apples and oranges. For example, some countries do not test all of their students, particularly in older grades as they siphon off those who will not go on to college. In essence, this leaves just their university-bound students to take the exams compared to all U.S. students, college-bound or not. [Dave F. Brown, Why America’s Public Schools are the Best Place for Kids: Reality vs. Negative Perceptions, Rowman & Littlefield, 2012, p. 42.]

Third, what these international tests really seem to report is the effect of the United State’s unbelievably high child poverty rate. When you look just at students from our well-resourced schools taking these tests, they actually score at the top of the heap. [For an excellent analysis, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, 12-15-10] But a whopping 26% of our country’s children from birth to age five live in poverty – yes, 26 percent – and over 23% of our kids under the age of 18 live in poverty. Our child poverty rate puts us second in the entire developed world – only Romania scores worse than us. [See “Poverty and Public Education”]

Valerie Strauss, education writer for the Washington Post, said the real headline we ought to be seeing is, “U.S. low-poverty schools do much better than high-poverty schools in international tests.” She points out that this holds true for all standardized tests and “that continues to be the real story in U.S. education, not how American students’ scores stack up against Singapore or the South Koreans.” [Valerie Strauss, Answer Sheet, Washington Post, 12-11-12]

The fourth point we ought to remember is the way in which the hype over these international tests has reinforced the notion that we need ever more testing to measure our children. I am not opposed to student assessment – I want our teachers to be able to assess student learning using valid tools. Bring on the weekly spelling quiz or end of unit test. But I am opposed to high-stakes-testing in which our children are subjected to mountains of high-pressure, poorly designed tests, which are then used to label and punish our kids, our teachers, and our schools. Yinzercation’s intrepid librarian Sheila May-Stein has written a heartfelt description of what it’s like to be a teacher forced to give these high-stakes, standardized tests in our schools. I encourage everyone to read her piece, “Outside the Lines,” as we start a discussion around Opting-Out of this testing madness.

Rather than wringing our hands over how far we rank below Taiwan, we ought to be fretting over how we will address child poverty and get to the business of how we will adequately and equitably fund our public schools.

Poverty and Public Education

If we’re serious about public education, we need to get serious about poverty in this country. Too often those who wish to discuss the impact of poverty on children’s educational outcomes are accused of using it as an excuse for poor teaching. The new “reform” movement insists that the only thing poor kids need is a “great” teacher – increasingly defined by student test scores – and that any poor student performance must be the result of bad teachers.

Obviously, we should not tolerate incompetent teachers (though this is another reason good principals are so important, as it is their job to recognize sub-par teaching and offer the right kind of help – and to show truly bad teachers the door). And it goes without saying that all children have the potential to learn and do well in school. Naturally, we want all students to have a “great” teacher. However, we need a much better, and respectful, conversation about teacher evaluations that are based on far more than test scores alone. (Just think about the greatest teachers you ever had. Really. Imagine them for just a moment. You most certainly are not remembering the grades you got, but are thinking about teachers who inspired you, challenged you, nurtured your passions, and planted seeds that took years to mature.) High stakes testing has created a perverse system of teacher evaluation that often has little to do with recognizing great teaching.

The larger point is that good teaching matters an awful lot inside the school doors, but what happens to children outside them matters a whole lot more. The education historian Diane Ravitch points out, “Reformers like to say that poverty does not affect students’ academic performance, but that is their wish, not reality.” What’s more, she argues, “the corporate reform movement blames teachers for low test scores, ignoring the underlying social conditions that stack the deck against children who grow up in poverty. There is no question that schools in poor neighborhood must be improved, but school reform will not be enough to end unemployment and poverty.” [The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 256-57]

And the fact is that the poverty rate in the United States is projected to hit levels not seen since the 1960s – before many of today’s parents of school-aged children were even born. Census figures for 2011 will be released later this fall, but economists surveyed this summer broadly agreed that the poverty rate could climb as high as 15.7 percent. The Boston Globe explains, “even a 0.1 percentage point increase would put poverty at the highest level since 1965,” and that “[p]overty is spreading at record levels across many groups, from underemployed workers and suburban families to the poorest poor.” [Boston Globe, 7-23-12]

But the number that is our national disgrace – the number that ought to be on all of our lips, the cause for outrage, and at the top of our country’s priority list – is 26. That is the percentage of children aged birth to five living in poverty. [Tracking Poverty and Policy] That’s right, 26%. Over a quarter of American children start life struggling with the ill effects of poverty, including poor nutrition; inadequate pre-natal care; high exposure to health risks such as premature birth, lead poisoning, and asthma inducing smog; and the instability of frequent moves, substandard housing, and food insecurities, to name just a few.

A whopping 23.1% of U.S. children under the age of 18 live in poverty, putting us second in the world. Among developed nations, only Romania has a higher relative child poverty rate (with 25.5% of its children living in poverty). UNICEF reported this past spring that the U.S. ranks above Latvia, Bulgaria, Spain, Greece, and 29 other countries on this absolutely shameful scale. That ought to make us pay all the more attention to the study’s finding that government spending does lift children from poverty. [Huffington Post, 5-30-12]

We also know, as Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California points out, “Middle-class American students who attend well-funded schools rank at the top of the world on international tests.” He argues that, “The problem is poverty … Study after study shows that poverty has a devastating effect on school performance.” [Post-Gazette, 8-12-12] No surprise then that when the Keystone State Education Coalition analyzed Pennsylvania’s list of what it designated “failing schools” last year, it found the poverty rate at those schools was 80.8% (measured by the percentage of students receiving free or reduced price lunch) versus the statewide average of 39.1%. [KSEC, Feb-2011

It’s true that Pennsylvania’s children actually fare slightly better than the nation as a whole, with a statewide child poverty rate around 20 percent, putting us 14th out of the 50 states. But a report out this summer from the Annie E. Casey Foundation also found “nearly a third of children were in families in which no parent had full-time, year-round employment.” [KidsCount report, 7-25-12] Poverty is real, and it affects an astonishing number of Pennsylvania’s children starting in the years before they even reach school.

These numbers underscore just how stunningly short sighted it was when Governor Corbett attempted to slash $100million from early childhood education and Kindergarten earlier this year. If anything, we need to be investing more in pre-natal care and quality early childhood education programs. And we need more wrap-around services like before- and after-school care, tutoring programs, social workers and community healthcare. Those would be the kind of sound public policies based on proven strategies, backed up by real data, that we ought to expect from our legislators.

A Shameful Betrayal

Here is another claim we have been hearing from the Governor’s office when calling with our concerns about the effect of these budget cuts on our schools. (See The Facts on all of the claims we have investigated to date.)

Claim 3: “The state is simply reverting to 2009 funding levels.”

To understand why this claim is not as straightforward as it first appears, we need a little history lesson (something we here at Yinzercation specialize in, so stick with us):

The state uses a formula to distribute money to school districts. However, between 1991 and 2008, this formula did not distribute money adequately or equitably. As the Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign explains, “Hundreds of school districts lacked sufficient funding to provide all students with a quality education, and the state’s public school funding system did not distribute money to schools on an efficient or predictable basis. Members of the General Assembly who voted on budgets during that time had no objective way of knowing which districts had adequate resources and which ones did not.”

To fix this problem, in 2006 the General Assembly called for a statewide study. Called the “Costing-Out Study,” it concluded that Pennsylvania was short-changing K-12 schools to the tune of $4 billion. (APA Report to the State Board of Education, December 2007). The legislature wisely responded by passing Act 61 of 2008, establishing a six-year plan to phase in increased state funding for public education. In 2009 and 2010, the state used the new formula – and also used federal stimulus money to pay for the increased funding (which, remember, it had already committed itself to). Then came the unprecedented cuts to public education in 2011.

As Susan Gobreski, Executive Director of Education Voters PA explains, the $1 billion state budget cuts “disproportionately applied to the poorest school districts … in part because one of the mechanisms to apply cuts was to roll back to previous years, which means all of the fixes to the formula (things that addressed equity) that had been implemented were ‘rolled back,’ too.”

In other words, this was not a simple scaling back of the budget, but a wholesale betrayal of Pennsylvania’s own commitment to a rational and fair education budget. To claim that the state is merely reverting to previous funding levels obscures the fact that this budget re-installs historic inequities and restores a deeply flawed system. That’s not fiscal conservatism, that’s shameful.

A Snapshot of Disparity

The state budget cuts have affected nearly every district in the state, but poor districts have been hit the hardest. That means that the most disadvantaged students are hurt the most.

While the poorest students are unfairly bearing the brunt of this attack on public education, the effects are being felt throughout Southwestern PA and impact us all. The Superintendent of the Fox Chapel School District warned, “Although we may not hear the thunder, it is lightning all around us.” (May 2011 Message from the Superintendent.)

Here is a snap shot of how the state budget cuts are affecting local school districts on a per-student basis. (All data from district web sites and budget reports, compiled by Lara Cosentino and Jessie Ramey.)

Do you have data for your school district? Share it with us!